Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: Health / Medicine / Wellness (page 1 of 5)

Eating together at work and in negotiations

In the interviews I’ve done with leaders and workers at companies that have implemented shorter workweeks, I often hear– in the smaller places at least– that they eat together.

Lunch at the Big Building
Eating together is a powerful form of bonding for any group

At MADE Agency in Norwich, the office closes during lunch hour, and most of the staff goes out to eat together. At Pursuit Marketing, a Glasgow call center, people have breakfast together before diving into the day’s calls. When he decided to fight back against the culture of overwork and burnout in the restaurant industry, one of the changes René Redzepi implemented at Noma was to introduce

real staff meals where you sit down to eat together. We had to change our opening time from six to seven to allow for a one-hour dinner break, but it was worth it. For too long I’ve been eating out of a plastic container while standing next to my section, and I don’t want my cooks getting accustomed to the same thing.

This is one of those small-sounding changes that can make a big difference in organizations. Eating together is a way for people to spend time together in an environment where they can actually pay attention to one another; it can improve social bonding within groups; and if it’s paired with cooking, it becomes a cooperative activity that helps reinforce skills that groups can use in their work.

Old fire station

The canonical example of the last is the firehouse. In “Eating Together at the Firehouse,” Kevin Kniffin and his coauthors found that firehouse that cook and eat together perform better than those that do not. Here’s the research:

Over the course of 15 months, Kniffin and his colleagues conducted interviews and surveys in a large city’s fire department, which included more than 50 firehouses. The researchers asked the department’s 395 supervisors to rate on a scale of zero to 10 the performance of their platoon compared to other fire companies in which they’ve served. The supervisors were also asked how often the platoon eats together in a typical four-day work week. The platoons who ate together most often also got higher marks for their team performance. Conversely, the platoons that did not eat together got lower performance ratings.

In interviews, firefighters said daily group meals were a central activity during their shifts. Some firefighters who worked a shift that started at 6 p.m. often ate two dinners, one at home and a second at the firehouse. One firefighter said, in the company of his co-workers, “you don’t want to dis the wife” by turning down the food she prepared – implying that it was just as important to avoid disrespecting his co-workers. “To me, that’s a good example of the importance of the group. It’s comparable to his family,” said Kniffin, whose father was a longtime big-city firefighter.

In fact, the researchers noted firefighters expressed a certain embarrassment when asked about firehouses where they didn’t eat together. “It was basically a signal that something deeper was wrong with the way the group worked,” Kniffin said.

As Kniffin explained, “Eating together is a more intimate act than looking over an Excel spreadsheet together. That intimacy spills back over into work…. From an evolutionary anthropology perspective, eating together has a long, primal tradition as a kind of social glue. That seems to continue in today’s workplaces.”

There’s actually a fascinating culinary culture among firefighters, strong enough so that “learn to cook” is a piece of professional advice that experienced firefighters give newbies. “Confidence in the kitchen will go a long way to make your life and career easier, and help you fit in no matter where you work and no matter who you work with,” one writer warns:

The standards are often very high, and you’ll be up against some tough culinary competition, so start learning to cook now, or work to improve and expand the cooking skills that you do have before you get the job.

When it comes to firehouse cooking, remember this: it takes 100 good meals to make up for one really bad one. And if the meal is bad enough, it can haunt you your entire career. My crew still talks about a terrible meal that I prepared more than 10 years ago.

And it’s not just groups that work together regularly, or have to perform as a team under life-and-death situations, who benefit from eating together. An interesting new study from the University of Chicago looks at “why sharing a plate leads to better negotiation outcomes“:

Here’s a new negotiating tactic: Enjoy a family-style meal with your counterpart before making your opening bid. When people in a business negotiation share not just a meal but a plate, they collaborate better and reach deals faster, according to new research from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

The experiment consisted of two parts. Randomly-assigned pairs of students had a snack of chips and salsa, and either shared from the same bowls, or had their own.

Some excellent fish and chips!
Okay, these aren’t the right kinds of chips, but it’s the only picture I had

The pairs then had to negotiate a solution to a labor dispute; if they didn’t settle the dispute in time, a strike would be called, making subsequent rounds increasingly costly.

Essentially, participants that shared food family-style negotiated more effectively and quickly than participants that ate separately:

Teams with shared bowls took nine strike days, on average, to reach a deal, four fewer than pairs that had eaten from separate bowls. This difference translated into significant dollar values, saving both parties a combined (if hypothetical) $1.5 million in losses.

This phenomenon, the researchers write, was unrelated to how two people in a negotiating team felt about each other. Rather, what mattered was how well they coordinated their eating.

