Lean Out

Lunch break > work.

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If you’re old enough, you probably remember the curious phenomenon known as “the lunch break.” I, for one, look back on this relic of work history with much nostalgia. When I think about the days when one-hour, out-of-office meals were considered normal, I think about being 19, working a summer job as a receptionist at developer’s office on Vancouver’s waterfront. Come 12 o’clock, I’d rush out to meet friends for delicious dim sum stops and gossipy sessions at sandwich bars overlooking the ocean, returning to my desk refreshed. I think, too, about a secretarial job I held at the University of British Columbia, between undergrad and graduate degrees. Every day when hunger pangs struck, I’d take my carefully-packed brown bag—beautiful cheeses, cut strawberries, lightly salted nuts, sparkling water—and sit out on the lawn, soaking up the sunshine and devouring whatever book I happened to be reading. These breaks were so relaxing, so deeply restorative, that I still pine for them today, almost two decades later.

The lunch break, of course, is a thing of the past. In its place is the unspoken expectation that we all cart around plastic containers of soggy salad—and shovel these wilting greens into our mouths at some random lunch-ish time, alone at our desks, staring at screens. A recent Dalhousie study showed that 39 per cent of Canadians do just that.

Forgoing lunch is how we signal that we’re dedicated workers in this era of lay-offs, outsourcing, and automation. We hope to send a strong message to our managers that we’re determined non-slackers, team players willing to go that extra mile, ambitious go-getters worthy of praise—and a regular pay cheque.

If you’re old enough, you probably remember the curious phenomenon known as “the lunch break.”

Meanwhile, business leaders like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg glamourize this nose-to-the-grindstone ethos, encouraging us all to “lean in,” even if it means monitoring our emails from our hospital beds, as she did, hours after giving birth. Others, like Yahoo president and CEO Marissa Mayer, insist the path to success is logging 130-hour, marathon workweeks, and being “strategic” about showers and sleep.

The race to see who can work hardest and longest is underway. We’ve all drank the Silicon Valley Kool-Aid.

Indeed, overwork is the new normal for white collar professionals, members of the creative class, contract and gig economy workers, and, increasingly, even junior office support staff. Our always-on, 24/7 work culture kicks off first thing in the morning when we roll out of bed and scroll through our emails, and wraps at bedtime, when we finally put our devices down.

But it’s not just smartphone connectivity; work hours have increased too. Canadians now work an average of 47 hours a week, and half of the population puts in another seven hours a week of work at home. This means half of Canadians are now working two extra days a week, every week, sacrificing their weekends at the altar of success (or survival). The nine-to-five work day is no more.

All these extra hours are causing health problems, ranging from heart disease and diabetes to depression and heavy drinking. (There’s a reason the Japanese have a word for death from overwork.) Plus putting major strain on partnerships, families, and communities.

But perhaps the most troubling aspect of the age of overwork is how pointless it is.

Take a look at the research, and you’ll discover that putting in extra hours is a spectacularly ill-advised strategy—for your life, your career, and even for your employer’s bottom line.

Log extra hours and you’ll accomplish less work, make more (costly) mistakes, earn fewer bonuses, experience more interpersonal problems on the job, and become a liability to your company, risking burnout and other stress-related health problems, which in turn cost your organization big bucks on medical leaves, employee retention efforts and/or retraining.

Time and time again, the science shows that to be successful we should work shorter hours, take more breaks, enjoy more vacations, and dedicate more hours to sleep, exercise, play, and human connection.

Clearly, it’s time to “lean out.” Let’s start today at lunch.

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June 28, 2017