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Companies Can Win by Reducing Overwork

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CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review.

It goes by a lot of names, workaholism, presenteeism, hustle and grind, whatever you want to call it. There is this belief that to beat the competition and to get ahead in your career, you have to work harder, work longer, and be more devoted to your job. But many people also do see the personal dangers to overwork like burnout, damaging your mental health, or short-changing your family, maybe crashing off the productivity cliff. We know that being always on is not great. Even as we push ahead into it. It turns out that burning the candle at both ends can burn both the employee and the employer. It’s counterproductive for your wellbeing and for company competitiveness too.

And today’s guest who studies that says, “It doesn’t have to be that way.” She says just as managers and leaders play a big role in creating a workaholic culture, they can also do a lot to start down the road to recovery.

Malissa Clark is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Georgia, and she wrote the new book Never Not Working, Why The Always On Culture Is Bad for Business and How to Fix It. Welcome.

MALISSA CLARK: Thank you for having me.

CURT NICKISCH: What got you into studying this topic?

MALISSA CLARK: Oh gosh. Well, I can relate. I’ve always struggled from a young age of overdoing it, taking on too much, and it just kind of continued through school, college into my adult working life. And in graduate school I realized that it has a name called Workaholism, and so I really just wanted to understand more about why I was like this and why I always kind of felt like I had to go all the time.

CURT NICKISCH: Can we talk about this word workaholic just for a second? What is it and what’s, how do you think of that word and how is that really understood in the research?

MALISSA CLARK: When I think about workaholism, I like to think of it as when someone is working excessively and compulsively. So, it’s not just about spending long hours on the job, although that’s certainly part of it. It’s also the compulsive feelings that you ought to be working all the time, that you should be working all the time feeling bad about yourself if you’re not feeling these negative emotions and also thinking about work all the time. That’s the cognitive component that is something that is difficult to shut off.

CURT NICKISCH: So that you have this phenomenon, which we all kind of know, but it has these attributes. Along comes the pandemic, which has just this massive shift in where people work, when people work, how people work. What did the pandemic do to patterns of overwork?

MALISSA CLARK:  Yeah, I think the pandemic did a couple things. For many knowledge workers, we shifted completely to working from home. And so, you’re sleeping at work, you’re eating at work, it’s all intertwined. And also the pandemic, in my opinion, changed some of our communication patterns.

And Microsoft did some studies, which show this phenomenon where we would start working again in the evenings. And my thought is it’s pretty much when the kids go to bed and you have a burst of productivity. And so, we started to get used to doing that and we got used to expecting responses from people at these odd hours that were not as prevalent before the pandemic. And we’ve kind of learned some of those bad habits and gotten into some new routines that in many ways it doesn’t seem like that has stopped since we’re on the other end of the pandemic, it seems like we’ve just kind of gotten used to the new normal.

You know, I think you can leverage the strengths of remote work, but also pay attention to the fact that we don’t want to be constantly available. And so, because we can be constantly available if we are always available via our smartphones. And so, it’s important to set those boundaries, communicate with your team, when are we going to be communicating with each other? When are we not?

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah, I mean there definitely is this image, right? That workaholics are more productive because they work hard and they work more. Is that the case?

MALISSA CLARK: They’re not. No, the research doesn’t show a link between workaholism and greater productivity. In fact, oftentimes it shows a negative relationship. And also I would point out it’s difficult to just know based on whether someone is working long hours, whether they are working due to workaholism or that they’re simply an engaged worker. And work engagement has been shown to lead to a whole host of positive outcomes: greater performance, productivity. So simply by looking at hours worked, it’s really difficult to know what the drivers are behind that hard work and long hours.

And it’s possible to be a very productive worker and be very engaged while you’re at work, but also capable of shutting it off when you’re not at work. And that doesn’t make you any worse off in terms of productivity. In fact, it can rejuvenate you for when you come back to work.

You know, I think about my energy levels at the beginning of the day versus the end of the day. At the beginning of the day, I have so much more energy, I’m more focused, I’m sharper. But then at the end of the day, oftentimes I’m so drained that I know that I’m just not on top of my game. And if we think about-

CURT NICKISCH: And it takes twice as long to get – right?

MALISSA CLARK: It does, yeah. And everything takes longer when you’re tired. And so, if you’re a workaholic and you’re not allowing yourself those breaks, that rest, that recovery, it’s going to take a toll at some point. It’s about working smarter, not longer.

