If it feels like you spend more time working than ever, you probably do — and you’re not alone.
A 2014 Gallup poll notes that American full-time workers logged an average of 47 hours per week; those connected digitally to their offices often worked even longer. A report commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2012 found that public-school teachers typically work 53 hours per week. And factory workers frequently put in 12-hour days.
Another study indicates that 52 percent of U.S. workers didn’t take all their paid vacation days in the previous year, leaving an average of more than a week unused; 23 percent did not take a vacation at all.
Meanwhile, inflation-adjusted wages have remained essentially flat since 1978, while the portion of workers with employer-provided health insurance (from their own job or a family member’s) fell from 77 percent in 1980 to 69 percent in 2013.
“Productivity increases have only led to average hours worked per week creeping up and up,” says workplace-trends analyst John de Graaf, editor of Take Back Your Time. This suggests that real wages — in terms of hourly remuneration — are declining.
It’s not surprising, then, that many employees feel burned out. A 2017 Gallup poll reveals that more than half of the full-time workers surveyed admitted they were “not engaged” at work, paying only partial attention in the place where they spend the most time, while 16 percent reported being “actively disengaged.”
What’s going on?
“There are a couple of issues here, and one of them is money pressure,” says financial educator and advocate Ruth Hayden. “Worrying about money makes work so much more stressful and unhealthy.
“The other is the work itself — the pressure on people to perform. I keep hearing how hard everyone is working, how they’re feeling like they have a job and a half.”
Most of us are familiar with the increasing pressure of the always-on workplace, where the workday and workweek never really end. This skewed balance often leaves us frazzled and unfulfilled.
“If you were to design a workplace reflecting all the stuff we know about how the brain works, it wouldn’t look anything like today’s open-plan, distraction-amplifying spaces,” says Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less.
As for the hours we work, Pang says this: “Americans have a long history of valuing overwork. One of the ways to get ahead is to simply outwork everybody else.”
While none of us can single-handedly change the rules or the culture, we can revise how we relate to them. The following strategies can help you take care of your health and spirit on the job.
Bring Your Body to Work
When a workplace culture encourages long hours and competition, taking breaks to move and eat quality food throughout the day may not feel like a priority. Yet meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Happiness at Work, stresses the importance of listening to our bodies, whether we’re loading boxes or spending long hours at a desk.
“The human body is not designed to expend energy continuously,” explains Salzberg. “Our bodies regularly tell us to take a break, but we often override these signals and counter our fatigue with stimulants, including coffee, sugar, and so on.”
“People assume that being ‘knowledge workers’ means we have to interact with a screen all day, and that our bodies don’t matter, and that every moment of the day is like every other,” adds Pang. “None of this is true. There are biological rhythms to attention and creativity, and we are more productive if we recognize and work with them.”
To increase your focus at work, pay attention to those rhythms. If you’re sharpest in the morning, aim to schedule important meetings before noon and save repetitive tasks for the late-afternoon lull. This can increase your productivity — and leave you with more energy at day’s end.
And try to take a brief break every 90 minutes or so throughout the workday; this gives your brain a chance to recharge. Just standing outside and feeling the breeze for a moment can be restorative. (For more on why, read “Take a Break“.)
Finally, while scarfing down lunch at the desk as you frantically check email can now seem normal, our bodies usually disagree: They often rebel with digestive distress or poor sleep.
Even if all your coworkers eat quickly or skip lunch altogether, try reclaiming your meal break anyway. If you habitually eat in a rush, take a walk outside for some fresh air before lunch. Bring food from home and eat somewhere without a screen in front of you.
Personalize Your Work Environment
Unless you work strictly from home, your workplace likely reflects someone else’s design tastes. Yet research shows that empowering workers to decorate their environments can improve energy, mood, and even efficiency.
In his book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, economist Tim Harford describes a 2010 study in England that observed how recruits performed tasks in differently decorated environments, some that were spare and sterile, others that they could arrange themselves. Not surprisingly, the participants preferred spending time in the spaces they’d been invited to design. They also completed more work in the “empowered” spaces than in those decorated without their input.
