Earlier this week, I had a call with the chief executive of a $5 billion company who has traveled four to five days a week for many years. She sounded utterly exhausted. “When times get tough,” she told me, “the only way I’ve ever known is to muscle through. I just can’t do it anymore. I’ve hit bottom. The problem is that I’ve been numb for so long, I’m honestly not sure if I can find my way back to a sane life.”
Last week, I led a session in Europe for a senior team at a large multinational company whose members were eager to find a solution to the sense of overload and overwhelm that they and their employees were feeling. The session began at 7:30 a.m., at their request.
Two weeks ago, I spent a day shadowing a senior leader at a Fortune 150 company. It began with a business review that he conducted with one of his subordinates and two other colleagues. The meeting ran for four hours without a single break, even to go the bathroom. It wasn’t unusual; it is the way this leader works.
Several weeks ago, I was on a call with a leader I admire, who has made an honest and admirable effort to make life better for thousands of employees in his organization. His own boss, he told me, had come to him recently and requested that he stop focusing so much on how his people were feeling.
I could go on. You get the idea. The demands of work for employees, at multiple levels across multiple industries, have become untenable. My colleague Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote this week about the effects of long hours on Wall Street. Claire Cain Miller wrote this week about a recent study describing the insidious effects of a 24/7 work culture on families, and especially on women’s career prospects.
There is a simple word for this way of working. It’s inhumane.
At the lower end of the employment ladder, Sarah Maslin Mir recently reported on the horrifying working conditions for nail salon employees, who not only work long hours but also make low wages and put their health at risk.
By comparison, white-collar employees working at higher salary jobs plainly have it better. But that’s grading on a curve. If you are paying employees a six- or seven-figure income, but in return, you are asking them to put in 60, 70, 80 or even 90 hours a week, what is the toll on their quality of life, and ultimately on the quality of their work?
It isn’t realistic to build sustainable high-performing companies by way of unsustainable work practices. Meeting people’s core needs, rather than simply trying to squeeze more out of them, is what makes it possible for them to work more effectively.
When people work an excessive number of hours, they devolve – meaning they degenerate inexorably from a higher state of capability and consciousness to a more primitive, reactive one. Fatigue, as Vince Lombardi so accurately observed, makes cowards of us all.
Fear is the primary driver of this crisis. Public companies live in morbid fear of being outflanked by competitors, failing to meet their quarterly targets and watching helplessly as their stocks are pummeled by impatient investors.
Leaders and managers live in fear of not delivering their numbers and losing their jobs, so they look constantly for ways to cut expenses – and head counts – which puts ever more pressure on their employees to do more with fewer resources. It’s a vicious, accelerating cycle that serves no one well.
None of this is new. What has changed is the intensity and relentlessness of the pressure, supercharged by digital life and a global economy that extends the once finite working day to all hours of day and night.
Employees, in turn, have their rhythms set by the very technology invented to make their lives easier and free up time. Computers not only operate at high speeds, continuously, for hours on end. They also run multiple programs at the same time. We try gamely to keep up, but it’s a Sisyphean challenge.
We’re doomed to fall behind. Human beings are not meant to work continuously. We’re designed to pulse between spending and renewing energy, and neither is sufficient by itself. In a culture of overwork, we fear that any time off will be seen as evidence that we’re slacking – and that we’ll fall further behind in our work.
Slack, I learned this week by attending a Conscious Capitalism conference, is actually a potential competitive advantage. Zeynep Ton, a professor at M.I.T., shared her fascinating research into high-performing retailers. The single most important factor, she concluded counterintuitively, was “slack” — the degree to which companies put more rather than fewer employees on the floor at any given time.
Employees operating with some slack, Ms. Ton explained, add value that those pushed to the limit cannot. They feel better, have more time to spend with customers, keep closer track of inventory, make fewer mistakes and feel more highly engaged and committed at work.
Instead, too many fear-driven employers operate from a perspective that is narrow, shallow and short term, failing to see that encouraging employees to renew intermittently during the day helps them not only to rest and refuel, but also to step back, reflect and reprioritize.
After years of studying great performers across a wide range of fields, the researcher K. Anders Ericsson concluded that the optimal amount of time to devote to highly focused work is no more than 4.5 hours a day. He also found that any given period of work should be limited to no more than 90 minutes, followed by a period of rest.
In short, we perform better when we’re truly rested – whether that means from a sufficient night’s sleep or by renewing throughout a day. Great athletes consciously manage their work-rest ratios to ensure that they are at their best when they are actually performing. It’s called periodization. We must do the same to perform at our best.
The culture of overwork is slowly killing us. What will it take for companies to recognize that humanity — simply caring about people — is a huge competitive advantage?
Think of it as a humanitarian crisis.
This blog was originally posted on June 5, 2015.