The relationship between food, sociability, and organizational performance also serves (so to speak) as an important reminder that an awful lot of the work required to implement a 4-day week and make it a success does not require making dramatic changes in how the company works, or investing in cutting-edge productivity tools, or doing other very disruptive or alien things: it’s small changes that you can undertake at virtually no cost.

Long hours, weekends and mental health

This 2018 episode of the Life’s Work podcast has an interesting brief conversation about the impact of working long hours and weekends on mental health?

UCL researcher and consultant in wellbeing at work Gill Weston discusses her research looking at the links between working long hours and weekend work and signs of depression in both men and women. Key findings from the research:

  • Women who worked 55 hours a week or longer showed more signs of depression than those who worked a standard 35-40 hour week;
  • Women who worked weekends showed more signs of depression than those who didn’t;
  • Men who worked weekends in poor quality jobs with little control or job satisfaction also showed high numbers of depressive symptoms compared with their peers who worked weekends but were in good quality jobs

Sick days and overwork vs shorter hours

The New York Times has a piece about “The Death of the Sick Day,” about how

the sick day is disappearing from the office vocabulary, even as we hit peak flu season. Once, a sick day was just that — a day away from work to focus on recovery…. But in recent years, it has become something murkier in definition and more reflective of our highly competitive, 24-7 work lives. The shifting definition and expanding mobility of the office — thanks to remote work and the rise of contractors in the gig economy — is also making the sick day somewhat passé, at least for some jobs.

The fact that many people feel that their jobs would be at risk if they took off a day to recover from an illness is a painful indicator of the state of modern work.

It also brought to mind something I’ve kept hearing when interviewing people whose companies run 4-day weeks: their sick days go way down. They argue that first of all, their people are healthier. They have more time to exercise and cook real food, which means their baseline levels of health and disease resistance go up. As a result, they’re just sick less often, and when they are, the three-day weekend gives them a greater chance of resting and keeping a mild illness from turning into something more serious.

You could also add that having a 4-day week means that they’re also more likely to be able to deal with other family members’ illness, without having to call in themselves.

And of course, we should contrast this situation to the health of people who chronically overwork and deal with stress in the office: they’re much more likely to get sick, to have chronic or stress-related illnesses, and to cost companies (or the national health service) in the long run.

New studies on physician burnout

The Washington Post has an article on two new studies looking at physician burnout. One looks at burnout among young doctors, while the other underscores how challenging it’s been to study the phenomenon.

The first study surveyed a group of young doctors in their last year of medical school, and again during the second year of their residency. “Along with a host of demographic questions, the doctors were asked to rate themselves on two statements: ‘I feel burned out from my work’ and ‘I’ve become more callous toward people since I started this job’.” Here’s what they found:

Nearly 50 percent of young doctors in training programs called residencies reported burnout symptoms at least one day a week. And a large number said they felt they had made a mistake in choosing a subspecialty, such as pathology or anesthesiology, or even medicine in general as a ­profession….

Overall, 45 percent of residents reported at least one symptom of burnout — such as exhaustion — at least once a week, while 14 percent reported regret over career choice.

The second study started out as meta-analysis of previous research on physician burnout. 

But after gathering 182 reports involving 109,628 physicians from 45 countries, they determined that the definitions of burnout and the study methods were so disparate that it was impossible to draw any conclusions.

The second study underscores just how difficult this problem has been to identify and address: when you can’t even agree on a definition of burnout that makes it testable, it becomes a lot easier to not take it seriously.

Talking about deliberate rest on Bodyshot Performance

Ready for my closeup on BBC Radio 4!

My latest interview, with Bodyshot Performance founder Leanne Spencer, is now up online. (I recently wrote about Leanne’s TED talk on fitness versus weight.)

It seems to have the ominous title “part 1,” so there’s more coming!

Sleep, brain maintenance, and Alzheimer’s disease

More brains!

In Rest, I talk about how sleep turns out to be a form of what I call “active rest:” rest in which the body is actually doing things behind the scenes. One of the most important things it does is fire up glial cells, which you can think of as a kind of scaffolding and support system for the brain, to clear out the various toxins that build up in the brain during its normal activity. (You can think of these proteins as a kind of waste, just like the rest of the waste your body produces.)

A few years ago, neuroscientist Maiken Nedergaard observed this system at work in the brains of mice. Now, writing in Science News, Laura Bell reports on new research on human subjects indicating that “The brain may clean out Alzheimer’s plaques during sleep.” (Also, Bell’s article is a terrific overview of the history of this research, and its major lines of investigation.)

University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Barbara Bendlin has been working on the “Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention, a study of more than 1,500 people who were ages 40 to 65 when they signed up” in 2001. So by now the Registry has 17 years of data, gathered from surveys, doctor’s exams, cognitive tests, even cerebral spinal fluid taps. (I love longitudinal studies like these: they reveal things that no other kind of research can.)