CURT NICKISCH: Sometimes the work can’t wait, Malissa.

MALISSA CLARK: That’s what every boss says. No, I’m just kidding.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah, right.

MALISSA CLARK: I mean, there are some things that sure, there are deadlines, there are busy seasons. And I’m not saying that that’s not required sometimes because it is, but when it becomes a pattern where everything is needing your extra time, constant projects that suck up hours in the evening and your whole weekend, that’s where it becomes problematic. It’s about the big picture, the cumulative effect of these long hours that is really the concern.

CURT NICKISCH: I think we all totally get how bad it is for individuals. What about for teams and organizations? You say that it’s also bad for business. How so?

MALISSA CLARK: The workaholic thinks of everything as a crisis, as an emergency, as urgent. I was talking with this man named Gabe who realized, he called himself a fear machine. He was running his company with this backwards thinking mentality of why did we do this? Why did we do that? This is an emergency, almost like a frantic type of management.

And that’s not good for teams, right? That’s not good for trying to put out good product. It’s about dealing with a crisis. And when he realized he was doing this, it took taking a step back and realizing, all right, this doesn’t allow me to think strategically and think about the big picture.

Another aspect is over-committing the team. So, the workaholic boss oftentimes doesn’t realize that they’re taking on too much and maybe they’re promising a customer a really ridiculous turnaround time that kind of forces the team to work all these extra hours, pull all-nighters. So, over committing the team, promising unrealistic deadlines, treating everything as a crisis, none of that is good for team dynamics. And so, those are some other ways that productivity can really be hindered.

CURT NICKISCH: And what about for the organization?

MALISSA CLARK: Yeah, I think if this is the culture of the organization and everyone’s trying to one up each other and show that they’re the most dedicated and that’s getting rewarded, really, it’s just creating this 24/7 always on culture that even if someone doesn’t have workaholic tendencies, the norms of the company are such that they feel pressure to kind of never take a break, to always be available.

And it might seem great in the moment, and it seems like everyone’s working very hard and they probably are, but our bodies cannot continue that fight or flight response long-term, right? You can’t always be on, can’t always have a crisis. We need to go back to equilibrium in order to be productive later. So, what you end up with is a burnt out workforce.

CURT NICKISCH: So, what do you think is more common? Are organizations turning a blind eye to this or maybe just ignorant to the problem; or, organizations that actually really foster this culture and make it part of their norms because they think it’s going to make the company more successful?

MALISSA CLARK: I think there are a lot of organizations that don’t see anything wrong with this and that is their culture, and it’s just kind of known this is the way it is here. I think there are many organizations that are trying to make some changes, but it’s something that takes a lot of time and intentional decisions to change some of these processes that are embedded in the culture of the organization.

And it can be done, by the way, in organizations that have a really hard driving culture. There are examples of consulting companies that the consultants are always expected to be available to the clients and the researchers implemented one evening a week that someone cannot be contacted and they rotate that around the team.

And even just that one change was so impactful, the employees learned that, wow, I do actually enjoy an evening where I know that I’m not going to be bothered. I know that I’m not going to be kind of on call, that you can fully disengage that evening, and no one thought it was possible that you could still be just as productive and the customers would be just as happy when you’re also implementing some of this downtime. So, even in a hard driving culture, changes can be made and even small changes can make a big impact.

CURT NICKISCH: So, if you’re joining a company or a team or working in one now, what signs are out there that you’re in an organizational culture that’s really breeding workaholism?

MALISSA CLARK: I think you can tell in a lot of different ways. With culture, there are what’s called artifacts that can give you clues in what is valued in an organization. For example, how are new employees socialized?

I spoke with one woman who when she started her new job in an investment banking company, she was taught, if you need to leave your desk, leave your purse at the desk, just take your keys. The message was basically, well, you can’t be gone from your desk for too long. They’re just going to assume she stepped out to go to the restroom or something very quick. So, that’s one example of socialization that makes it very clear what you are and are not supposed to do.

Other things are what are the stories and legends? Other things like who is rewarded? Adam Grant says the most direct way to figure out what’s valued in a culture isn’t to listen to what people say is important. It’s to pay attention to who gets rewarded and promoted. So, are the people that are getting promoted the ones that are working long hours? And is that the reason that people say, and oftentimes it is, “They’re such a dedicated employee. They pulled an all-nighter to finish this project,” and that is explicitly what is rewarded. So, there are many ways that you can tell.

