Deliberate Rest

Designing rest for a busy world

Category: Culture (page 1 of 3)

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.

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.

“We can hack our technologies, and even our societies, so why not ourselves?”

Samuel Arbesman writes in The Atlantic about “ The Hubris of Biohacking:

this hacking ethos relies on the idea that if people can just collect more data to better understand themselves, perhaps they can engineer themselves to perfection. We can hack our technologies, and even our societies, so why not ourselves?

Alas, things are not so straightforward.

the existence of the dieting industry might offer a warning that even simply-stated biological goals aren’t always easily reached. Indeed, Arbesman notes, the problems with bio hacking are illustrative of a broader problem Silicon Valley has with complexity:

When it comes to hacker types parachuting into biology, especially for the purpose of improving the human body, failing to account for the inherent complexity of biology can mean failing to recognize that a messy system might not be easily modified in the way they want or expect

It seems to me that this particular blind spot, where you’re surprised that reality doesn’t give way in the face of your efforts at optimization or maximization, is one we’ve been seeing a lot of around here….

Saiid Kobeisy talks about the importance of rest in Vogue Arabia

One of the greatest things about a book like REST is that it goes all kinds of places I don’t, and gets picked up by all kinds of interesting people. Case in point: Lebanese fashion designer Saiid Kobeisy, the subject of the Fall 2017 Haute Couture Review in Vogue Arabia.

After talking about this season’s line (which features “Light structured dresses, high collars, playing on volumes, with a touch of gold, and ivory cream colors,” in case you were wondering), the interviewer asks what he’s been reading. Kobeisy replies:

I’ve recently been flipping through the pages of a book entitled “Rest” by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. It’s about getting more work done by working less. In our busy lives, rest is defined by the absence of work, but in this book, the author explains about “active rest” which means doing activities while resting and not necessarily sleeping or watching TV. Dismissing rest suppresses our ability to think creatively and truly recharge. So I’m definitely trying to fit in some “deliberate rest” in my schedule.


On the growth of zombie departments


When I was an undergraduate at Penn, one of the graduate students I met was an historian of American technology named Deborah Fitzgerald. Later, when I taught American technology I enjoyed walking students through one of her articles, on the history of hybrid corn and the deskilling of farmers (this was especially resonant when I was teaching at UC Davis, which had deep ties to California agriculture). Continue reading

“National Socialism in pill form:” Drugs and the ideology of perpetual work in the Third Reich

One of the images that always sticks with me when I think about the virtues of rest (and mention in my book) is that of Winston Churchill regularly taking afternoon naps, and Adolf Hitler staying up for days on end on a cocktail of meth, cocaine, and heaven knows what else. Any assumption that long hours inevitably lead to victory are challenged by the way those two lives played out.

But it turns out that, according to a new book, the Nazis were even more into performance-enhancing and energy-boosting drugs, particularly methamphetimine and cocaine, than I realized. Norman Ohler’s new book, brilliantly titled Blitzed, is the first detailed study of drug use in the Third Reich.

A review in The Guardian explains that while lots of drugs were banned on the grounds that they were decadent, etc., some drugs

had their uses, particularly in a society hell bent on keeping up with the energetic Hitler (“Germany awake!” the Nazis ordered, and the nation had no choice but to snap to attention). A substance that could “integrate shirkers, malingerers, defeatists and whiners” into the labour market might even be sanctioned. At a company called Temmler in Berlin, Dr Fritz Hauschild, its head chemist, inspired by the successful use of the American amphetamine Benzedrine at the 1936 Olympic Games, began trying to develop his own wonder drug – and a year later, he patented the first German methyl-amphetamine. Pervitin, as it was known, quickly became a sensation, used as a confidence booster and performance enhancer by everyone from secretaries to actors to train drivers (initially, it could be bought without prescription). It even made its way into confectionery. “Hildebrand chocolates are always a delight,” went the slogan. Women were recommended to eat two or three, after which they would be able to get through their housework in no time at all – with the added bonus that they would also lose weight, given the deleterious effect Pervitin had on the appetite. Ohler describes it as National Socialism in pill form.

Meth was issued to soldiers involved in the invasion France, so they could drive forward for several days without having to stop (and thus giving the enemy time to regroup). “Thereafter, drugs were regarded as an effective weapon by high command, one that could be deployed against the greatest odds.”

The Nazis may be worth a closer look as a great example of an ideology of superhuman performance even more extreme than what we see in today’s hardest-driving professions.

Clearly I need to get a copy of the book when I’m in London in November. Fortunately, I know the publisher!