What Bedlin is finding is more evidence of a connection between sleep deprivation and the buildup of amyloid-beta protein fragments, which have been theorized to be one mechanism behind Alzheimer’s:

Bendlin and her colleagues identified 98 people from the registry who recorded their sleep quality and had brain scans. Those who slept badly — measured by such things as being tired during the day — tended to have more A-beta plaques visible on brain imaging….

In a different subgroup of 101 people willing to have a spinal tap, poor sleep was associated with biological markers of Alzheimer’s in the spinal fluid…. The markers included some related to A-beta plaques, as well as inflammation and the protein tau, which appears in higher levels in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.

Now, it’s important to note that the casual arrow between poor sleep and Alzheimer’s isn’t yet clear: scientists aren’t yet willing to say with certainty whether bad sleep increases your odds of developing the disease, or whether the mechanisms that are responsible for Alzheimer’s also disrupt your sleep. As Bell puts it, Bell notes that

most studies have a chicken-and-egg problem. Alzheimer’s is known to cause difficulty sleeping. If Alzheimer’s both affects sleep and is affected by it, which comes first?

But even though “the direction and the strength of the cause-and-effect arrow remain unclear,” she continues,

approximately one-third of U.S. adults are considered sleep deprived (getting less than seven hours of sleep a night) and Alzheimer’s is expected to strike almost 14 million U.S. adults by 2050 (5.7 million have the disease today).

Either way, it’s yet another argument for taking sleep seriously, and getting enough of it.

Even the expectation of work email creates anxiety

This finding should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to the literature on email, detachment, and work-life balance, but a new study finds that the “[m]ere expectation of checking work email after hours harms health of workers and families.”

Employer expectations of work email monitoring during nonwork hours are detrimental to the health and well-being of not only employees but their family members as well… [according to] a new study… showing that such expectations result in anxiety, which adversely affects the health of employees and their families. “The competing demands of work and nonwork lives present a dilemma for employees,” [coauthor William] Becker said, “which triggers feelings of anxiety and endangers work and personal lives.”

Here’s the abstract of the Academy of Management article, “Killing me softly: Electronic communications monitoring and employee and spouse well-being:”

Using boundary theory and the affect-as-information framework, this paper tests the relationship between organizational expectations to monitor electronic communication during non-work hours and employee and their significant others’ health and relationship satisfaction. We theorize that organizational expectations trigger frequent employee micro-transitions during nonwork time, eliciting negative affect and leading to decreases in well-being. In a sample of 142 dyads of full time employees and their significant others, we found that detrimental health and relationship effects of expectations were mediated by negative affect. This includes crossover effects of electronic communication expectations on partner health and martial satisfaction. Our findings extend literature on work-related electronic communication at the interface of work and non-work and deepen our understanding of the impact of organizational expectations on employees and their families.

There’s decades of research on the importance of what psychologists call “detachment” for helping workers recharge, and having email hovering over their off-time is one of the most effective ways of destroying detachment. Any company that doesn’t have an explicit policy about after-hours email use— and either formally allows workers to turn off email after hours, or combines a better reason for requiring workers to check in than “the boss might have a brainstorm” or “the client might have a question” with some counterbalancing policy (like more vacation time)— is engaged in professional malpractice.

New things on vacations

I’ve been thinking a bit about vacations, partly because I’m off to England tomorrow for some research, some interviews, and a little time off with my wife.

Big Ben and Parliament

My latest piece on Thrive Global is an argument for ignoring your children while on vacation:

Since my kids were old enough to pack their own suitcases, I’ve had one ironclad rule for family vacations: “I’m not responsible for your feeling entertained.”

What this means is, you’re old enough to be bored if you want, or not bored. You can choose to engage, or not. You’re in charge of your feelings.

I also talk about the science of vacations with University of Groningen postdoctoral fellow Jessica de Bloom on my podcast. De Bloom is a psychologist who’s looked at a number of important issues– when our happiness peaks on vacation, how long the benefits of vacations last, and what factors go into making our time on vacation seem good or bad.

Kauai

I think her work is very interesting, partly because some of her findings are kind of counterintuitive, but it’s also worth using it (and all scientific research on human subjects) with a grain of salt. For example, when you measure the amount of happiness that being on vacation generates and how long those benefits last, her work indicates that shorter, more frequent vacations are better for us. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go on long trips: for example, you can get immersed in a culture, or forge deep friendships, or have other experiences that more than make up for the extra weeks.

My new Red Oxx bag

Travel and vacations can be complicated things, and  rewarding for all kinds of reasons; and I think what’s good about this work is how it helps us think more clearly about how we balance different demands and possibilities. The science doesn’t provide fixed recommendations; it clarifies options.

