Want employees to be more engaged? Stop fixating on productivity — and start optimizing their leisure time

Aug 22, 2019 /

Humanity is in short supply at many workplaces, where it’s been pushed out by automation and a culture of overwork. Social psychologist Adam Waytz writes about a surprising way to restore humanity and also improve employee engagement: Giving people the time and encouragement to unplug completely from their jobs.

As our world becomes more and more automated, it’s becoming less and less human in the process. Companies and organizations that strive to restore humanity in the workplace need to do two things: provide people with labor that capitalizes on their distinctively human abilities and give them sufficient time off so they can detach their identities from work.

Because leisure is something that robots cannot master, experiencing leisure is one important way in which employers can help people feel like they’re much more than cogs in a wheel, according to social psychologist and Northwestern University professor Adam Waytz. Below, he shares different efforts aimed at enabling people to disconnect from work — and get in touch with their humanness again.

Embracing work to boost feelings of personal meaning and self-esteem has led us to overwork ourselves. In fact, University of Chicago psychologist Christopher Hsee and colleagues documented this tendency to embrace busyness and avoid leisure, or what they term “idleness aversion.” Their studies gave participants a choice between idleness and busyness. For example, they could either complete a survey and then wait out the remaining time of the study (idleness) or they could complete a survey and then deliver it to a faraway location (busyness). Most people chose busyness, even when the task was more arduous.

A generous vacation policy allows companies to communicate two messages to employees: “We care about your well-being” and “We trust you to get your work done.”

Work from Ed O’Brien and Ellen Roney of the University of Chicago further illustrates people’s attitudes towards leisure and labor. In their studies, people received both the opportunity to experience a leisure activity (e.g., eat snacks, get a massage) and to perform labor (e.g., take a midterm exam) — and they were also able to determine the order in which they’d like to engage in the two activities. People consistently choose labor before leisure, believing looming work would distract them from their enjoyment of leisure. As it turned out, regardless of whether leisure occurred before or after work, participants found it equally enjoyable.

Several companies have tried to counter the 24/7 workplace with their flexible vacation policies. Vacation is essential, and research shows it improves productivity, worker success and workplace happiness. Beyond its restorative power, a generous vacation policy allows companies to communicate two humanizing messages to employees: “We care about your well-being” and “We trust you to get your work done.”

Companies like Netflix, Virgin America and Best Buy have set up unlimited vacation policies at various times with mixed results. My MBA students who’ve worked at organizations with such policies say people end up taking less time off than they would otherwise. Management scholar Lotte Bailyn concurs, “People take less time off because they feel they’re not sure if this is really a commitment to them or [if] this is more a PR thing.”

One survey showed that US employees, on average, took just half of their allotted days off, and 61 percent reported working on vacation.

Many of my students agree, adding that when companies have unlimited vacation policies, it can become a competition to see who can take the least time off. A 2014 survey conducted by showed that US employees, on average, took only half of their allotted days off, and 61 percent of these employees reported working on vacation. Katie Denis, a researcher on the survey, noted that millennial women in particular “tend to have more pronounced guilt and feel they don’t want to burden people with their time away.”

Some companies are experimenting with creative incentives to encourage people to take time off. Tech company FullContact pays workers a $7500 stipend to go on a vacation with one stipulation: Employees are not allowed to work on vacation. If an employee is found to do any work — even open a single work email — on their vacation, the employee must return the entire stipend. Shortly after the policy was implemented, time off increased and turnover rates dropped.

Other companies are making vacations mandatory. Social media platform Buffer, anticipating problems with unlimited vacation policies, initially paid employees $1000 to take their vacations. After they discovered 57 percent of employees took less than 15 days, they started a mandatory three-week vacation policy. Job site Anthology gives employees two weeks of vacation on top of official holidays, plus an additional “bank” of five days. If an employee hasn’t taken any vacation time in a three-month period, the company forces them to use a bank day.

Of mandatory company socializing, one woman said, “It’ll be like ‘have a difficult day, go to happy hour and get drunk and exhausted together, come back to work the next day still drained.’”

Another way companies are combating people’s obsession with work: They’re reducing email outside normal working hours. Electrical parts distributor Van Meter shuts off employee email accounts when they take vacation. German automobile maker Daimler has gone further, offering employees a program that automatically deletes emails they receive while on vacation. This program sends an auto-reply to the sender explaining their email will be deleted and provides contact information for another employee if the matter is urgent.

In this same spirit, France passed a law in January 2017 banning work email after hours; it requires companies with over 50 employees to grant their employees the “right to disconnect” from work email after they leave for the day. More recently, the South Korean government rolled out an initiative that automatically shuts down employees’ computers at 8PM on Fridays, to prevent working on the weekend. The strictness of these examples shows how obsessed people are with work and that the affinity for busyness and overwork is not exclusively a US phenomenon.

Several companies are attempting to infuse leisure into employees’ work lives with staff retreats, catered lunches, holiday parties, mixers and happy hours. However, these events often fail to improve cohesion and engagement for several reasons: People tend to cluster with those they know instead of freely mixing, they force people to awkwardly fuse business and personal relationships, and most conversations remain focused on work.

Organizations have designed initiatives to fight employee exhaustion and dissatisfaction, yet simply sending people home might be more effective.

I discussed the “mandatory fun” phenomenon with someone I’ll call Laura, an employee at a nonprofit focused on workforce development for young adults. Via email, she said, “On one hand, it is nice to have the support of people that you feel genuinely close to, but it also becomes suffocating. It’ll be like ‘have a difficult day, go to happy hour and get drunk and exhausted together, come back to work the next day still drained.’” In other words, work-related socializing doesn’t end up providing truly restorative leisure.

Organizations have designed these initiatives to fight employee exhaustion and dissatisfaction, yet simply sending people home might be more effective. This occurred to me when my brother — then a resident — told me how medical schools were seeking to address emotional burnout among doctors and nurses. He saw frequent notices for “resilience training” sessions, particularly in critical care units where mortality and morbidity are high. Ironically, he told me, much of this training involves ruminating on stressful experiences, reliving difficult interactions with patients, and, of course, remaining at work. Such resilience programs seem to have some benefits, but I’d like to see how their effects compared to sleep, watching TV, playing a game on a phone, or anything that pulls people away from their actual jobs.

Taking leisure seriously is a necessary weapon to fight a work-obsessed culture in which people fuse their personal identities with their jobs. Time off helps employees offset the demands of increasingly complex 21st-century work that calls for them to draw upon multiple skills. But championing leisure requires some bravery from the leaders of companies, because it means forfeiting control over employees’ time — and placing it in employees’ hands instead.

Excerpted from the new book The Power of Human: How Our Shared Humanity Can Help Us Create a Better World by Adam Waytz. Copyright © 2019 by Adam Waytz. Reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved.

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