Hurry Up and Slow Down

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal's Chin Music (16-Jul-2007)

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A solitary employee sits at an overflowing desk long after the sun has set and everyone else has gone home. The poor soul's hair and clothes are disheveled, a far cry from the clean and polished person who walked into the office in the morning. His neatly pressed shirt now adorned with a Rorschach pattern created by stale coffee dribbled from his lips. As his bloodshot eyes fight to focus in the waning light around his workstation, his head begins to sway in tune with the cleaning crew's floor polisher until finally it hits the keyboard with a loud thump.

This isn't an exceptional case for him. It's not the final rush to complete a project or to win the contract for a high-profile client. No, this is what his everyday life's been reduced to. What a total burnout.

But his employers don't see it that way because our little friend here is good at hiding his stress, and he wants to please his bosses. He wants them to keep saying things like: "You're a dynamo! You're a superman! Look at this guy: First one in, last one out. He doesn't even take a lunch break. He's a machine!"

Oh no, our soon-to-be burnout victim wouldn't dream of complaining about being overworked either. He doesn't want to lose his job or seem like he can't keep pace in the competitive business world. In other words, he doesn't want to reveal that he possesses all the "weaknesses" associated with being a member of the human race. After all, there's a queue of eager professionals nipping at his heel, just waiting for an opportunity to usurp his position. So he swallows his troubles.

Employee's are constantly pressured to get more done in fewer hours, and are expected to deal with stress on their own time—what little of it they have. Slowing down is outright blasphemy in our corporate culture. And if employers were to notice employee stress, their only action would be to ignore the problem, or worse, to encourage them to keep moving forward with empty attaboy's or attagirl's with all the sincerity of a used-car salesperson.

According to a Cornell University study, sleep-deprived employees cost U.S. industry $150 billion per year in reduced productivity and fatigue-related accidents. Some of the more enlightened companies are beginning to recognize the benefits of keeping their employees healthy. But it's sad to think that the potential for worker burnout won't prompt employers to act until a dollar figure is placed on the negative impacts of burnout on their workforce.

Sleep experts and stress management professionals have claimed for years that a midday power nap can improve and revive employees' concentration. This isn't a novel idea though. Certain European cities have long had bylaws upholding citizens' rights to take an afternoon siesta. Although this trend has caught on in a number of North American companies, I don't think it will ever gain widespread acceptance in a corporate culture that promotes the myth of multitasking and a "forward motion at all costs" mentality. It's a corporate culture that sees the need to rest as a sign of weakness. It's a corporate culture where the first thought isn't an empathetic "are we overworking our employees?", but rather a firm "these guys can't cut it."

Instead of taking care of employees and allowing them time to recharge their mental batteries, we find artificial ways to deal with productivity: Build more technology.

Technology professionals boast that new tools are increasing worker productivity, enabling users to recover precious personal time to kick the soccer ball around with lil Timmy and Sue or to relax on the porch with the gentle sounds of Chopin's Nocturnes playing in the background. It's a brilliant marketing ploy, but we're fooling ourselves if we think that new technologies will give us more personal time.

Technology hasn't given us any more personal time for enjoyment, it has only allowed us to cram more work into the time we get back. This happens because it's what employers expect of us. And when we begin to do more, more is expected of us. It's a vicious cycle. And to compound the problem, many employees are unknowing slaves to connectivity—the Web, e-mail, cellphones, Blackberries—and are sacrificing sleep and a personal life in the name of so-called "productivity," a word that has reached satirical proportions. I've overheard businessmen carry on work related conversations on their cellphones in washroom stalls. I guess they were taking care of business in more ways than one.

The problem with many corporate cultures is that people have become commodities, traded and replaced like computer equipment. Can't cope with the workload and the stress? They'll find someone who can. Employers may as well install a USB port into employees' navels and plug them in every morning.

It's time we change corporate culture to recognize the need for rest and relaxation not as a sign of weakness, but rather as a normal function of being human. Companies need to view employee health as an essential part of their corporate culture, and not just a PR stunt. But until that time, most overworked employees will turn to good old caffeine to stay alert, believing that the magic coffee bean will cause some sort of miraculous transformation within them. Unfortunately, that's a quick fix. Caffeine does little to increase mental capacity and attentiveness. Sure, caffeine gives you a buzz, but so does a Taser gun—and you just know that somewhere out there an executive is flipping through a Taser catalog as we speak.

Copyright © 2007 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
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