Anyway, I’m off to England shortly, to put some of those ideas into practice….

Rest, medical education, and Clifford Geertz’s lawn

The Center for Medical Simulation at Harvard discusses Rest in the latest episode of their podcast. It’s a great conversation: in addition to providing a good overview of the book, they talk about deep play, the challenges of making time for rest when you’re a doctor, and other practical things.

Listening to it, I was struck by how much of a role social norms play in making rest more or less available to busy people, by defining whether it’s okay to rest during the day, or rest when other people are still working (which these days means all the time). Robert Simon, the Center’s senior director for educational leadership and international programs (and hence no slacker) says,

I have really tried not to get into my email on the weekends. What I experienced was, “Oh, that’s good” from my colleagues— and then a sense of disappointment from time to time that I hadn’t read something that was important to them… the social pressure that comes from, “You’re resting? Really? You’re not measuring up to my expectations.” I would say something similar about going to take a nap during the day: “I’m working and you’re just sleeping?”

So I think it has to do with some kind of social contract that plays into that….

I try to work at home one day a week. Invariably, I rest for half an hour. Every time, I do that, and I feel so much better for it. That’s so easily accomplished at home, and not when I’m in the office.

I think that we can’t underestimate the value of synchronizing rest time in the workplace, whether it’s by having regular rituals, or shortening the workday. It eliminates the social stigma attached to rest, but also eliminates a lot of the pressure that flexible schedules place on individuals.

Host Jenny Rudolph also shares this great anecdote about Clifford Geertz:

For many years… [Geertz] rented the house next to us in Vermont every summer. And [by the end of his visit] the grass down by the lake right in front of his house… was completely worn down because hw walked back and forth, back and forth, for several hours every day, thinking about his books.

This is not a story I’ve ever run across, and doubt I ever would, so thanks, Jenny!

We do our “most important work when” we let the mind “wander at its own pace round the paths over which it has been rushing”

I recently discovered an essay by the surgeon William Heneage Ogilvie titled “In Praise of Idleness,” which I found while looking for stuff on Bertrand Russell’s essay of the same name. This “Praise of Idleness” appeared in the April 16 1949 issue of the British Medical Journal, and talks about the importance of down-time in the development of physicians:

My thesis is the very simple one that the man who works hard and conscientiously does his most important work when he outspans his mind and allows it to wander at its own pace round the paths over which it has been rushing, and that science is advanced further in a shorter time by the informal chatter of a few like-minded friends over cocktails than by the formal exchange of papers or by any number of congresses.

(As you’d expect from 1949, the piece only speaks about men. But Ogilvie was giving a talk in South Africa, and mentions that it had taken five days via seaplane to get there from London— “I have once again enjoyed the pleasures of idleness, the armchair existence of a five-days flight in a Plymouth flying-boat”, he says— so it really was a different era.)

Anyway, this is the part that jumped out at me:

We can recognize among our students two types. At one extreme we have the overpowering enthusiast who attends all lectures and takes down every word. After a hurried meal he goes to the library and pores over a textbook til the time comes for a ward round, when he listens eagerly to every comment and again enters it in his book. At the other extreme is the footballer who strolls into the lecture a little late and does not really get into his stride as a listener til he has filled and lit his pipe and gets it drawing to his satisfaction. [Ed: The image of the athlete smoking is kind of anachronistic, too!] His notes are sparse, and at rounds he is attentive but not verbose. Yet when it comes to a practical task the second one approaches it with a common-sense outlook; when he is asked a question whose answer is not in the textbook he is able to see through the problem to its essentials and give an answer that may not be the right one but that embodies his personal experience; at examinations he beats his more studious fellow student, in the practicals at any rate, and when he goes into the world he makes a better doctor.

Most of us have passed through both of these phases, through spells of hard conscientious work and through spells of idleness. In the first we have acquired knowledge; in the second we have built up wisdom. In the first we have been worthy workers. In the second we have made, or started the train that has brought us to, those personal contributions by which we hope to be remembered when we are dead. For the human mind which has been driven hard does its best work when the tension is outspanned and it is allowed to find the natural paths that shape themselves in idle periods.

This aside is also kind of striking:

For many of us the war has provided such a sabbatical break. We have worked hard even in uniform, but for long times we have remained idle. Then it is that we have discovered to our joy that the disconnected visions of our student days are all fiting into a pattern. Figuratively, we have sprung like Archimedes from the bath in which we have been dozing and have shouted “Eureka.”

This may sound unlikely, but one of the first studies that established that the restorative properties of time away from work (like on vacation) are determined less by how long you’re away, than by how mentally detached you are from your job and normal life, focused on reservists in the Israeli Defense Forces.

Anyway, the advice remains sound, even in an era of jet travel and women professionals.

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