Deliberate Rest

Designing rest for a busy world

Tag: work-life balance (page 1 of 2)

How conforming to ideology gets money-laundered into expressing personal preference

You can bet this is going into my next talk! Don’t know what #workmode is, but I spotted this windows near the University of Amsterdam.

A friend recently asked me how much things like our embrace of overwork and the M-curve in women’s employment (the phenomenon of women dropping out of the workforce after having their first child, and reentering after the youngest is in school) reflects personal preference, versus structural limitations.

I want to play around with the idea that maybe it’s all structure, all the way down: that even what we think of as personal preference is just money-laundering of ideology to make us feel like we have more control over our lives.

Why am I thinking about it this way? I just read a Harvard Business Review piece by Alison Wynn and Aliya Hamid Rao about the use of (or non-use) of flexible work programs at management consulting firms.

Management consulting firms offer some of the best workplace flexibility policies, including benefits like paid leaves and sabbaticals. Most employees, however, don’t take advantage of them. This seems like a missed opportunity, especially since management consultants continue to experience extremely high levels of work-life conflict, leading to problems such as low satisfaction and high turnover.

They interviewed people at these firms, and found that some of this was about avoiding flexibility stigma– the informal penalties that come from using flex work or part-time programs– but management consultants “also avoided flexibility policies in order to maintain a sense of personal control: they preferred the freedom to manage their work-life balance as they saw fit, rather than opting into a company policy.”

The problem is that this perception of greater control didn’t seem to alleviate their work-life conflicts. Our interviewees told us about many family sacrifices, health problems, and suffering relationships due to their busy work schedules. When asked why they didn’t try the flexibility benefits available to them, they dismissed them as unusable.

In other words, they weren’t any more successful at crafting their own policies, but they felt that because work-life balance is a personal thing, and that problem-solving is What Consultants Do, that they should be able to do this, and that their own bespoke solution would be better than the company policy.

As  Vivia Chen comments in The American Lawyer, “What malarkey that they think they’re in control.” I see academics doing something similar. They have a lot of freedom (in theory) to schedule their working lives as they wish, but there’s also enormous pressure to conform to a professional idea of being a high-performing, constantly-publishing thought machine; and so academics end up internalizing this pressure, and converting it into a choice they make, rather than something  that’s imposed on them.

This seems crazy to me, too, and I hope that my next book helps push the needle from “work-life balance is a personal thing for which we are are individually responsible” territory, closer to “work-life balance is a structural issue that requires collective action.”

(The longer version of their study is available here.)

“Medicine has become something of a stealth family-friendly profession”

Claire Cain Miller, who writes some great stuff about work and family for the New York Times, has a piece about mothers and medical practice:

Medicine has become something of a stealth family-friendly profession, at a time when other professions are growing more greedy about employees’ time. Jobs increasingly require long, inflexible hours, and pay disproportionately more to people who work them. But if one parent is on call at work, someone else has to be on call at home. For most couples, that’s the woman — which is why educated women are being pushed out of work or into lower-paying jobs.

But medicine has changed in ways that offer doctors and other health care workers the option of more control over their hours, depending on the specialty and job they choose, while still practicing at the top of their training and being paid proportionately….

Female doctors are likelier than women with law degrees, business degrees or doctorates to have children. They’re also much less likely to stop working when they do.

Flexible, predictable hours are the key — across occupations — to shrinking gender gaps, according to the body of research by Claudia Goldin, an economist at Harvard. As American employers struggle to adapt to the realities of modern family life and as younger generations of workers demand more balance, medicine offers a road map.

In the case of medicine, the rise of larger practices and hospitals as the main employers of doctors means that hours have become more predictable, there’s less time on call when you’re not at work, and “there are more people who can serve as substitutes and divide night and weekend work.”

Of course, there are still specialties where the hours remain crazy, and those tend to attract more men. Further, women work fewer hours than men on average, though that’s a difference between 50-hour weeks and 60-hour weeks.

As UCLA economist Melanie Wasserman says, “If employers are serious about improving gender diversity in their work force, they might want to think seriously about how they are structuring their jobs.”

