By Mark Cox
Is there anything more awkward than being caught goofing off at work?
You know the drill: You’ve been working for an hour on a tough task. Your brain’s frazzled, so you take a couple of minutes to check your Instagram. And that’s the very moment your boss walks past and glances at your computer screen. Busted.
Why should this feel like such a big deal? Partly, it’s because Americans are such hardworking people. In this nation whose founders had to toil hard to even survive, the notion of doing an honest day’s work is hard-wired into our collective psyche. (This is also why Europeans – accustomed to siestas, generous state benefits and seemingly endless holiday leave – often look on us with puzzled awe.)
But a good thing can go too far, says Apryl Brodersen, management professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
“We’ve developed such a culture of busy-ness in this country – we just expect to always be bugged out and stressed,” she says. “And I think lots of people now find a weird – and honestly, dysfunctional – sense of bonding over being anxious and overworked. It’s not healthy.”
Engaged and exhausted
Maybe so, but we do tend to admire a muscular sort of can-do industriousness – the plucky entrepreneur, the startup guy pulling 80-hour weeks, that Yahoo CEO who went back to work days after giving birth. One thing we don’t admire, though, is goofing off.
The practice of goofing off – namely, taking an unannounced work break to chat, prevaricate or disappear for a coffee – does not sit very well with our nation’s strong work ethic. (One of its definitions in the dictionary is “shirk duty.”)
But the truth is far more sophisticated – because, it turns out, our brains really do need to take a break sometimes. The human mind is simply not built to concentrate or focus for hours at a time. Imagine you went to the gym and did only dead-weight leg raises for a full hour. You wouldn’t be able to walk afterward, and people would rightly think you were unhinged. But that’s kind of what happens when someone spends a solid 10-hour working day hunkered behind a desk: Their mind atrophies.
Apart from anything else, continuous working without a break is unhealthy.
“There is a very real risk of burnout,” Brodersen says. “For example, a recent Yale University study of 1,000 U.S. employees found that one in five of them were ‘engaged-exhausted workers’ – passionate about their jobs but also intensely stressed and frustrated.”
Sprints, not a marathon
And the big irony here? Working too hard for too long makes you less productive. One eyebrow-raising study compared two groups of workers who were pulling 40- and 60-hour weeks. After two months, the exhausted 60-hour grinders were getting less done than their 40-hour colleagues. All that extra time and effort was simply being wasted.
Lots of research now suggests that short bursts of efficient, productive work – punctuated by regular breaks – will beat a long, hard slog every time. Basically, your working day should be a series of sprints, not a marathon.
Following this logic, workers who make a habit of pausing occasionally for a chat, walk, coffee break or sneaky peek at social media – who goof off, in other words – are generally more productive overall. (Quick note: Goofing off is distinct from its sinister cousin, slacking. The “goofer” recognizes that taking time to mentally recharge leads to better work. The slacker isn’t much interested in work at all.)
Stress-free workers are also more creative. (This may sound obvious, but someone who’s buried knee-deep in paperwork probably won’t be a hotbed of brilliant ideas.) Most inspirational ideas come when people are feeling relaxed and open to fresh ways of thinking – and that’s often during a break. (It’s no accident that Isaac Newton was lounging, not working, under that tree when the fateful apple dropped.)
Work and play
Brodersen says there is another good reason why employees shouldn’t be shy about taking a mini-break: “Technology means that, for many people, work now doesn’t end when you leave the office. The old 9-to-5 idea has largely gone because everyone is just an email away.”
With the line between our work and personal lives growing increasingly blurred, many companies are looking seriously at the intersection between the two. And perhaps no employer has embraced the play-at-work ethic more completely than the tech industry, which has become synonymous with pingpong tables, video games and all kinds of gimmicks designed to make staff feel at home. So is this the way of the future?
Maybe, but Brodersen thinks employees should tread carefully with such companies.
“Honestly, I have mixed feelings about these places,” she says. “Incorporating playful aspects can seem really cool, but isn’t it really just a way to ensure people stay at work longer? Sure, you’re playing pingpong at the office – but you’re still at the office. So how great is that for you, really?”
Empower your people
Ultimately, every company wants the same thing – a motivated and contented workforce that will do a great job. So if you’re an employer looking for the magic formula to achieve that, what should you do? Here’s the first thing to remember: Don’t force it.
“There’s always something a little desperate about mandated ‘fun,’” Brodersen says. “Believe me, you don’t want to be the boss who reads an article about the ‘power of goofing off,’ then foists lots of bad ideas on employees that matches neither their needs nor desires.”
Besides, the answer is much simpler than that: Hire good people, make clear your professional expectations, then trust them to manage their own time.
Goofing off is a fact of working life, and people will always need to unwind occasionally. But whether they choose to chat, grab a coffee, go online or go for a walk, every employee should feel comfortable with taking a mental break. Ensuring that happens will not only bring you happy and productive staff but will help your bottom line.
And you won’t even need to buy a pingpong table.
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