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To Avoid Burnout, Work Less and Ignore ‘Productivity Propaganda’

Recovery time is key to innovation and output, says digital anthropologist Rahaf Harfoush.

Bloomberg Businessweek

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illustration of person laying peacefully on couch, disregarding work tasks around them

Photo by Illustration: Oscar Bolton Green for Bloomberg Businessweek

There’s burnout, and then there’s pandemic-induced burnout. For many workers, the professional environment has changed radically since Covid-19 disrupted life—but the intensity of their jobs hasn’t. Juggling full-time responsibilities, family life, and the stress of confinement makes the risk of burnout greater than ever.

Digital anthropologist and author Rahaf Harfoush, whose book Hustle & Float: Reclaim Your Creativity and Thrive in a World Obsessed With Work investigated the epidemic of burnout, says solutions must go beyond treating symptoms such as exhaustion and anxiety. Instead of merely prescribing rest, exercise, and healthful eating, she says it’s time to deconstruct the underlying cultural sources of burnout and do something radical: Work less. Here, she explains how.

In your book, you explore the origins of work burnout. What’s at play?

Since the Industrial Revolution, the dominant philosophy of work has centered around productivity as the only metric that’s important for success. As work culture developed, we’ve internalized the idea that any time that isn’t spent doing something is wasted time. Worse, we’ve been made to believe that if we aren’t struggling and hustling, we don’t deserve our success. And now, our relationship to work has become tied to our sense of self and self-worth. But this ideology runs counter to scientific research that says that in order for knowledge workers to do their best work, they need space and unstructured time.

How does our current health crisis complicate this dynamic?

The structure upon which we’ve built our work expectations has been hurting us for a long time. When you combine our culture of chronic overwork with the distraction inherent to technology and social media, at a time when people are forced to stay at home, you have a recipe for amplified anxiety and shame. This puts people on a fast-track to burnout.

How can working less break this cycle?

We have to build a system of work that reflects how our brains actually function and what our creativity needs. That begins with incorporating recovery into the process of work. You can’t be innovative if you’re not creative, and you can’t be creative if you’re stressed, exhausted, distracted, or sleep-deprived. Resting doesn’t mean diverting from your goals but rather making it possible to achieve them. I’m not saying don’t hustle. I’m saying, whether it’s a pandemic or not, it’s crucial to recover hard when you play hard.

What’s the particular danger of a lack of rest during this period of remote work?

This isn’t a normal time, so it shouldn’t be treated as normal work-from-home time. The lines between home and work, personal and professional, are blurred with an additional pressure to be productive since the thinking is that we all suddenly have more available time. This isn’t the case, and furthermore, working nonstop simply doesn’t work. We have turned busyness into a coping mechanism. Now, people are applying that to their personal time while sheltering at home, filling it with back-to-back Zoom calls, baking, workouts, and more activity. It’s important to use some of this time to process our emotions and reflect on the discomfort from all this productivity propaganda. Operating as usual will not only negatively affect your work but could compromise your health.

So how do we avoid operating as usual? And how do we get our bosses on board?

There are steps we can all take. For example, take 30 minutes to eat lunch without stimulation: no email, no Slack, no distraction. You can even start with 15 minutes! It’s up to us to carve out periods of time to give our cognitive capabilities the chance to unwind. Then consider managing up: Workers can be explicit in asking for expectations from their managers. Move from unspoken rules to written guidelines so everyone understands how to navigate this period of working from home.

Overhauling work culture won’t happen overnight. What do you recommend for those feeling burnout now?

Start by paying attention to discomfort. If you’re feeling restless, anxious, or guilty, sit with it and start to dig deep to understand what’s behind it. We have to give ourselves the time to shift from a more-is-better approach to internalizing the idea that recovery is as valuable as the work. No one can do that for us. Put recovery time in your calendar and stick to it. If you don’t, force yourself to write down why you didn’t. The real exercise in moving past work devotion and burnout is in understanding why we’re not giving ourselves that time. It isn’t due to a lack of knowledge.

I would also suggest timing your tasks to understand how much time you really need. This will allow you to make realistic to-do lists and avoid feeling overwhelmed. Remember: We are constrained by time, and yet we overestimate our self-expectations constantly. This is something that can be fixed.

What’s the hard truth workers need to remember?

If you’re a high performer and recovery isn’t an intentional and strategic part of your time and workflow, you’re only damaging your output in the long run.

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This post originally appeared on Bloomberg Businessweek and was published May 11, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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