Work less, do more, live better

Reconsider long working hours, says Patience Schell, for leisure is vital for mind, body and productivity

August 7, 2014

Source: Getty

We become scholars because we are insatiably curious - and we won’t stop until we’ve solved the puzzle. It’s no wonder many of us work long hours

Some years ago, I heard that a colleague characterised me as “someone who didn’t work weekends”. This description was not meant as a compliment. It’s true that I make a concerted effort to keep something approximating normal working hours of 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. But I haven’t always worked like this. As a postgrad, I anxiously counted my hours and consulted with fellow students, worried that I wasn’t spending enough time at my desk. Eventually, I allowed myself one full day off weekly. When I became a lecturer, I stayed in the office until seven or eight in the evening, in part imitating the working patterns of my new colleagues, and continued to work weekends. Yet when I reduced my hours at the desk some years ago, my productivity did not decline. Instead, my mindfulness to follow regular hours means that my productivity is the same as or even greater than it was before, when I worked 50, 60 or whatever hours it was per week.

After this change, I began to wonder about my own working patterns and to think more generally about work and specifically about academic work. We certainly don’t join this profession or hope to become academics for fame or fortune. We join because we’re insatiably curious about something and we love to learn – there’s something that we need to know about and we won’t stop until we’ve solved the puzzle. With that sort of desire pushing us, it’s no wonder many of us work long hours.

Often, it doesn’t even feel like work, but rather an extension of us. Because we love what we do, in many ways we are among the luckiest workers in the world. And yet employers are well aware of our drive, our desire to please and our tendency to follow instructions (we don’t become academics without being good at following instructions). Employers keep piling tasks on and on and on. For those who have just finished their PhD, expectations of what level of accomplishment is required to become a lecturer go up and up. So the love that drove us to work nights and weekends can turn into desperation, as that time becomes the only chance to do the part of the job that motivates us.

We are part of a class of people, as sociologist Jeremy Seabrook argues, who compete with each other for recognition for the labour that we undertake. We drag ourselves into work when we’re unwell and say with ill-concealed pride that we can’t possibly fit any more meetings in for ages because of all the important talks we have to give and all the vital meetings we have to chair. As we say this, we riffle through diary pages or sweep fingers along a smartphone and sigh in mock despair.

Yet in the first half of the 20th century, the buzz was about how we were going to spend all that newfound free time won through labour-saving domestic appliances and reduced working hours. Instead, paid work has expanded to fill the time, despite, or because of, technological changes, even as productivity has risen. Data indicate that by the first decade of this century, the average worker in the US was as productive in 11 hours per week as one working 40 hours in 1950. Generations ago it was assumed that greater productivity would lead to shorter hours, but many of us have forgotten that link and lost that expectation.

In our current circumstances, with a challenging economy, students’ increasing demands on academics and the work insecurity many of us face, it may seem outlandish to discuss leisure and breaks. But working a “normal” work week, closer to 35 to 40 hours, is not crazy or out of touch, nor is it the signal that an academic lacks commitment. It’s not even damaging to productivity. In fact, rest, leisure and alternative activities beyond the spaces of work are vital to productivity, well-being and creativity.

Let’s also not kid ourselves that humans have always worked long hours and that daily toil is part of the burden of being human. The medieval workday, it has been estimated, was not more than eight hours and the concept of productivity hadn’t yet been invented. These people did not actually consume sufficient calories to work at the rate we might expect. A full day of agricultural toil requires more than 3,000 calories, unaffordable to medieval agricultural labourers. Moreover, for these labourers, holy days and celebrations counted for about a third of the year and, when wages rose, people tended to work less, not more. Without a consumer culture, these workers had little incentive to earn more than a survival wage. If we compare today’s conditions with those of the Industrial Revolution, we’re looking at a blip: the mid-19th century could well be the apex of long hours for all of human history.

