In the winter of 1928, John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay called “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” where Keynes imagined what the world would look like in 100 years.
By 2028, Keynes wrote that we would work about three hours a day, and even those three hours would represent more labor than was actually necessary.
For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won.
He thought that advances in technology would enable us to have more free time than we even knew what to do with.
We’ve made incredible advances since that essay was written, so why are we still working 50-60 hour weeks?
For some reason, our society thinks being busy is a good thing. That somehow if you’re not busy, you’re wasting time and are unproductive.
Do you remember this ad for Cadillac?
It’s one of the worst ads I’ve seen in my life, because it promotes this notion that you’re nothing unless you work yourself your death. What about work-life balance? What about spending quality time with your family?
Unfortunately, technology is hurting our work-life balance.
A study by Ranstad looked at how work-life balance is perceived among U.S. workers and found that technology is blurring the lines.
Because we receive notifications to our phones, we’re expected to be “always on”, which is incredibly dangerous.
It ends up becoming a vicious cycle. Companies see that employees are “always on” and quick to respond, so they start to expect quicker response times and more hours out of employees.
A new normal is created, where if you aren’t checking emails past 7PM you must be a slacker.
Employees often fear retribution for being unavailable or failing to check-in on a constant basis when they’re off the clock.
Up to 45% of employees feel obligated to check-in after business hours or while on vacation, and another 26% feel guilty for using their vacation time, not working from home or if they’re sick.
No one should feel guilty for going on a well-deserved vacation.
This is a major problem, and something that companies need to start proactively managing.
Many companies are starting to become more flexible in their approach to work-life balance, but clear policies still need to be set to avoid fear and burnout.
Companies Enforcing Work-Life Balance
Luckily, there are a few really smart companies that are taking action to ensure that technology doesn’t get in the way of work-life balance.
More can be done, but what some of these companies are doing is a great start.
In 2011, Volkswagen agreed to stop its Blackberry servers from sending emails to some of its employees when they are off-shift.
They decided that this would be the right thing to do after receiving complaints that staff’s work and home lives were becoming blurred.
The main issue with this is it only covers employees in Germany working under union negotiated contracts.
In 2013, Mercedes-Benz launched an “absence assistant” to delete emails arriving in employees’ inboxes while they are on vacation.
This is a nice idea and helps reinforce that it’s important to unplug and not worry about work while on vacation.
Arianna Huffington’s story is an interesting one.
She has been promoting work-life balance heavily since she fainted from exhaustion a few years ago.
She was trying to balance work and life – she went to visit college campuses with her daughter, while checking her emails whenever she had free time.
When she returned to work, she fainted, hit her head on her desk, broke her cheekbone, and had to get five stitches under her eye.
Naturally, ever since that happened, she’s worked a lot on having a good work-life balance for herself and her employees.
One of the best quotes about work-life balance comes from her.
Because we’re able to work from everywhere, we’re expected to work from everywhere.Arianna Huffington
Like Mercedes, Huffington Post built a tool that lets employees either delete emails or archive them automatically while they’re on vacation.
Japanese retailer Uniqlo said it will offer some of its 10,000 employees the option for a four-day workweek.
The only problem is that workers who opt for a four-day week will put in 10 hours a day and to work some weekends and holidays.
Startups Are The Most Intense
Startups and tech companies seem to embrace the hustle lifestyle more than anyone.
A study by Dr. Michael Freeman was one of the first of its kind to link higher rates of mental health issues to entrepreneurship.
In the startup tech community, depression and even suicide is a problem that’s not talked about often enough.
Austen Heinz, Aaron Swartz, Jody Sherman, Ilya Zhitomirskiy, and many others have taken their lives from the intense pressure that comes with running a tech startup.
Dustin Moskovitz, co-founder of Facebook and now CEO of Asana wrote an incredible article on Medium talking about how tech companies are not benefiting from these intense environments that leave employees stressed and burned out.
My intellectual conclusion is that these companies are both destroying the personal lives of their employees and getting nothing in return.
The article was written in response to the Amazon story about how intense their culture was. He goes on to talk about how especially at tech companies, the idea of overworking is ingrained, but it’s simply wrong.
The research is clear: beyond ~40 – 50 hours per week, the marginal returns from additional work decrease rapidly and quickly become negative.
In a really interesting study done at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, managers couldn’t tell the difference between employees who actually worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to.
There was no evidence that the employees that pretended to work actually accomplished less, or any sign that the overworking employees accomplished more.
The Brain Needs Downtime
The brain needs time to retain information after it receives it.
The concept of spaced-repetition learning is something that all managers should try and understand.
If employees have a day or two to rest, and then review what they learned, there is a much higher chance of retaining that information.
In neuroscience, they call this the “default mode network”, which is what happens to the brain when it is resting.
During that time, the brain is doing anything but resting, it’s actively working to process and make sense of anything new that it learned in the last day.
Being “on” all the time never gives us a chance to rest and process.
It’s not about how long or how often you have downtime, it’s all about how you use it.
An amazing study found that University employees who reported negative work reflection (thinking negatively about their job) were even more exhausted when they came back to work.
It’s important to use your downtime properly, enjoy time with your family and friends, and think positively.
The legendary Daniel Goleman explains the importance of downtime for the brain in this short video.
Mobile Devices Are Hurting Us
Mobile devices are the biggest culprit in destroying our work-life balance. They distract us, are always with us, and buzz constantly.
These devices behave like a three year-old stamping their feet in a tantrum in a digital sense – they flash, buzz and beep and we are compelled to look.Nicola Millard
The way that we use our mobile devices might be the key to understanding why John Maynard Keynes was wrong in his prediction.
We might be working longer simply because we’re so unproductive.
On our mobile devices, we’re doing two damaging things constantly:
- Context switching
Multitasking destroys our productivity, our brains simply can’t handle it, and context switching makes us constantly lose what we were doing and restart.
Every text message, phone call, or notification is another interruption.
Research by London Business School finds that we are interrupted once every three minutes.
Companies need to separate work from home, and employees should be turning off notifications and disabling emails from coming to their phones.
I recently did this myself – I no longer get any work notifications on my phone, I can’t explain how much it’s helped me. I’m less stressed, much happier, and more productive when I come back to the office.
Work-Life Balance Tips For Managers
The main conclusion for managers is that they need to enforce work-life balance for their employees.
First, don’t expect so much from your employees, asking them to work more will only make them produce sloppier work.
Second, make it very clear to employees that you want them to unplug and recharge when they leave work. The research clearly shows that they’ll be more productive if you let them have downtime.
Offer Flexible Schedules
Flexible schedules are a great way of empowering employees to manage work and life themselves.
Employees should be made to feel confident to handle their personal affairs when they need to.
Practice Work-Life Balance
Employees need to see you practicing work-life balance so that they know it’s okay. It might be hard for them to leave comfortably at the end of the day if they see you constantly working overtime.
Set a good example for them.
Ask For Feedback
You should be frequently collecting feedback from employees to understand what could be improved in your company.
Ask employees questions about work-life balance and see if they have any ideas on how to improve it.
Has Technology Ruined Your Work-Life Balance?
Do you have any tips or tricks for balancing work and life that you can share with us?