Why You Need To Stop Working All The Time

This post by Jan Bruce, CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, first appeared on Forbes.com.
“Overwork has become a credential of prosperity.”

This line from a recent James Suroweicki piece in The New Yorkerstruck me like a bell.

Suroweicki is writing about the culture of overwork on Wall Street, but the idea holds true for all of us striving in this ultra-competitive, hyper-connected world. As I wrote last year, busy is the new black, making stress seem downright fashionable, and we’ve made it worse for ourselves by linking overwork and stress with success. The harder you work and the more stressed you are, the more committed, ambitious, and successful you are, too, right?

Not only that, Suroweicki writes, but “over time, the simple fact that you work so much becomes proof that the job is worthwhile.” Whether you are doing authentically meaningful work is less important. What matters is that you are doing a lot of work, all the time.

But this is no way to run your life or your business. Wall Street employees consistently show declines in performance, creativity, and judgment after just a few years of the 100-hour workweek. They suffer physical and mental health problems, such as weight gain, heart disease, depression, and insomnia. Inc. magazine recently reported that a habit of working more than just 50 hours a week ups a person’s risk of alcohol abuse. And new research shows that the more hours worked over a lifetime, the greater the chance of premature death. A culture of overwork is literally driving us into the ground.

Change Policy & Practice
To stop making overwork and stress a badge of honor, you can make top-down changes to the rules, such as mandating weekends off, restricting access to email after 5 p.m., offering flex-time schedules. You can even give those rules teeth, likeBambooHR, a high-growth human resources startup in Utah that will take employees to task if they regularly work more than 40 hours a week. (Read more about research supporting the productivity and efficiency of the 40-hour work week.)

Streamline and prioritize workload and work style in ways that allow your teams to do their best work without draining the well. BambooHR, for example, has instituted time-management practices, virtual meeting technology, and frequent communication with clients to let them know when they’ll be unavailable.

Change the Culture
Policies aside, as leaders and managers we ought to personally and professionally embrace responsibility for the work/overwork ethic.  We need to rewrite the rules on overwork and redefine what a normal work schedule is. For leaders, that starts with examining your own position on overwork and stress. Are you buying the more-is-better approach? Are you pushing yourself beyond capacity? What are you doing day-to-day to care for your health?

I have committed to three things that put me on a path to create a reliable ebb and flow between work and not-work:

  1. No smart phones at meals — with friends, with family, with colleagues and clients.
  2. Taking a long walk three times a week – yes, without my phone.
  3. And last, and this one is hard for entrepreneurs: One day off the grid each week (at least, while there is daylight!).

These simple things create a reliable ebb and flow between work and not-work that makes me more present at both. For this startup entrepreneur, it’s a demanding but promising effort.  (Find out how to counter an addiction to overwork and stress.)

What do you have in place to be sure your team doesn’t tap out or leave altogether? How do you manage the flow and the load?  What do you do to encourage camaraderie, support, and the regular release of tension at the workplace?

As you make these changes, the measure of a job well done will be what you and your team accomplish. Not how long everyone takes to get there.