Now, the debate about working hours has lost some of its urgency in the UK because, as sociologist Kenneth Roberts argues, lifestyle is seen as a private issue, not a public one. Meanwhile, long hours are fetishised and new technologies allow for constant contact with the office. Tragedies have resulted. Last summer in London, a 21-year-old student banking intern, Moritz Erhardt, was found dead in his shower after working an alleged 72 hours without sleep. In the wake of his death, other interns talked about their experiences, including working 20-hour days and returning home only to shower, with a taxi waiting outside still on the meter. Some interns claimed that they worked like that through choice, but what choice do they have? The culture tells them that long hours equal commitment and success.

Woman walking in rain with umbrella, viewed through taxi window

One of the risks from the long-hours culture is burnout, and rates are rising. Younger staff are more at risk, and high numbers of students is a key predictor

The long-hours culture has also found a home in universities. In 2012, the Trades Union Congress released a study that concluded that lecturers and teachers were putting in more unpaid overtime than other occupations, including the financial sector’s managerial staff. That has been the trend for the past 40 years, with many academics regularly working 50 hours a week or more. The value of this unpaid overtime in 2007 was estimated at £877 million. One of the risks from the long-hours culture is burnout, rates of which are on the rise in higher education, according to Noelle Robertson, clinical psychologist at the University of Leicester. Younger staff are more at risk, and high numbers of students is one strong predictor of burnout.

Some businesses and governments are starting to address this problem. German companies including Volkswagen, Puma and BMW have already restricted out-of-hours email use, as has the German Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. Ursula von der Leyen, who was minister when the change was enacted, said: “It’s in the interests of employers that workers can reliably switch off from their jobs; otherwise, in the long run, they burn out.”

So how can we find a way out? There are alternative models of work as well as activities for our free time that will make us more productive overall. Let’s start with some historical figures. Edmund Morgan’s 2002 biography of the scientist and US independence leader Benjamin Franklin advises us that when thinking about Franklin, “The first thing to do is to overcome the image of a man perpetually at his desk…Because Franklin wrote so well and so much it is natural to think of him pen in hand. But the man we will find in his writings likes to be in the open air, walking the city streets, walking the countryside, walking the deck of a ship. Indoors, he likes to be with people, sipping tea with young women, raising a glass with other men, playing chess, telling jokes, singing songs.” In fact, Franklin’s 24-hour model day, called his “scheme of employment”, shows that he worked about an eight-hour day.

Let’s take another figure: fuelled by strong coffee, Ludwig van Beethoven worked from first light until mid-afternoon, breaking up this working time with walks. Afterwards, he walked again, taking pencil and paper to note down ideas. Later, he retired to his local to read the papers; he enjoyed time with friends or went to the theatre. Virginia Woolf also counted on time away from her desk for inspiration: To the Lighthouse came to her while she was walking around Tavistock Square. The painter of big skies, big flowers and stark bones, Georgia O’Keeffe, began her workday walking for half an hour in the New Mexico desert, while keeping an alert eye out for rattlesnakes. Charles Darwin, too, took inspiration and mental relaxation from his daily turns on the “Sandwalk”, a gravel path behind his home planted with hazel, dogwood and birch trees.

The common feature in these workday schedules is walking, bipedalism, that form of locomotion that distinguishes us from the other primates. Walking and thinking seem to go together so naturally that perhaps it’s walking that made us thinkers. Aristotle famously taught while walking along the colonnade connecting the temple of Apollo and the shrine of the Muses. That link between philosophy and walking has stuck and was memorably parodied in Monty Python’s sketch about the Philosophers’ Football Match. Rebecca Solnit, author of Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000), concurs that walking is good for thinking: she concludes “a desk is no place to think on a large scale”.

