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August 26, 2015

Starting Thought: What It Takes To Be Your Best At Work

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it takes to be my most productive self at work.

My thoughts have changed on this over time. Because I run a leadership consulting firm that is all about providing the very best service to our clients, I naturally went into this business thinking that one of the keys to success was to work a lot.  Bottom line: stop to eat (or not) and I’ll work until I drop, with little downside to myself or to my clients.


I no longer believe this. Maybe I’ve learned a few things since I started the business 15 years ago!

While I can still multi-task and crank like the best of them, I also know myself that if I don’t take a break here and there, step away from the phone, or go on a much-needed walk with my family, I lose perspective and can’t be my best at work.  This is true for all of us, I believe.

This is why several recent articles about the toll from overworking have caught my eye. One recent piece by New York Times columnist Tony Schwartz was fascinating, describing how work “slack” can be a competitive advantage. While I don’t care for the term “slack” because I think it sends the wrong message about the intention here, I appreciate the thinking.  Schwartz discussed the research of MIT professor Zeynep Ton, who found the single most important success factor for high-performing retailers was “slack” – the number of employees on a sales floor at any given time. When there are more employees, the sales representatives have more time to spend with customers. As a result, they feel more engaged, committed and productive at work, the research found.

Schwartz cited another researcher, K Anders Ericsson, who found that the optimal amount of time devoted to highly focused work is no more than 4.5 hours per day.

“In short, we perform better when we’re truly rested – whether that means from a sufficient night’s sleep or by renewing throughout the day,” Schwartz reported. “… The culture of overwork is slowly killing us.”

Those are strong words. Still, I think Schwartz is on to something. Another recent study by Harvard Business School Researcher Robin Ely suggested that the pressure of the 24/7 work culture –in which workers are available at all hours of the day and night – is placing a serious toll on today’s workforce. The pressures are particularly acute for highly paid professional services jobs such as law, finance, consulting and accounting, Ely reports.

Ely also concludes that companies often want to consider stress and work-life balance issues as primarily a working mother problem, but in fact working men are feeling just as much pressure. Instead of instituting “family-friendly” policies allowing for more flexible schedules and work-from-home options, employers should look more closely at the amount of hours they’re asking of their employees, she argues.

“Employers are trying to solve the gender problem the wrong way: The issue is “overwork,” not ‘work-family conflict,’” Ely wrote in a Huffington Post piece about her research. “Without a broader effort to understand the problem and the costs of overwork to employees, to companies, and to society, the underlying issues will remain.”  

Clearly, these are tough issues for companies looking to boost productivity and deliver results for impatient investors, yet the questions posed are good ones and definitely worthy of consideration for progressive companies. 

What are you doing to ensure you’re at your best, and not feeling burned out?

--David Grossman



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