We’re working ourselves to death.
Do we even know why?
In Take Your Pills, a documentary focused on the use of prescription stimulants in the U.S. as a means of achieving peak performance in a hypercompetitive culture, an anonymous young Financial Analyst from Goldman Sachs underscores this point.
His colleague landed in the hospital after an exhaustion-induced seizure, where his parents begged him to quit his 80-to-100-hour a week job. He tried to keep working from the hospital.
Goldman Sachs has over 35,000 employees. What could a junior analyst be working on that was so important it was worth risking his health and life?
We live in a society where this story is the norm. I can count off five people I know who’ve been in similar situations. I’m one of them.
Just last year, I suffered exhaustion-induced fainting spells. My company at the time was under-resourced, and I felt responsible for meeting our objectives no matter what. But after a particularly nasty fall, I paused and asked myself a question. Why?
It came down to a combination of fear of failure, social pressure, and pride.
Tech culture valorizes “the hustle,” “the grind,” and “10Xers.” Those who can’t keep up are called weak, out of place, uncommitted, and simply lesser. That wasn’t the identity I wanted for myself.
But I also couldn’t come up with a good reason why I was working myself into the ground. The truth was that much of what I worked on was a “nice to have” rather than a “must have.” I believe the same to be true for virtually everyone I know who’s faced similar work demands.
It was this realization that first led me to publish my full-scale analysis of the American overwork problem in an essay called “To Grow Talent, Don’t Move Fast and Break Things — Move Slow and Build Them.”
The essay breaks down how overwork negatively impacts performance, retention, morale, and individual health, but leaves one question unanswered: What is our productivity for?
These are the facts.
Americans collectively work four weeks more a year than in 1978 but don’t earn much more than they did then. Underpayment pushes people into gig work and “side hustles” that lengthen the work day.
Overwork stresses American workers out, accounting for approximately 80% of doctor’s visits and 550 million lost workdays a year. 30% of workers get less than 6 hours of sleep, and the prolonged state of stress and exhaustion is responsible for about 50% of voluntary turnover.
To keep up, American adults are taking prescription stimulants normally used to treat ADD and ADHD. 4% of adults take a form of methylphenidate, which is the active ingredient in Concerta and Ritalin.
Adderall use is even higher, accounting for one-third of the ADHD Market. In fact, a study of 11 million U.S. workers found that prescription stimulants were second only to marijuana in appearances on drug tests. The active ingredient in Adderall is amphetamine, which is addictive and dangerous for prolonged use, especially to the liver.
So, I’ll go back to my question. Why?
Unemployment is at record lows, which gives workers the upper hand. Technological advancement has eliminated many time-consuming tasks (and jobs), theoretically freeing up time within the work day. There’s even evidence that employees don’t have enough to do related to their own roles and responsibilities.
Our productivity is fear-based — fear of being perceived as lesser, fear of being socially rejected, fear of losing the money we need to live and the identity we’ve built around our work.
Millennials are the most stressed out generation in the workforce, the most likely to be on prescription stimulants, and the most likely to talk about “work life integration” rather than “work life balance.”
This is the same generation that experienced the Great Recession and learned the world is a hypercompetitive place where student loans are normal, but a stable source of income isn’t.
We’ve grown up with coaches, tutors, extracurricular activities, SAT prep classes, and aggressive standardized testing, all meant to get us into college and then into a job. We don’t take either for granted, nor do we ever want to be outcompeted.
But what if at work, instead of running away from fear, we were running towards hope?
What if our productivity was purpose-based?
“We drive and are driven. But time’s stride–think of it lost in the ever-remaining. All that’s hurrying will quickly be past; only what lingers grants us credence.” – From Rainier Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, “22”
In Aldous Huxley’s utopic vision, Island, he depicts the fictional country of Pala as a place where everyone works, but only in service of self-actualization and maintaining a healthier, happier, and more politically stable society.
The result is a different approach to people and labor.
In the novel, the enlightened Dr. Robert tells the English protagonist:
“You think first of getting the biggest possible output in the shortest possible time. We think first of human beings and their satisfactions. Changing jobs doesn’t make for the biggest output in the fewest days. But most people like it better than doing one kind of job all their life. If it’s a choice between mechanical efficiency and human satisfaction, we choose satisfaction.”