Franklin and Solnit, Woolf and Darwin were, and are, wise to walk. An active lifestyle is helpful in treating depression and reduces the risk of suffering from it. Physical activity, according to a 2004 report by the Chief Medical Officer, makes people feel better, improves sleep and reduces anxiety and stress. Even 10 to 15 minutes of walking can bring about a substantial improvement in mood. Biking, jogging, dancing and swimming are also magic mood-improvers. Better still, a quick boogie around the office will actually help your cognitive performance. Peter Lovatt, aka Dr Dance, head of the Dance Psychology Lab at the University of Hertfordshire, has demonstrated that dancing speeds up mental processing and improves creative thinking. Thus, physical activity need not come at the expense of work; physical activity actually improves our work, making us livelier, happier, better thinkers, and increases our ability to cope with workplace stress. Yet a recent study of Canadian assistant professors found that, even among those who had been physically active previously, only 30.7 per cent of those polled met the minimum levels of recommended physical activity, compared with about 50 per cent of the larger cohort of young Canadian professionals.

Let’s not forget the other vital element to productivity (and longevity): adequate sleep. According to research carried out at the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, there is an approximate 15 per cent rise in mortality among those sleeping for five hours or less per night. The US National Sleep Foundation has estimated that exhaustion costs the US economy $100 billion (£58 billion) in reduced productivity, absences and poor health. One way around this problem is to take naps. Albert Einstein, Bill Clinton and Winston Churchill all joined the nap-taking fraternity. Some companies actively encourage their workers to nap: Nike offers employees spaces for napping or meditation, while Google offers napping “pods”. (If you’re going to try this at home or work, the research suggests that naps of no more than 30 minutes in the early afternoon are optimal.)

Silhouette of man sitting on chair swing, among trees

Leisure allows our bodies and minds to rest and is vital to good work; fallow moments are as much an investment in our work as pleasures in themselves

You may worry that with the myriad demands of your work, if you try to constrain your workweek, including research, to 40 hours or less, you’ll never get anything done. There’s a book for you. In How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing (2007), psychologist Paul J. Silvia offers evidence-based advice about how to be productive as an academic writer without giving up on leisure time.

His suggestions are simple: write and do your research daily in small blocks of time (schedule it in and don’t cheat on that schedule); keep track of what you do in that time; stay attentive to your writing goals and, ideally, get yourself a group that will help you keep to these goals. You might protest, what good are small blocks of time? But small, regular amounts of work build up to significant productivity. A few pages often make a big difference. If you were learning how to tap dance or play the French horn, you wouldn’t set aside one full day a week for practice or cram it into your Saturday afternoons; instead you’d practise for short periods, daily. Why should research and writing be any different?

I’m not making an argument about “work-life balance”; I hate that phrase, which juxtaposes the two and puts work before “life”. Rather I’m arguing that we of all people, people who believe in the value of research, should consider the evidence about good working habits, think critically about how we work and approach our own work from a base of solid research on productivity. But work is about more than productivity. It is in our best interest to not only be productive but satisfied with our work, because work is vital to our identity and self-definition. We need work not just to put bread on the table but to feel of use, to serve, to contribute, to make and to connect. But the long-hours culture and the cult of busyness saps meaning away, as we tick through never-ending “to do” lists, becoming chronically tired and working less efficiently with each overtime hour.

The authors of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much (2013), Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, demonstrate that the chronically busy work less efficiently owing to a profound shortage of cognitive capacity, resulting in poor decision-making. Their research indicates that this shortage of cognitive capacity, caused by extreme lack of time (it can also be caused by extreme lack of money), measurably reduces an individual’s fluid intelligence, hampering performance. Without what they call the mental “slack” of time away from work and away from thinking about work, we will make poor decisions. We’re dumber when we don’t take a break, and it shows. Even on factory production lines, there has long been evidence that reducing working hours improves productivity. In 1930, during the Great Depression, the Kellogg company reduced working time to a six-hour day. Despite working two hours less per day, however, workers were 3 to 4 per cent more productive overall. One observer saw workers increasing the number of shredded wheat cases packed from 83 to 96 per hour.

The utility of time away from work has also been demonstrated in research published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (“Reversing burnout”, winter 2005). “Mark”, a volunteer environmental activist who spent hundreds of hours organising, lobbying and campaigning while also working a full-time job, was understandably close to burnout. He managed to find ways to avoid it, including delegating, taking breaks to read or jog and doing easier tasks when his energy was lower. He also remembered the wise words of his older colleague who told him: “When I was younger, I was convinced that I needed to drive myself every single moment. Now I feel that I can go to the sauna, and I’ll still hate imperialism in an hour and a half. And that’s helped me to stay an activist.”