Which raises the question: “if doctors have figured out how to work predictable hours and substitute for one another — for things like delivering babies, diagnosing diseases or saving lives — couldn’t other occupations, too?”

Some of the World’s Best Restaurants are Learning to Rest

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-baub6-9a414a

Cooking at elite restaurants is one of the most creatively and physically demanding jobs in the world. You’re constantly experimenting with new combinations of foods, looking for unusual and imaginative juxtapositions; reinventing ways of preparing familiar dishes; even developing new cooking methods (hello sous vide!). They have to turn creative breakthroughs into viable products: they must take something that took weeks to develop, and turn it into a dish that can be prepared by chefs on the line, night after night. Their work is open-ended: the quest for new dishes and ingredients and ways of cooking never stops. 

Cooking also demands perfection, minute after minute, day after day. It’s physically and mentally exhausting; you’re working in a high-stress atmosphere. The industry gives a lot of power to chefs who are visionaries, and some of them use that freedom to be imaginative, inquisitive, curious, and perfectionist; others just turn difficult, demanding, and even abusive. It’s also a field that has more than its share of burnout, substance abuse, and other problems.

So it’s been fascinating to discover that some of the best restaurants in the world have recently started implementing 4-day weeks, hiring more staff to give cooks and staff more time off, and limiting working hours. In this episode, I draw on talks given by Maaemo chef Esben Holmoe Bang and Faviken chef Magnus Nilsson at the 2017 Food on the Edge conference in Galway, the explore this trend. It’s a fascinating part of the story of shortening working hours, and a real inspiration.

Somehow I missed the pun “putting the REST in ‘restaurant’.” Oh well, the moment has passed.

Discussed in this Episode:

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.

Aging and work

Last week I was on BBC Radio 4’s morning show talking about REST and the need to change work and careers in a world where life expectancies are going up. Since then, I’ve seen several other pieces about this subject.

In the Globe and Mail, Linda Nazareth asks, “Should we consider delaying full-time work until 40?” As Paul Johnson has pointed out in our BBC Radio 4 conversation, you could see retirement as a system in which we bank the time we’ve saved by improved productivity at work, and spend it at the end of our lives. But, as Nazareth points out, longer lives should make us rethink retirement, and not just along the lines of raising retirement ages:

if everyone’s lifespan is getting longer (and hopefully healthier), maybe we should think about how traditional work lives could change. Some figure this should simply mean everyone working a couple of more decades, which would give them more income in the years when they are indeed retired….

Another model suggests that we think of work more creatively, not as something that we do intensively for several decades but rather as something that we dip in and out of over the course of our lives.

In conversations about the challenges of work-life balance, I’ve argued that one of the big problems we all face (but women in particular) is that we work in a system in which we’re expected to invest most intensively in our careers at exactly the same time we start families. And forget about prioritizing one over the other: we’re supporsed to work like we don’t have kids, while raising kids like we don’t have jobs.

I’m hardly the only one to notice this: in her article, Nazareth draws in part on the work of Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, whose work on extending careers could help ease these pressures was the subject of a recent article in Quartz by Corinne Purtill:

For people smack in the mad mid-life rush of managing full-time careers, dependent children, and aging parents, nothing feels so short in supply as time.

But there is time to get it all done, says psychologist Laura Carstensen…. The only problem is that we’ve arranged life all wrong.

A woman who is 40 years old today can expect to live another 45 years, on average, while 5% will live to see their 100th birthday. The average 40-year-old man will live another 42. For many people, most of those years will be healthy enough to continue work that doesn’t involve intense physical labor. So why are we still packing all of our career and family obligations into a few frantic decades?

Rather than a four-decade professional sprint that ends abruptly at 65, Carstensen argues, we should be planning for marathon careers that last longer but have more breaks along the way for learning, family needs, and obligations outside the workplace.

I wrote about how Australian historian Inga Clendinnen pioneered this kind of model decades ago, and that her example suggests that we think of work-life balance as something that plays out over years and decades, and that our lives would be better and easier (or at least we would be more forgiving and realistic about our lives) if we didn’t expect every day to be a jewel of work-life balance.