In Pala, workers don’t do the same repetitive tasks — incidentally, what makes prescription stimulant use popular is its ability to make such tasks less boring — and often switch off between activities. They choose the work based on their needs and aspirations, and the country still reaps the rewards of their labor, though perhaps not as quickly if they focused on just one form of work.
They also spend more time on self-actualization through family, friendships, meditation, physical activity, and other wellbeing-related areas than on work.
In other words, for individuals, work is part of a holistic strategy to find purpose and self-knowledge. For the country, it is part of a long game when it comes to productivity — less now, but more later when everyone is healthy, happy, well-adjusted, peaceful, and civically engaged.
Here’s the thing — the Palanese system worked because both the employees and the employers agreed work should be purpose-driven. Individuals can manage priorities, set boundaries, and pursue purpose up to a point. However, when faced with company demands, their ability to control these factors decline.
That’s why companies need to ask the same questions as their employees. Namely, what is this productivity actually for? Does this productivity actually matter?
If your engineers stay an extra 10 hours a week to build a feature, can you ensure that means more revenue will pour in, customers will not switch to competitors, or a major problem will be solved? Can you show that the work your junior teams do is reviewed and used to drive meaningful changes for the better in the world?
This is a conversation that needs to happen between employers and employees consistently. If we must live in a system of overwork, the very least we can do is know what it’s for and why it matters.
As the authors of Collective Genius found in their research:
“People are willing to face the personal challenges of innovation where they feel part of a community engaged in something more important than any of them as individuals and larger than what they could accomplish alone.”
Still, I don’t think we must live in a system of overwork.
Successful companies are already implementing strategies that stimulate greater productivity from their workers while still valuing their human satisfaction over their mechanical efficiency. Among these strategies are: capping work week hours, paring down objectives, and rewarding healthy behavior.
Research shows that productivity steeply declines after 50 hours of work and almost completely halts are 55 hours. Expecting employees to work more than that isn’t just bad practice for their overall health and wellbeing, it doesn’t even make sense. They’re more likely to make mistakes, get hurt, and turn in bad work, as well as just not work at all.
Project management and team communication software company Basecamp is well-known for enforcing 40-hour work weeks, along with 4-day weeks during summer. This rule emphasizes results over hours, and has led to the development of a sustainable culture and a profitable company.
Tower Paddle Boards, a maker of stand-up paddle boards, took the capped work week hours even further by encouraging employees to work 5-hour days. The expectations for productivity remained the same — get as much done, just in less time. The employees rose to the challenge, and the company grew exponentially, making the Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing companies list.
Companies shouldn’t kid themselves — one employee working 80 hours a week does not equal the same amount of productivity as two working 40 hours each. That one person gets less done, burns out sooner, and is more likely to leave. That’s not saving money; it’s losing it.
There are two choices, then: hire more people, or pare down the number of asks from each person. Company leaders must understand clearly what they need to achieve to succeed, and what is just extra.
Asking two simple questions will help bring what matters into focus:
Companies need to work with their employees to ask both questions every day and identify the 20% of objectives that drive 80% of results for the company.
The best managers and leaders are coaches. As Daniel Coyle finds in The Talent Code, coaches “are creating and sustaining motivation [by] teaching love.”
To create the most productivity in employees, leaders need to provide the encouragement that teaches them to love the work, which will increase the motivation needed to do it well. That means rewarding workers when they deserve to be rewarded.
In a culture where employees are pressured to make unhealthy work decisions, it’s the responsibility of leaders to reward those who make healthy choices.
Recognizing employees who do a great job and leave at 5:30 pm to take their kids to soccer practice, encouraging teams who just finished a major project to take the rest of the day off, and calling attention to people who find ways to solve problems in less time at all-hands meetings are all great examples of how to coach for sustainable work environments.
During a particularly frenzied summer, I was walking from a Saturday morning continuing education class to go log extra hours in my office. My friend accompanied me on the walk from class as I rattled off all the things I needed to do for my various work commitments.
Quietly, she said, “I’m going to give you advice my Qigong teacher told me years ago. Today, give 70%.”
The advice felt so counterintuitive, so unthinkable. Shouldn’t I be giving 110% each day?
But giving more than you have is untenable. For the sake of future productivity, sustainable productivity, sometimes you need to work less and give more attention to the other aspects of life.
So, today, why not give 70%?
Alida Miranda-Wolff is the Founder and CEO of Ethos, a talent strategy firm for tech companies focused on driving company performance by shaping talent and developing culture. Follow her work on Twitter and VentureBeat.