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Want to work better? Take a break

Jan 07, 2013 Business Daily, Success

“The day of reckoning seems to have arrived. During the past month alone, no less than a half dozen senior executives have told me that fatigue, exhaustion and even burnout are the biggest issues they’re facing both for themselves and among their troops.
Sustainable capacity — meaning sufficient fuel in the tank — is what makes it possible to bring one’s skill and talent to life. Not even the most talented and motivated employees can run on empty.
One CEO of a multinational company told me that just dealing with time differences had left him so exhausted he was seriously considering quitting. Another CEO at a much-admired company told me that for the first time, he’s losing truly valued employees who say they simply can’t take it anymore. In a recent survey at a third organization, over 80% of the top 400 leaders reported they spend the majority of their days feeling negative emotions, fueled in large part by overload and overwhelm.”

TONY SCHWARTZ HBR Blog Network (27 November, 2012)

2012 has just ended, and most readers of this column should have used the opportunity to sit with their feet up somewhere. At least I hope you did.

Before you took that much-needed break, many of you were undoubtedly running on empty. Such is modern corporate life: most movers and shakers I know get them themselves onto a treadmill of relentless activity. They move from meeting to meeting, decision to decision, one big thing to the next. And increasingly, many flaunt this as a badge of honour and of indispensability.

It is no such thing. It does not reflect your importance; merely your delusions about the ingredients of success.

One CEO used to tell me rather proudly that he would be in the office twelve hours a day, six days a week. When I asked him when he managed to spend any time with his young children, he told me that was left to the three-week holiday that he spent with them, once a year. I never once envied him that life.

Let us be clear. Working hard is one of the preconditions of genuine success. People who make it are usually driven people, with astonishing levels of energy and commitment.

Overdoing it, however, is in no one’s interest.

Tony Schwartz puts it well in a recent HBR blog post: “Until now, leaders of organizations have chosen to simply work more hours — and they’ve asked their employees to do the same. The result is decreasing return on each incremental hour invested — and a lower quality of work.”

I see this all the time: senior executives clocking up the hours, under the delusion that they are doing more and doing better. But for knowledge workers, that is rarely the case. The quality of every hour we put in matters a great deal more than the actual number of hours. Renewal and rejuvenation therefore become vital if we are to maintain the quality of our work.

As Schwartz wrote, we must “ennoble the role of renewal in organizations. The greater the demand, the greater the need to intermittently rest, refuel and reflect.”

Executive fatigue and burnout is a widespread condition. The burning desire to get ahead and stay ahead is resulting in the wrong solution: adding more hours. That’s why we see so many “walking wounded” in organizations: so many managers running around feverishly, making little impact and burning others out in the process.

We would do far better to take regular breaks, and spend some time NOT thinking about our work. That way, we would come back re-energized, with fresh perspectives and new zeal.

I wish all readers of this column much rest and new élan for the New Year. Thank you for your company throughout 2012, and here’s to an even better 2013.

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