Call it the time paradox: Empirically, people are working less, but feeling more overworked. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the average work week at 34.5 hours. The number of hours Americans work yearly has fallen from about 1,900 in the 1950s to about 1,700 now.
And yet people are always talking about how overworked they feel. A recent poll by PGi (a maker of meeting and collaboration technology) found that 88% of respondents claimed to work more than 40 hours a week. A recent poll by Seamless Corporate Accounts (the online food delivery company) found that 48% of respondents claimed to work nights and weekends some or all of the time.
Time use researchers know that people exaggerate their work hours, and that negative events appear more frequent than positive ones. Nonetheless, if you’re managing teams, perception matters as much as reality. So how can you keep people from feeling overworked?
If you sit in meetings all day, and try to preserve evenings for family time, you likely send emails at ridiculous hours. That’s fine for your work/life balance, but the problem is that people tend to respond to their bosses immediately. That leads people to keep their phones on all night. Sean O’Brien, executive vice president for strategy and communications at PGi, says he’s seen this. “Even if I said ‘no rush’ in the subject line, I’ve got a hyper-competitive team. They’ll immediately jump on it,” he says. Feel free to write emails whenever, but save them in a draft folder and send them out at 7 a.m.
People take frequent breaks throughout the day, even if they don’t recognize they’re doing it. (Did you plan to be reading Fast Company right now?) But breaks at the computer don’t feel as refreshing as those that involve stepping away. Take people out for coffee, or start a walking club, or otherwise show your team that it’s okay to get up from the desk for 20 minutes. Some studies find breaks make people more productive anyway.
If people do need to work late sometimes, let them know you don’t mind the occasional personal errand or family event during the day. Do such things yourself, and be clear that’s what you’re doing. That way people know you won’t judge them. Team members “want to know their jobs are not at stake,” says O’Brien. “They want to know they’re viewed as good employees,” even if they go to a school event.
If a client is demanding around-the-clock attention, staff people so that each team member is “on call” during certain hours. That way, people can work late cheerfully two nights per week, knowing they’ll definitely get the others off.
If people feel overworked, they need time off. But people also like to feel indispensable, and may dial in to calls, thinking they’ll get team-player points. You can discourage this. Indeed, since many PGi meetings are virtual, O’Brien reports that he’s actually disconnected people when they’ve come to a meeting while officially on vacation. “I have done that on more than one occasion,” he says.
Karen Miller, senior vice president of people at GrubHub Inc., says that, “People are willing to do a lot if they feel appreciated.” Publicly thanking people who pitched in can make team members feel that any long hours they worked were worthwhile.
“If people love their jobs and their work and their environment, they’ll put in a lot of extra,” Miller says. To be sure, thinking about whether people are in roles that challenge and excite them is more complicated than making sure they never get emails that arrive at 3:00 a.m. But if you can tap people’s intrinsic motivations, long hours don’t seem nearly so taxing as if people are bored stiff.