The importance of downtime in employee performance and mental health

By Joanne Turley · 29 October 2019

“People who cannot find time for recreation are obliged sooner or later to find time for illness” – John Wanamaker.

In the words of the great BA Baracus, from the A-Team: “I pity the fool!”

I personally pity the fool that sees working long hours, checking and responding to emails at all hours of the day and even on holiday as some kind of badge of honour. Yet so many people still do and too many organisations are turning a blind eye at best and actively encouraging it at worst.

In Japan, death by overwork is so common they have a name for it, “Karoshi”.

The major causes of death are heart attack and stroke brought on by stress and poor diet. The scientific evidence for taking a break from work to maximise productivity is unequivocal. Downtime restores attention and #motivation, fosters #creativity, improves work #efficiency and is essential for #peak performance. Think about the word recreation for a second and break it apart.

Re…creation.

It’s a chance to recreate ourselves. Athletes see rest as the most essential element of their training.

Rock climber Beth Sopwith advocates it: “The best way of dealing with stress is to get a proper amount of sleep. It’s not just the amount of sleep, it’s also the when and the how. Try to get to bed before 10 o’clock. It doesn’t work if you get to bed at one o’clock and have nine hours sleep.”

In a survey of several hundred full and part-time workers, published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology in 2016, the researchers found that employees who reported greater workplace tele-pressure, missed more days of work and experienced more symptoms of mental and physical burnout, compared to their less e-mither [sic] obsessed colleagues.

If these guys can do it so can you.

The Boston Consulting Group are one the world’s most successful consulting companies and they have got it right when it comes to helping their staff perform consistently at or near the peak of their capabilities.

How do they do that? They tell them to go home.

After a four-year study in which consultants were forced to take various amounts of regular time off from one night a week, to one day a week, the company rolled out the practice in more than 2,000 teams, in 66 offices across 35 countries. Why? Because they found that their people, their single biggest asset, became more willing to work and were more effective when they were at work. After just five months, they reported feeling happier and more satisfied with their work, were more likely to see a long-term future with the firm and were prouder of their accomplishments. So rather than spending £’000s on expensive staff engagement initiatives and high staff turnover, maybe we should just tell them to go home and give them a break.

Volkswagen have done it by restricting emails on work phones during out of office hours. France and Germany have restricted after-hours work communication in some sectors too.

Here’s how:

  • Space out your holidays throughout the year to take regular breaks – long weekends are great
  • Simple daily things like taking a walk, naps and meditating can leave people feeling refreshed
  • Take a leaf out of Ghandi’s book and be the change you want to see in the world – put a polite but firm out of office on setting on when you will respond and citing the benefits of mentally detaching from work
  • Work is never ending – like the internet you’ll never finish it – so go home on time, because if you don’t you might just have to make time to be ill. Are you prepared to pay that price?

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