CURT NICKISCH: You had some really fun ones in the book, like people saying, “Thank God it’s Monday,” or “If you don’t come in on Sunday, don’t even bother coming in on Monday.”

MALISSA CLARK: Right. And those are real examples from organizations. Real slogans sometimes displayed on the wall. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious, but oftentimes it might not be. The organization might claim to have all of these wellness programs and flex time and all of these great policies, but then when you actually get in there, you realize, oh, nobody actually takes their unlimited vacation days. It’s just something that sounds good, right? So, there can be a discrepancy and it might not be so obvious.

CURT NICKISCH: How are leaders specifically enabling this workaholic culture?

MALISSA CLARK: One thing is if a leader is saying to their employees, “Yeah I want you to have some balance and this is all great,” but they themselves are not practicing what they preach. That’s basically enabling this sort of mentality. Employees will look at that and say, “Well, this is actually what I should be doing because this is what my boss is doing.”

Another thing is communication patterns. That’s a really important signal. Is your boss constantly texting or emailing after work hours on the weekend? Do they expect a response immediately? That’s another pretty clear sign that they want you to be on 24/7. Lots of things like that that may seem small when you add them up cumulatively, it can really send some pretty strong signals to employees what is expected of them.

And for many leaders that might be in part what got them to this position. If that is what’s valued in the organization, that probably is what got them the promotion, right?

CURT NICKISCH: So, do reward systems have to be changed?

MALISSA CLARK: Yeah, absolutely. I definitely think that our reward systems do need to change if we’re going to stop worshiping the always on employee. And focusing on the output, what were the outcomes of the project they were working on? Instead of the input or how many hours they spent putting it together, thinking about instead of this employee is celebrated because of how they’ve shown their dedication through their long hours, why can’t we reward employees for figuring out how to complete a really complicated project in a short span of time?

Reward them for working smarter instead of working longer. Thinking about what is the ideal worker and what about those qualities do we want people to strive for? I think if we can kind of change the mindset of let’s try to be productive during the time we’re working, but also not rewarding the ones that spend the most time in the office.

CURT NICKISCH: What kinds of things can leaders do specifically? And I just wonder if there are any favorite artifacts or stories that you have of leaders who’ve really been able to turn around and always on culture and make it more sustainable?

MALISSA CLARK: One example that stood out to me in my interviews is adding what’s called speed bumps to help employees and themselves really to recognize when they might be about to reinforce that always on mentality.

This can be done with technology too, have a platform where if you are going to send an email after work, for example, a popup will appear and it’ll say, “Are you sure you want to send this email now? Or do you want to schedule send and have it arrive the next morning?” Little things like that, sort of forcing those speed bumps in your team I think can go a long way.

In one organization – I thought this was really neat. Talk about rewarding employees for having a balance. They have, this is the company Medtronic, and they have a program called Take Time to Win Time, where employees, if they took their vacation day, they got entered into a drawing to win more vacation days. So, I just thought that was super clever because oftentimes, even if a company is offering unlimited vacation, people are hesitant to take their days.

CURT NICKISCH: Right, right.

MALISSA CLARK: But it’s specifically rewarding that behavior that you want people to want people to take advantage of that downtime. You want people to rest and recover. And so, I thought that was a really creative and unique strategy that I hadn’t heard of before.

I think another example at the supervisory level, not like the organizational level like Medtronic, is one of the strategies that I’ve heard from leaders that are trying to encourage their employees that it’s okay if you don’t respond right away is they add a line at the bottom of their email. Something along the lines of, “my schedule is different than yours. Feel free to respond whenever your work hours are.”

And I like that. However, I think one thing that’s important to consider, and this was pointed out to me by a fellow industrial organizational psychologist, Lauren Kuykendall, is that oftentimes supervisors don’t realize that their employees don’t have as much autonomy as they do. And so, even though the supervisor thinks they’re allowing their employees the bandwidth to respond whenever there’s still this pressure because the employees are in a position of less power.

This is called status blindness. You think other people have the same amount of autonomy as you, but really you’re still not explicitly saying don’t respond after hours. I think being very clear in, if you want to change the norm and you want to stop this cycle of responsiveness, then instead of giving people this ambiguous message of, “Well, you don’t have to respond, but this is what I’m sending the email is nine o’clock at night.”