“Rest sounds like a straightforward topic. We think we know what it is. Until you start to look closely:” The Quest for Rest

BBC Radio 4 has started a new three-part series on The Anatomy of Rest.

The first episode, The Quest for Rest, is being broadcast now. Here’s the abstract:

Rest sounds like a straightforward topic. We think we know what it is. Until you start to look closely and then it’s not so simple. Over the last two years Claudia Hammond has been working at the Wellcome Collection in London as part of a team called Hubbub – a group including psychologists, artists, poets, neuroscientists, musicians, historians and sociologists – all coming together to examine the topic of rest.

In the first of three programmes Claudia attempts to define rest. Is it the absence of work? Does it have to mean doing nothing? Claudia discusses the concept of rest with a historian, a composer, a poet and an English literature scholar.

One of the big ideas is that “rest is not simply a natural state,” as project director Felicity Callard says in the opening minutes of the program. “You need to understand economically the conditions under which certain people can rest, you need to look at how it’s changed historically, you need to look at physiological accounts of rest.” (That’s pretty close to a direct quote, give or take a word or two.)

The next two episodes will talk about rest in the modern world. You can listen online, but it seems impossible to embed the BBC Radio 4 player.

It’s a product of Hubbub, an interdisciplinary exploration of rest at the Wellcome Center that started in 2014. I visited there briefly when I was last in London.

Another product of the project is an exhibit on Rest and its Discontents that will open at the end of the month. I’m going to be in London in mid-November, and hope it’s still open when I’m there.

Another reason the world needs REST

A depressing piece on workplace suicide in The New Republic:

Workplace suicides are sharply on the rise internationally, with increasing numbers of employees choosing to take their own lives in the face of extreme pressures at work. Recent studies in the United States, Australia, Japan, South Korea, China, India and Taiwan all point to a steep rise in suicides in the context of a generalized deterioration in working conditions….

[T]oday’s globalized workplace is characterized by job insecurity, intense work, forced redeployments, flexible contracts, worker surveillance, and limited social protection and representation. Zero-hour contracts are the new norm for many in the hospitality and healthcare industries, for example.

Now, it is not enough simply to work hard. In the words of Marxist theorist Franco Berardi, “the soul is put to work” and workers must devote their whole selves to the needs of the company.

For the economist Guy Standing, the precariat is the new social class of the 21st century, characterized by the lack of job security and even basic stability. Workers move in and out of jobs which give little meaning to their lives. This shift has had deleterious effects on many people’s experience of work, with rising cases of acute stress, anxiety, sleep disorders, burnout, hopelessness and, in some cases, suicide.

Source: Working Ourselves To Death | New Republic

New study finds correlation between book-reading and longevity

A new study finds that people who read books live longer than those who do not. Researchers looked at “3635 people who were 50 or older,” and found that on average, “readers were found to live for almost two years longer than non-readers.”

Why is that?

In the paper, the academics write that there are two cognitive processes involved in reading books that could create a “survival advantage”. First, reading books promote the “slow, immersive process” of “deep reading”, a cognitive engagement that “occurs as the reader draws connections to other parts of the material, finds applications to the outside world, and asks questions about the content presented”.

“Cognitive engagement may explain why vocabulary, reasoning, concentration, and critical thinking skills are improved by exposure to books,” they write. Second, books “can promote empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence, which are cognitive processes that can lead to greater survival”, they say.

“We had seen some mixed effects in previous literature that seemed to indicate that there may be a survival advantage to general reading; however, we were impressed with the magnitude of the difference of effect between reading books and reading newspapers/magazines,” said Bavishi.

I’m not sure I find the survival argument that convincing– we’re not talking about people living by their wits in a Game of Thrones world– but still it’s an interesting result.

Source: Book up for a longer life: readers die later, study finds | Books | The Guardian

Rest and its discontents

If you’re in London, there’s a cool-looking exhibition on rest opening at the end of September at the Mile End Art Pavilion:

Rest & its discontents is a major new exhibition exploring rest and noise, tumult and work, through site-specific installations, artists’ moving image, performance, drawing, poetry, data, sound and music. The show draws on Hubbub, a two-year residency undertaken by fifty international artists, writers, social scientists, broadcasters, humanities researchers, scientists and mental health experts in The Hub at Wellcome Collection in London, and led by Durham University. Their investigations have revolved around the dynamics of rest, stress, exhaustion, cities, sound, noise, work and mind wandering.

The exhibit seems to be the culmination of a project which started a couple years ago (right as I was starting work on the book).

I briefly visited Hubbub on my last research trip to London, and it’s a pretty cool place.

« Older posts

© 2019 Deliberate Rest

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