hamster running on wheel
PHOTO: shutterstock

How many times have you heard these phrases or (be honest) said them to yourself? These types of phrases are often said with a touch of pride and a dash of self-sympathy:

  • “I’ve been on back to back Zoom calls since 6am”
  • “I didn’t finish work until 8pm.”
  • “I missed my daughter’s dance recital for this project.”
  • “I’ve been pulling 16 hour days for 2 weeks straight.”
  • “I can’t believe she left at 5:30pm. I was here for 3 more hours!”
  • “We’re going to make this goal if it kills us.”

In her book, “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are,” Brene Brown shares her 10 Guideposts of Wholehearted Living. Number 7 on that list is “Cultivating Play and Rest: Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self-Worth.” It’s time we start recognizing the damage we are doing to ourselves, our teams, and our organization when we are competing for the “Most Tired” award.

Work-life balance is a buzzword we like to throw around, but how often does the culture of an organization support the exact opposite? Hero culture is rewarded, and our output is viewed as a measure of our worth on performance reviews. That type of hamster wheel mentality has an impact on us physically, mentally, and spiritually, and subsequently has an impact on our products.

More Is Not Always Better

Many years ago, I was coaching an organization that was deeply entrenched in this type of culture. Long hours were praised as a sign of commitment, and employees would compete for who could arrive earliest or stay latest (in pre-pandemic times). Developers would code deep into the night, often making mistakes when they became tired. I cautioned the leaders that this type of behavior was problematic, but they were dismissive. They loved that their team members were so “engaged.” I worried that what we were seeing was not engagement, but fear. Fear of falling behind, fear of being perceived as “less than.”

My worries were realized one day when I was on vacation myself. My phone started to blow up with texts and calls because one of the engineering directors had collapsed in his office. He was rushed to the hospital. We later learned he had suffered a heart attack. Fortunately, he recovered. And while we can never be sure if the work culture was the main culprit, it was a wake up call for the leaders of the organization. They finally recognized they had a problem. They immediately made some real changes to support the health and lives of their teams.

  • No-Meetings Fridays to allow their team members time to engage in deep thinking/work.
  • Monitoring long hours and overtime to identify blockers or bottlenecks.
  • An overhaul of their annual evaluation to look for signs of rewarding hero and exhausted culture.
  • Overall awareness of their language and the messages they were sending to their teams.

Related Article: The Cure for Burnout Is Not Self-Care

Employees Need Time and Space to Succeed – So Give It to Them

Happy, healthy engaged employees are good for the bottom line. Creating a healthy culture of rest and play is an investment into the future of your company. Why? Neuroscience tells us we do our best creative work when our brains are rested.

Herein lies the danger when exhaustion becomes a status symbol — for our organizational culture, our teams and ourselves. At worst, we work ourselves into the hospital, but we make many smaller sacrifices along the way. When we don’t give ourselves space to breathe, think and be creative, we end up building fast things, but not necessarily right things. We focus on output without considering outcomes. In our need to compete, we simply go through the motions of productivity without the benefit of inspiration.

If our teams and organizations are to make a difference in our markets and the world, we have to make time to dream up big, new ideas and/or to build a cohesive team around our mission. We have to make space and create permission for our employees and colleagues to get off the hamster wheel and allow the new ideas to emerge. To do that, we have to take the time to look inward, assessing our own attitudes and views about work-life balance.

Related Article: Your Remote Teammate Isn't Disengaged, You Just Didn't Set Them Up for Success 

Explicit and Implicit Policies Drive Behavior and Therefore, Culture

One way to approach this is by evaluating the explicit and implicit policies that exist at the individual, team and organizational levels. Where possible, make the implicit explicit.

At the Individual Level

  • Understand your own relationship with productivity and sustainable pace.
  • Develop boundaries that honor all aspects of your life.
  • Explicitly share those boundaries with those around you (Note: if you find yourself unable to establish appropriate boundaries, you may evaluate whether your current role is aligned with your values).
  • Identify the things that recharge you and build them into your schedule.
  • Create time and space for creative thought around your work.
  • Recognize when you hear yourself say things like the phrases above.

At the Team Level

  • Take the time to discuss what sustainable pace means for your team.
  • Develop working agreements that address sustainable pace.
  • Don’t shame others for having and keeping boundaries.
  • Treat work cycles as a heartbeat, not a constant death march.
  • Not only avoid but actively reject hero culture.
  • Speak up as team members and leaders.
  • Develop resiliency plans, ensuring knowledge is shared so that team members can take time off without guilt or fear.

At the Organizational Level

  • Evaluate your explicit PTO and family leave policies, but also the implicit messages being sent around taking PTO. For example, Minimum PTO vs. Unlimited PTO. Research shows that Unlimited PTO is detrimental to the use of PTO — but requiring team members to take a minimum of XX weeks will encourage time off.
  • Consider your rewards systems and structures. Are you rewarding only the people who work long hours and are constantly “on”? How sure are you that they are actually delivering the most value?
  • Take a look at your on-call policies if they are necessary. When additional hours are necessary, are folks able to take off other time?
  • Small traditions like working lunches send an implicit message that taking a break for lunch may not be acceptable. Limit them.
  • Create organization-wide rituals that will create space and time for learning, recharging and flow work.

Related Article: How to Recognize, Mitigate and Potentially Prevent Burnout in Remote Employees

Leaders Eat Last, But Vacation First

Leaders, you especially have a responsibility to model healthy behavior and language. If the message employees hear every time you get on the phone with them is “I’ve been on back to back calls for 12 hours” or “I’m going to be working all weekend,” then no amount of telling them to “take care of themselves” is going to work. Many people will follow the leaders’ example regardless of what they say. Jokingly saying, “Do as I say, not as I do” isn’t going to cut it.

Instead, I encourage you to be vocal about taking vacation. Don’t answer calls or emails when you are away. Turn off your laptop at 5:30pm and don’t send emails after hours. If you are one of those people who work very well at night, schedule those emails and Slack messages to go out tomorrow morning. It is not enough to say, “Don’t look at this until tomorrow.” In today’s “always on” technology-driven world, your employees who are eager to please will not wait until tomorrow.

Related Article: Can Asynchronous Collaboration Survive Our Always-On Workplaces?

Better Is Always Better

The pandemic changed us in many ways, including our views about work. Many people recognized that their priorities were misaligned with their values, and have since made changes to their lives. We were all faced with our own mortality, locked in our homes and working in new ways. Now we as leaders and organizations have to reckon with these revelations ourselves. We’ve all heard that we can’t go back to “normal,” so why don’t we take this opportunity to figure out what “better” looks like, starting with our views on productivity and exhaustion?