“In a modern office environment, there can be good reasons why people aren’t in full control of their work — say they have to respond to their customers and boss,” Harford says. This demand for responsiveness, however, requires energized and engaged workers, and that’s all the more reason to give them control of their environments where possible.
A personalized environment will mean different things to different people: It could be a special stone on the desk or a full cubicle redecoration, complete with rug and designer lamp. If your employer doesn’t allow this, bring a framed photo or two to set up and take down each day. The objects matter less than the act of exercising some influence over your surroundings.
Set Clear Boundaries
Digital communication offers several benefits; it allows many of us to work remotely, for example. But it comes with a major caveat: Work follows us everywhere. Setting boundaries is crucial for our well-being and the health of our relationships, as anyone who’s ever interrupted a conversation to respond to a work email knows.
Good boundaries are also important for productivity.
“When we attempt to focus on multiple tasks simultaneously, what happens is that we switch back and forth between tasks, paying less attention to both,” explains Salzberg. This often means tasks take longer and we make more mistakes.
Working only during business hours protects the quality of your attention, both on the job and off. Set a firm end to your workday. If you’re tempted to check email after hours, try setting limits on devices. Shut off your phone during family time. Use an app, such as Freedom, to freeze your online access for up to eight hours. And above all, take all your vacation days — and leave work behind.
(Not sure how to set healthy boundaries? See “How to Set Clear Boundaries“.)
Manage Your Meetings
Meetings have become a huge time-eater in today’s workplace. More than half of the office workers surveyed in a 2017 poll labeled “wasteful meetings” as the biggest obstacle to getting their primary work done. A few simple measures can help:
- Conduct your next meeting while standing up. People tend to be sharper when they’re not sitting. They’ll often make their points more efficiently, perhaps because no one wants to stand around all day.
- Try scheduling your next meeting for half the time you’d normally take; see if it helps improve focus and efficiency.
- Set a clear agenda, and check items off the list as you proceed.
- Be selective about invitations. If someone’s presence isn’t crucial to a project, assume his or her time is better spent elsewhere.
- Make it acceptable (and shame-free) to call out those who go off point, repeat something already noted, or process out loud.
- End on time.
Most of us have a colleague we find challenging. While we usually can’t control who gets hired, we can control how we communicate — including with those who trip our triggers.
One useful approach for both workplace and personal relationships is called Nonviolent Communication (NVC). Developed in the 1960s by the late psychologist and mediator Marshall Rosenberg, PhD, NVC is based on the premise that all human behavior stems from universal needs and that a compassionate approach can free up energy wasted in conflict.
The process has four steps:
- Observe a conflict without generalization or judgment.
- Identify feelings without attaching blame.
- Locate the universal human need at play.
- Request — rather than demand —a positive outcome.
Instead of demanding a distracted colleague’s attention, for example, try expressing a need for shared focus in that moment. Or rather than complaining to a coworker because he’s always late for meetings, tell him that when he’s late it feels as if he’s not prioritizing the project.
This approach leaves room for mutual problem-solving. Perhaps someone who’s late is having transportation issues; someone whose attention wanders may be overloaded with tasks.
“Reframing in this way helps us to move from a victim position to an empowered position that increases our choices and our compassion,” says psychologist and leadership coach Yvette Erasmus, PsyD, LP. “And we rehumanize people we’d previously seen as ‘difficult.’”
Salzberg points out that good communication at work also includes how we talk to ourselves.
“We often lie to ourselves about our true feelings,” she explains. “We believe that if we tell ourselves the scary truth, we’ll be forced to explode our lives. This paranoia about being fully honest fosters unhappiness in the workplace.”
Still, Salzberg believes that honesty will lead to more peace at work, not less.
“I have a friend who described herself as someone who could never say no,” she says. When the friend spent time in meditation reflecting on times she wanted to say no but didn’t, “she would feel this near-panic rise up in her — and she learned that was her signal to say, ‘I’ll have to get back to you on that later.’ Then, once she had some space, she could say no when she needed to.”