I also suspect that shorter working hours could help with this, by allowing more time for important but competing activities, and by offering a model of work that would support longer, more sustainable careers.

Rest with Alex Pang, Episode 4: Jessica de Bloom and the Science of Vacations

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-wn9tz-952bd4

Since we’re in the middle of summer break, I thought it would be fitting to take a break from the shorter hours interviews, and talk about something that’s on everyone’s mind: vacations.

Many of us have a conflicted relationships with vacations. We expect a lot from them, we spend a lot on them, but we don’t always get everything we want from them. When we go somewhere new, our default mode is to pack the days full of activities (this is doubly true if you have children), then we come home feeling like we need a vacation to recover from our vacation.

If we want vacations that are restorative, that recharge us and restore our energy, is there a better way?

In this episode I talk with Jessica de Bloom about the science of vacations. De Bloom is one of a number of academics who have been studying the psychology of restorative activities. I originally discovered her work when I was writing Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, and so it was a pleasure to talk to her in person about her work.

De Bloom’s work has some counterintuitive conclusions about vacations and breaks, and if you like getting away but feel like you’re not getting what you need out of your time away, this episode is for you.

Mentioned in this episode:

Rest with Alex Pang, Episode 1: Stephan Aarstol and the five-hour day at Tower Paddleboards

Digital Surfway

So the first episode of my podcast Rest with Alex Pang is now up: it’s an interview with Stephan Aarstol, the founder of pioneering stand-up paddleboard and beach lifestyle company Tower Paddleboards and author of the book The Five-Hour Workday.

Aarstol’s name has come up in a number of other interviews I’ve conduced with founders who have implemented shorter working hours at their companies, and so it made sense to start with him and the Tower Paddleboards story.

You can listen to the episode through the player below, or you can subscribe here (I recommend the latter). Either way, enjoy!

Esports and the rise of training facilities: Even professional gamers need breaks

(via zonetag) Sunday 1:19 pm 11/11/07
not the esports training center in the article

The Washington Post has an article about how esports franchises are starting to build training facilities for teams that offers some surprisingly useful lessons about work-life balance.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, esports is becoming a big thing in the gaming world, and in sports more generally. It took off as a professional, corporate activity in Korea in the early 2000s, and recently has expanded to the U.S. (In fact, some teams playing in the U.S. are from Korea [insert bad immigrants taking our jobs joke here]). If you’r not familiar with it, this video provides a good introduction to the business:

For a long time, many companies would set up “team houses in which players both work and reside,” but as aXiomatic Gaming CEO Bruce Stein explains,

When we formed the idea of a training center, it got [the players] out of training and living in the same environment…. We felt that was a little stifling. It didn’t give them a separation between relaxation and work. And it wasn’t the ideal setup for training with the coaches and the analysts. So, we built a facility.

Given that aXiomatic Gaming’s owners include owners or partners in two basketball teams, two baseball team, and two hockey teams, it’s not a surprise that they wanted to.

Picking up the spare
not really an esports training center

The center is like any other professional sports facility: there are playing fields, a film room for reviewing games, and a kitchen and chef.

What do the players think?

“I think this facility is insane…. Six years ago I was scrimming [practicing] out of like this tiny dinky house in Diamond Bar [in Eastern Los Angeles County], the cheapest possible place you could fit five people.

The coaches like it too.

Overall it fosters a more structured and work-focused environment compared to esports houses.

“Players would just wake up at 10:28 for a 10:30 morning and just crawl out of their beds to it,” assistant coach Jun “Dodo” Kang said, speaking about how it was in the gaming house.

Coach Nu-ri “Cain” Jang said, via translation, that, “Having living and working space in the same place makes it too relaxed for the players. . . . Separating that just helps players focus on being professionals. Like, you’re waking up and actually going to work.”

Kim “Olleh” Joo-sung, one of the Korean players, said the facility helps him stay more balanced.

We hear a lot about the benefits of being able to “blend” work and life, or professional and personal stuff, but there’s a big literature on the psychological and productivity benefits of work-life separation— of having really clear boundaries between work time and your work self, on one hand, and your personal life on the other.

