All work, no play doesn’t pay

Man half part in holiday clothes, half part in formal work suit

The research is consistent and clear: working a lot can actually make you less productive. Working over 50 hours a week, which more than half of all US workers do, simply doesn’t pay off. Increased work hours are linked to higher rates of absenteeism and turnover. It is associated with decreased sleep, which further erodes productivity. It fuels stress and burnout, it hampers creativity and engagement. So why do we do it?

Do you ever catch yourself at the coffee maker at 5 a.m., in the quiet darkness, checking email by the glow of your smartphone? Blood pressure rising before you’ve even had a sip of coffee because colleagues across the pond have been sending requests while you slept. Even if you don’t go into the office, do you fire up the laptop, field calls, or trade emails at night, over the weekends, or on vacation? This isn’t a sign of a strong work ethic, it’s a symptom of a problem. The reasons why we fail to disengage from work are varied – maybe we are altruistically motivated and don’t want to shift the burden to others, or maybe we are worried we will drown in the mound of work that will pile up if we don’t. Or maybe we suffer from the delusion that everything will fall apart if we don’t have our hand in at all times.

But the real reason we don’t disengage and fully take time off is because we can’t. In past days, to take time off from work, we simply left the office! Even if we leave our computer at the office, its tiny simulacrum follows us home in our back pocket. Lord knows I love my iProducts as much as the next person. But they can be like a ball and chain tethering us to our work responsibilities if we let them. And while we can lay some of the blame on ill-advised expectations or cultural pressure, we are all individually responsible for maintaining our boundaries. The truth is that many of us simply lack the discipline to not check the phone for messages or the fortitude to say, “Sorry, can’t – I’m out next week.”

This isn’t about being miserly with your time, but being strategic. We all have the same number of hours in a day. If we know spending too many of them on work will lead to worse versus improved outcomes, it is simply smart to allocate those hours differently. And taking time away does pay off. When you’re rested and recharged, you can bring an energy and enthusiasm to your work that doesn’t just increase productivity, but work quality. When you have distance from the minutia of your day-to-day, you can see the big picture and make course corrections to avoid problems and seize opportunities.

Oh, and don’t look for a post next week – I’ll be on vacation.


“Every man who possibly can should force himself to a holiday of a full month in a year, whether he feels like taking it or not.” –William James

“Vacation restores to modern life that natural rhythm of work and rest, of busy season and slack season, that dependence upon season and weather and soil which was broken when we moved permanently indoors…Every activity of living stuff swings in rhythms.” –Woods Hutchinson, A.M., M.D.