Honor Your Values
Finding purpose at work is crucial to avoiding burnout, yet many workplaces restrict how employees dress, act, even communicate. It can be tough to find a sense of meaning when it feels as if your every move is being managed.
Still, according to some experts, finding purpose can be as simple as paying attention to your breath.
“There’s a saying: Live short moments many times,” says Salzberg.
“Don’t pick up the phone on the first ring. Let it ring three times and breathe. These purposeful pauses are just a way of returning to yourself and the moment, of stepping away from the pressure and the chaos, and of reuniting with yourself and your values.”
Salzberg also recommends reframing how we view our jobs, which is more than making the best of a bad situation. When we decide what makes our work meaningful, we’re better able to express our deep values, even within the job’s constraints.
“I understand that one of the greatest sources of happiness at work is a sense of meaning, but sometimes the meaning isn’t going to be in the job description,” she says. “Take someone who works in a call center fielding complaints. It may not be the job of her dreams, and on many levels might be really difficult, but she can find meaning in helping someone have a better day and treating them with love and respect.”
Know Your Exit Strategy
Human dignity depends on feeling some agency and control, and a healthy relationship with work means overcoming the sense of being trapped in a job. Hayden works with clients to reframe their careers, designing a résumé that focuses on their entire professional self rather than a dry biography.
“Rather than thinking they’re stuck — they don’t get paid enough and they can’t stand it — we talk about how to use their current position as leverage for the next one,” Hayden says. “I have them make a résumé that lists what they know how to do and what they’ve done, rather than what companies they’ve worked for.”
She recommends splitting your résumé into sections, such as “software and technology” or “education and literacy,” with bullets under each section enumerating your skills and experience in that area.
“People start to realize how smart they are,” she notes, “and where they can head as they think bigger.”
De Graaf suggests a similar process of taking stock of your resources and deciding what’s most important to you. He uses the metaphor of packing for a backpacking journey.
“The backpacker has to ask what’s essential,” he explains. “Usually, the big problem is that the person tries to bring too much stuff. America has a huge backpack right now — it’s struggling under it; it’s falling over. And it’s thinking that the answer is to put more stuff into the backpack, which also means we’re working longer and harder.”
In other words, if you’re holding on to a miserable job strictly because it pays a lot and then spending a lot to soothe your shattered soul, you might consider lightening your load.
Ultimately, the workplace is a meeting ground for humans where all our failings, idiosyncrasies, and blind spots are played out for 40-plus hours every week. Practicing self-care in how we conduct ourselves and communicate with others allows us to find more positive, constructive ways of interacting with our jobs — which is to say, our lives. And what could be more valuable than that?
Self-Care for the Self-Employed
Carving out an independent path as a freelancer, consultant, or entrepreneur can be an exhilarating journey toward self-realization. But self-employment comes with its own sources of stress and worry. These are a few best practices for maintaining your balance.
Create a routine. Self-employed people can get sucked into long hours that turn into cycles of burnout. When possible, set regular hours and create a dedicated workspace in your home or elsewhere (see below) that you can leave when you need to recharge.
Build in rest and exercise. You’re writing your own calendar, so schedule daily exercise, regular meals, and the occasional nap to restore your creativity.
Make a budget. Income can be erratic: Create a monthly budget reflecting how much you absolutely need to earn to cover housing, food, recreation, healthcare, and other basic expenses. Hayden recommends setting aside several months’ worth of these costs so you feel more room to breathe. If you suspect you’re falling short, devote some time each week to reaching out to new business prospects or clients.
Get out of the house. Working only at home can be distracting. Locate the best coffee shops and libraries where you can put in productive hours. And look into coworking spaces — many have flexible leasing plans and can be great places for finding new clients and cultivating the social benefits of the traditional workplace.
This originally appeared as “On the Clock” in the March 2019 print issue of Experience Life.