Explicitly say, “I won’t respond to emails that occur after 9:00 PM,” or something pretty explicit, instead of allowing that kind of vagueness and uncertainty, which oftentimes employees don’t feel like they have the autonomy to really make that decision, especially if everyone else is responding right away.

CURT NICKISCH: So, those are some interesting strategies. I wonder how leaders and teams should deal with pushback, right? Because if you’re a team leader and you institute speed bumps and then you go to who you report to and you say, “Hey, I instituted some speed bumps,” that sounds like you’re moving in the wrong direction, right? If you get, what would you recommend to somebody when they kind get pushback from HR, from their own organizations, from their own supervisors about that kind of team culture that they’re trying to foster?

MALISSA CLARK: It can be tricky to navigate in an environment that really seems resistant to any type of change. I think sometimes it takes proving to people, showing them, show them the data. Look, my team has been doing this for four months now and we’ve increased our client base threefold and increased revenue. So, showing actual tangible results might help to change minds because I think people don’t like change. People are resistant to change. People think they know the best way of doing things, and so it can be difficult to try to change a team culture within a broader organizational culture if they don’t match up.

It’s possible to have even teams in the most hard driving culture to have some variability, and some teams have a little bit more work-life balance than others, but a team within a hard driving culture is not going to be able to move, for example, to a four-day work week. It’s just not going to be possible. So, you have to find ways to make some changes that positively affect your team in ways that don’t completely go counter to the organization, but hopefully by showing them through data, you can convince them that maybe there’s a different way of doing things.

CURT NICKISCH: You mentioned a four-day work week. A lot of business owners or organizational leaders don’t really think about that as a viable option because it just seems like you’re competing against companies with workers who are working five days a week or six days a week. What have you seen in the research and is that a compelling option that companies should be looking at?

MALISSA CLARK: I think absolutely. I’ve become a huge fan of the four-day Workweek. Through my research with the book. First I’d like to say that the four-day work week is not compressing 40 hours into four days. It’s literally lopping off eight hours of someone’s work week. So, think about a 32-hour work week and not paying people less, paying them a full-time wage job or a salary.

CURT NICKISCH: You’re really selling it to shareholders here.

MALISSA CLARK: Well hear me out. So, decreasing the work week to 32 hours and spreading that out however you want, doesn’t have to be four days. It could be five days, but the point is that you’re still expected to do the same amount of work, but just to work smarter and employees that have participated in these four-day week trials, if you look at the data, it’s really, really overwhelming.

Not only do employees say they are more satisfied, they’re less burnt out, they have greater work-life balance, all those things you might expect. In addition to that, the most recent set was during the great resignation and in these companies turnover decreased, revenue went up, and so all the data, both the quantitative data about profit and the subjective data about employee wellbeing overwhelmingly shows this was a huge success.

And the majority of workers said they never want to go back to the way it was. Even 15% said they would never go back with any amount of money, so they couldn’t be convinced with any salary to go back to the five-day work week. And for shareholders and the skeptics out there, we have all this technology now that makes everything so much quicker than it used to be. We have AI that is simplifying and making our tasks even quicker than ever. So, why do we keep on stretching out the work week to be 40 hours? What’s the rationale with that when we can be so much more productive than we have ever before? We used to work six days a week, now we work five, why don’t we work four?

You know, change is possible. I just think we get it in our heads that it has to be the same as it always was or has been for a long time, but we forget that we don’t need so much time in order to get our jobs done well, and remember that rest and recovery helps us to be more energized and more productive. So in essence, yeah, you might be shaving off hours, but what you’re doing is you’re actually just shaving off ineffective hours to be begin with, and why don’t we just have the work week be 32 effective hours and see where it gets us? I think people would be very surprised.

CURT NICKISCH: Malissa, you’ve said a lot to help people change the inertia of overwork at their organizations, and also you’ve raised a lot of questions about how to be more competitive by really being deliberate about it. Thanks so much for coming on the show to talk about your research.

MALISSA CLARK: Thank you for having me.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s Malissa Clark, associate professor at the University of Georgia. She wrote the new book Never Not Working, Why the Always On Culture Is Bad for Business and How to Fix It.

And we have nearly 1,000 more episodes plus more podcasts to help you manage your team, your organization, and your career, find them at hbr.org/podcasts or search HBR and Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Thanks to our team, senior Producer Mary Dooe, associate producer Hannah Bates, audio product manager Ian Fox and senior production specialist Rob Eckhardt. Thank you for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Curt Nickisch.

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