Friday, June 26, 2015

WORK -When too much is not enough


"I recently had a telephone call from the CEO of a $5 billion company who has travelled four to five days a week for many years. She sounded 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.”

A week before that I had led a session in Europe at a large multinational company for a senior team whose members were eager to find a solution to the sense of being overwhelmed that they and their employees were feeling. The session began at 7:30 a.m., at their request.

One week before that 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. That wasn’t unusual – it’s simply the way this leader works.

I could go on. The demands of work for employees, at multiple levels and across multiple industries, have become untenable.

Several recent reports in The New York Times have called attention to this, including one about the effects of long hours on Wall Street. Another described a recent study of 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.

White-collar employees working at higher-salary jobs plainly have it better, but that’s grading on a curve. They’re being paid six-figure or seven-figure incomes – but, if they are working 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 attempt to build sustainably 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 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 are terrified 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, and as a result constantly look 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 the day and night.

Employees have their rhythms set by the same technology that was invented to make their lives easier and free their time. Computers not only operate at high speeds for hours on end, but also run multiple programs at the same time. We try gamely to keep up, but it’s a Sisyphean challenge and we’re doomed to fall behind.

Human beings are designed to pulse between expending 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 while attending a “Conscious Capitalism” conference in New York, actually is a potential competitive advantage. Zeynep Ton, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, shared her fascinating research into high-performing retailers. The single most important factor, she concluded, was “slack” – the degree to which companies put more employees, rather than fewer ones, on the floor at any given time.

Employees operating with some slack, 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. They fail to see that encouraging employees to renew intermittently during the day not only helps them to rest and refuel, but also lets them step back, reflect and prioritize.

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 by getting 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 periodisation. 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 recognise that humanity, simply caring about people, is a huge competitive advantage? "

(Tony Schwartz is the chief executive of The Energy Project.)

© 2015 The New York Times

Employees operating with some slack 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.

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