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Workaholics Go Further, Faster (And Other Myths From the Overwork Culture)


Has this ever happened to you?

There’s a huge business decision that has to be made — one that will impact numerous people and have lasting impacts on the company at large. You’ve held meetings, consulted with advisors, built out charts, and researched every angle you can think of. And yet you still don’t know which way to go.

So you do the only thing you can think of. You give up. Not for good, but to take a weekend break and clear your mind.

Monday morning rolls around, and all at once the decision is crystal clear.

At one time or another, we’ve all experienced some version of this scenario. The taxing project you’ve been dragging your feet on and are suddenly able to knock out in an hour. The once-impossible milestone that becomes unexpectedly achievable. The massive decision you make swiftly and confidently after weeks of uncertainty. All are the result of the same scientific phenomenon:

You got a good night’s sleep.

As Harvard clinical professor John J. Ratey explains in Go Wild, the brain is best able to tackle big issues when it’s at rest. “For every two hours your brain spends taking in information during the day,” he explains, “it needs an hour of sleep to figure out what it means.”

Unfortunately, many of us aren’t getting it.

Ratey’s observation is one of several scientific theories that fly in the face of a commonly held belief, particularly at fast-moving, innovative companies like those in the tech industry, that working more and sleeping less is the real key to success.

In fact, the opposite is often true.

Allow me to explain …

Why too much work is bad for your bottom line

By now, you’ve probably heard all about Elon Musk’s $20 million settlement with the SEC. You may have read his tearful interview with the New York Times, and heard how his recent Twitter mishap has been attributed to a pattern of obsessive overwork.

What you may not have heard about is the body of longstanding research that shows just how dire the negative impacts of workaholism can be — not just for employees, but for a business’s bottom line. Would Musk have made such a catastrophic mistake had he left the factory at 5 p.m. or started the morning by spending some time with his kids?

Several studies cited by Harvard Business Review have shown just how counterintuitive it is to create a culture built around spending an excessive amount of time tethered to work. For starters, there’s no proof that employees working 80 hours a week accomplish more than colleagues who don’t. Instead, the stress and exhaustion those 12- to 16-hour days cause can lead to other outcomes like high turnover and mounting health insurance costs.

And those baffling mistakes your teams sometimes make? They may very well be from a lack of sleep. Only 1-3% of the population can sleep five or six hours a night without suffering some performance drop-off.

Here’s the real kicker: This is often true even for employees who appear to be highly engaged and in love with their jobs.

In yet other research described in Go Wild, individuals who believed they were functioning well on four or five hours of sleep each night were asked to account for their time and performance. They quickly discovered the real reason they were working 20 hours a day: Sleep loss was making them so inefficient that they had to do everything twice.

These studies further validate a long-held belief here at Emplify: If you want employees to be at their most engaged and reach their highest potential, you have to give them opportunities to rest.

How rest drives higher engagement at work

At Emplify, we help businesses accurately gauge the hearts and minds of employees by measuring three psychological conditions and 14 drivers of engagement. Each one has been carefully vetted and meticulously chosen by our research team for its impact on true engagement at work.

One of those key drivers is “rest.” Why? Whether or not they’re aware of it, all employees need time to rejuvenate and refresh — both by taking time off and by finding balance throughout the course of the regular workweek.

Spending time away from work can lead to a bevy of benefits including greater mental clarity, fewer mistakes, and faster decisions. That may stand in stark contrast to the common belief that an “always on” approach to work makes people more productive and companies more profitable, but we have seen time and again how the opposite can be true. Our engagement specialists have seen engagement scores increase by as much as 10% when companies take the time to understand what employees truly need to be successful. And as we’ve mentioned before, going against the grain is often a good thing.

If you’re starting to feel like your company is placing too great an emphasis on the wrong priorities, take heart. There’s plenty you can do to influence change — and we’ve explored many of the most effective strategies in our Employee Engagement Trends report. In addition to key engagement drivers like rest and trust, we cover the psychological conditions employees need to thrive. You’ll also find plenty of insights on what’s happening at other companies across industries.

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