This same study uses the American Red Cross’ new management approach to highlight the necessity of breaks, even among disaster response workers. Before, Red Cross workers put in as many hours as necessary until the job was finished. Now the Red Cross recognises that workers need breaks in order to be able to respond effectively to the humanitarian crises they face. The new approach follows advice given by the American Psychological Association, whose mental health workers had supported Red Cross disaster response teams. So even the Red Cross, in emergencies, recognises that without breaks, leisure and time off, we don’t work as well as we could, we are less intelligent, we make poor decisions and we are at risk of hurting ourselves and shortening our lives.

So what can we do? In many ways we academics are the lucky ones, often with greater autonomy than most workers, as well as extensive training in critical thinking and assessing evidence. I’m arguing that we can be better workers, and more productive, if we think carefully about how we work, create time when we’re not working and model good working patterns for our colleagues and our students. Thus, my encouragement is to walk away. Get up and leave the office, roll around on the floor with your or someone else’s kids, do sudoku, plant radishes and climb mountains. Leave work to go be with and to care for family and friends. The leisure spaces that we create allow our bodies and minds to rest and are vital to good work; these fallow moments are as much an investment in our working lives as pleasures in themselves. This article is the opposite of a call to arms, it’s a call to leisure, a call to lay down your keyboard and take up your knitting needles, your surfboard, your pleasure reading and, especially, your walking shoes.

Some of you may not want to do this, because you thrive on the busyness, the rush from feeling at the centre of the hurricane. Well, if being busy is your identity, if you love to find that your diary pages are brimming with appointments, I’m genuinely delighted that you’re happy with your lot. But I would ask that you don’t participate in the hegemony of busyness and that you don’t perpetuate the sense that those who try to keep more regular hours and do walk away from their desks are less dedicated. In other words, don’t sum your colleagues up as “not working weekends”.

Crowd of people dancing at concert

Five alive: scholarly ways to well-being

Patience Schell adapts the New Economics Foundation’s evidence-based “Five Ways to Well-being” for academic lives

Cultivate your human relationships at work. Invite a colleague for coffee. Walk down the hall and knock on a door instead of sending an email.

Be active
When a problem’s got you stuck, walk to the library to return those books, explore an unknown street, find your own “Sandwalk”. Give your mind the time to be carried by your body and roam free.

Take notice
Be mindful, look around, be in the moment and be aware. Be with your students as they learn. Be in the moment with your research, even when it’s frustrating. We’re so lucky that our field allows us to follow our curiosity.

Keep learning
Here again, we are lucky. Each time we redesign our courses, each time we approach a new aspect of our research, each time we’re given a new administrative task, we have an opportunity to learn, which is vital to our brain’s health and our well-being.

Be generous with your time. We are generous every time we help junior colleagues and students, create a postgraduate support group or work for our profession.

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Reader's comments (3)

I think this is all so true - Deans and others also need to get the message that 'being away from your desk' - eg overseas or on external committees does not decrease productivity (it may miliatate against family life!) - there is actually only so much time you can spend being 'productive' but the bean counters and their appointees in senior management just don't get this.
'Deans and others': you don't realize that in the corporate university, you are only a function, and so are the deans. To pretend otherwise is a delusion.
I notice that hte author of this article works in a Scottish University, who have not been subjected to the evil fees regime and over powering management executives that have damaged English Universities. It's been proven in many places that in English Universities that the workload of academics is over 100%. If any academic in an English University is going to now keep their time down to a 35-40 hour week and take all their holidays they can forget promotion, not get any publications of proposals done as that time will be more than easily filled by teaching and admin. Fine for those that want to do teaching only, it's enjoyable, but for those who want to be research active and add some interesting flavour to their jobs, suffering is sure to result and that is a very sad reality.