For one thing, having time off is simply psychologically good for you. It gives you time to recover the mental and physical energy you spend at work. This is especially true for people who are in highly stressful jobs, or jobs that explode them to unpredictable, chaotic situations– ER nurses, doctors, and law enforcement are the obvious examples, but people who work in badly-managed offices can also benefit more from clear boundaries. Studies have found that people on zero-hour contracts, who can be ordered into the office on short notice, or are on call, have more trouble detaching from work, and their performance suffers over the long run. Having a physical distinction between work and home– like a training facility rather than a gamer house– goes a long way to enforcing those boundaries.

Predictable breaks and good boundaries between work and home life are good for short-term recovery, and for good long-term career development. There’s a reason people who discover what I call “deep play,” serious hobbies that are as engaging as their work, have more distinguished and longer careers than people who don’t: deep play gives them a degree of balance and control in their lives that they wouldn’t have otherwise. And people who are really ambitious, or get very involved in their work, need the benefits of breaks, and the structure of having them enforced by physical distance and time, even more than average workers. Your highest performers are also the ones most likely to burn out– and really cost your company– if you don’t get them out of the office on a regular basis.

Strong work-life boundaries also make it easier to enforce professional norms and get good performance. Like many people, I like the fact that work allows me to behave differently than I do in my private life; and that’s easier to maintain if those lives are actually separate. I know lots of employers like to talk about “bringing your best self to work,” but that assumes that your “best self” is the same whether you’re in the living room or the courtroom or operating room. One of the reason we find work and hobbies meaningful and rewarding is that those activities let us cultivate different best selves, or exercise parts of our selves in one context that we can’t in another.

The example of gamers moving to a training facility model is significant because these guys are the perfect workers of neoliberal corporate capitalism. They’re young men, unmarried, without families or even house plants. They have no lives, and it’s not clear that they really want them. They live and breathe their work. Most corporate sponsors (or employers) assume that to get the most of these people, you want to encourage those habits, and make it possible for work to overrun life.

But raw passion doesn’t make for world-class performance, and mere obsession can be beat by super-focused work. Combining great training and workplace with stronger work-life boundaries lets people work more intensively, at a higher level of performance– and that’s really what you want. You want them going home, so they can beat the guys who are sleeping under their desks.

Writing for Thrive Global

I’ve been writing every now and then for Thrive Global, and have a new piece arguing “Work-Life Balance is About Years, Not Hours.” It mainly talks about Inga Clendinnen, one of my intellectual heroes, and how her career as an author followed a pervious life focused on teaching and raising her two boys.
Continue reading

Is work-life balance a myth?

Yesterday I was on an episode of Al Jazeera’s “The Stream” to talk about work-life balance, rest and technology.

It was interesting doing a TV show, especially via Skype from my garage office. This is what it looks like behind the scenes:

About to go on Al Jazeera's "The Stream" to talk about technology and work-life balance.

I have a second screen and the webcam drops down front of it, so i can look at a Skype conversation I can come closer to making eye contact (i.e. staring at the camera not the display); I also had the names of the other participants written on a Post-It and stuck on the screen, as there are few things more embarrassing than forgetting your host’s name!

The studio-grade mic is one I bought a couple years ago, and I’m constantly surprised at how good it sounds.

Finally, I had a pair of earbuds that looped behind my head; I avoid the 1960s NASA mission control look when I can.

Most of the lessons I’ve learned doing radio apply to television appearances, but there are two differences.

First, you’ve gotta be really still. In lots of radio interviews I’m on Skype or my phone, and I can wander around the kitchen as I talk. I’m one of those people who likes to move as they talk or think (embodied cognition in action!), but you don’t have this outlet when you’re on TV. You gotta stand really still.

In fact, next time I’m going to make sure to sit down, because that’ll be easier to sustain for half an hour.

Second, never take your eyes off the camera, even if a wolverine is growling at your ankle. Even a brief look away is noticeable. It’s really striking.

But I’m learning.

The Stream” is also an interesting show because it’s one of those that incorporates feedback from social media, which meant I had several Twitter exchanges after the show with people.

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