Overwork and Personal Productivity: the Reality

“Taking enough time to renew our strengths and resources is necessary to preserve and enhance the greatest asset we have, ourselves.” — Timi Gustafson, American health writer and dietitian.

“We often hear of people breaking down from overwork, but in nine out of ten times they are really suffering from worry or anxiety.” — Sir John Lubbock (1834-1913), British polymath and Member of Parliament.

“Make a distinction between work and leisure; don’t skip your holidays; take care of your health and well-being…” — Dr. Marianna Virtanen, lead author of “Long Working Hours and Cognitive Function: The Whitehall II Study.”

Say what you will about the slacker generation, most Americans don’t hesitate when it comes to hard work. A willingness to jump in and get the job done has been an integral part of our cultural ethic for centuries, and it remains a foundation upon which we build our lives. Hard work actually means something here. We live in a meritocracy, where ability and effort often matter more than how much money you happened to inherit or the social rank of your family.

But we often overdo it. On average, American workers take fewer holidays and work longer hours than workers in most industrialized nations. This has been especially true in the past few years, as the economy has contracted and both businesses and individual workers have gone into crisis mode.

Remember cartoon character George Jetson, who worked maybe ten hours a week? For about a century now, futurists have predicted that something like that would actually occur as technology advanced. But a funny thing happened on the way to the future: we traded our personal lives for greater productivity. Over and over, new inventions made it easier to produce more in the same amount of time—and so we’ve pushed the envelope until it shredded.

Even places like Britain and Australia (which we often perceive as the last bastions of a laid-back work ethic we secretly admire) are feeling the strain. Their newly ballooning workweeks drive both physical and mental stress that seems startling to the researchers who document it. For example, a recent study of British workers revealed that working too many 11-hour days can increase heart attack risk by more than two-thirds.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? But Americans tend to look at such data, say “Well, duh,” and move on. We work and work, rarely coming up for air…often to the point of exhaustion and bad health. We accept this as necessary, especially with the economy circling the drain. Even as our workweeks lengthen, we crack the whips on ourselves so we can keep our jobs and make the mortgage. American productivity has never been higher… but I believe this represents a false productivity, since it seems unsustainable over the long run.

However, maximizing your productivity at work does not mean you have to grind yourself down to nothing. Quite the opposite, in fact, as I’ve been saying for years—and as I think more and more people are starting to realize.

Consider what happens when you sharpen a pencil too often (assuming you still remember using such old-fashioned technology). You end up with a little two-inch stub, mostly eraser and lead, and you can’t handle it easily. It’s pretty much useless. So…how useful are you when you become like that over-sharpened pencil?

Clearly, you’ve got to take steps not just to recover your productive “length,” if you will, but also to protect your health and perhaps, in the long run, save your life. Reducing existence to little more than the commute to work, an insanely busy day, the commute home, sleep, lather, rinse, and repeat can’t work for long.

The word “recreation” breaks down to “re-creation” for a reason. Step back and “re-create” your life occasionally. Stop going into the office on the weekends. Take a hike (literally). Go to the art gallery. Reconnect with friends and family. Hoist a latte with your old college roommate. Build a ship in a bottle. In short, do something, anything that pushes your mind and body out of the work ruts and into something different, at least briefly.

The world won’t end if you take a break. And by break, I mean everything from trips to the water cooler to lunches to days off and vacations. You need the change of scenery, mentally and physically, to stay sane. You’re not a robot—maybe C3PO and Data the Android never tire—but who wants to emulate them? One has pronounced neurotic tendencies and the other lacks emotions.

We all need occasional breaks to help hone our sharpness. So don’t let your workload overwhelm you. Give yourself some time off so you can recharge your batteries and get your workplace productivity back on track. Your boss (and your body) will thank you.