Working Hard Does Not Mean Working Well: Let’s Focus on Our Wellbeing

by Francesca Gino Influencer, Harvard Business School Professor

In Greek mythology, Zeus punished the Titan Atlas by placing the weight of the heavens on his shoulders. Many of us are feeling like Atlas right now, hunched over by the added responsibilities and stress we’re experiencing as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The crisis has affected organizations and their leaders differently, with some seeing a spike in demand for their services and others losing most of their business. But one shared struggle seems to be worker fatigue. In most organizations, burnout has been rising. In a survey of over 8,000 workers across all U.S. states employed in all types of jobs, I found that worry and burnout have spiked by 42% since the start of the pandemic.

There are many reasons behind this reality, including increased responsibilities at home, the intrusion of work into our personal lives, and the awareness that we are all at risk of contracting the virus. Here is some advice on what we can all do to break free of our weighty worries.

Create time for breaks: As we try to juggle our work and home lives, and free time is at a premium, the last thing most of us think we should do is to take time off. In my recent survey, most people reported feeling significant pressure to fill every minute of the day with work- and home-related responsibilities. But just because we’re working harder doesn’t mean we’re working well.

Our cognitive resources—the brainpower that we have available at a given time—allow us to control our behaviours, desires, and emotions. As we use these resources, rather than being constantly refreshed, they become depleted.

Recent research points to the potential drawbacks of draining our cognitive resources by working too much without creating space for breaks. Using three years of data on 4,157 caregivers in 35 U.S. hospitals, the researchers found that their compliance with hand-washing protocols dropped an average of 8.7% from the beginning to the end of a typical 12-hour shift. The decline in compliance was magnified on busy days when caregivers treated more patients. The more time off workers had between shifts, the more they adhered to hand-washing protocol.

Just as exercising our muscles leads to physical fatigue, our repeated use of our cognitive resources reduces our ability to self-regulate—to make good decisions, comply with important rules, and choosing what’s best for the longer term rather than what’s tempting right now. We all need to “refill the well” periodically by creating time for rest and relaxation. Whether you feel like taking a walk around the block, reading your favourite novel, catching up with a friend, or simply sitting back and listening to music, this type of downtime should be an essential “to do” on your calendar.

Rethink your priorities: The busier we are taking care of the minutiae of our jobs and home lives, the less likely we are to think about why we’re doing what we’re doing. That’s a shame, because it’s important to have a clear sense of your priorities and regularly rethink them. That may sound obvious, but it’s amazing how many of us don’t take time to identify our top three to five priorities—or fail to change how we structure our workdays when our priorities change.

Making priorities explicit will help you devote sufficient time to them. When you do so, be sure to you list your personal wellbeing as one of them. In a recent course I taught at Harvard Business School with Boz Saint John, chief marketing officer of Netflix, she said something that I found quite powerful: “Treat your body and mind as your temple. They are places to worship, as they house many things we need to treasure.” So much research supports the link between productivity and our wellbeing at work – both our physical and mental health. But research also tells us that, too often, wellbeing slides down in our priority list, especially when our to-do list gets busier. We need to give it more attention.

It helps to think of our wellbeing as any investment. For the account to grow, we need to make continued deposits. To keep the interest rate high, we need to review our investments periodically.

It’s also important to maintain a wholistic sense of wellbeing. We know that our spirit, mind, and body are all connected, but we rarely work on all three together. In particular, healthy habits improve wellbeing. But even if you don’t want to commit to a healthy diet or exercise regime, there are other ways to improve our wellbeing. One underused strategy is to do something that gives you joy every day, whether it is dedicating time to a hobby or trying out a new activity. Another strategy is to focus on the opportunities that our experiences provide, even during a time of crisis. Take teaching online, for instance. It gave me the opportunity to think creatively about how to design courses that are more impactful because they are less intense and allow more time for reflection in between sessions.

Build your campfire: With lockdowns, social distancing, and self-isolation, many of us have spent much more time in our own company. And as our worry and stress have risen, we have tamped down our feelings and bottled up the challenges we are experiencing across spheres of our life, reserving them only for our own consumption.

But that’s a mistake: Sharing our emotions and experiences can help us not only reduce stress but also connect with others more meaningfully. Studies have shown that simply talking about our problems and sharing our negative emotions with someone we trust can be profoundly healing—reducing physical and emotional distress and strengthening our immune system.

You might need to connect with people online but think of it like a campfire: make time to talk to people whose company you enjoy about what you are going through. You may find out that others are going through similar experiences, which could make your bond even stronger. Research finds that, despite its unpleasantness, shared pain can have positive social consequences, acting as a “social glue” that fosters cohesion and solidarity within groups.

Let’s all take the heavens off our shoulders. By using these strategies, we can remove the burden that’s weighing us down, study it from different angles, and lift ourselves back up with more energy for ourselves, our work, and others around us.