Slow down to speed up

5 minute read

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During World War II, the rush to produce munitions in sufficient quantities to fight the Germans led the British to run factories 24 hours a day and to keep workers on for heroic work weeks of 70 hours or longer. More! faster! was the demand from leaders. Ironically though, working longer simply doesn’t equate to greater productivity, no matter what managers believe. The Economist reports that a recent analysis of data from the period reveals worker productivity declined steadily once past 52 hours of work. A more recent study of call-centre workers confirms the effect, showing that call times lengthen and fatigue increases as work hours go up. Working longer actually harms output.

Of course, harm is not simply limited to productivity. An enormous study of over 500,000 men and women published in the Lancet found that working longer reliably increased the risk of stroke by nearly 1/3 for working more than 55 hours per week. In Japan, death caused by overwork has long been a problem and even has a name: karoshi. Despite Japanese government policies and programs to reduce the pressure to work longer and faster, numbers haven’t changed significantly. It seems that managers and workers find it hard to imagine that reducing working time can help productivity—or at least, not cause it to decline.

Even worse, managers can’t reliably tell who is really working during those longer hours, or those who are engaging in presenteeism (that is, they are there, but not really doing anything). 

Researcher Erin Read noted that men and women tend to deal with the expectations of needing to be ‘always on’ in quite different ways. Women tended to make formal accommodations, such as reducing their work hours, even though that means they become marginalized within the firm. On the other hand, men found unobtrusive, under-the-radar ways to alter the structure of their work so they could work predictable schedules in the 50- to 60-hour range. 

Leaders need to understand that for work that is largely self-directed, and which requires intellectual engagement, time is poorly correlated with productivity. You may achieve more in an hour of hard work than in just being in the office. Indeed, this point convinced a New Zealand insurance company to trial a 4-day work week for all staff, for the same pay. The three-month experiment revealed that job and life satisfaction increased both at home and work, and employees performed better in their jobs. So successful was it, that the change has been made permanent.

Leaders can exert a significant impact on staff wellbeing, obviously through their leadership, but also by modelling good self-care themselves. Research-based hacks can still mean that you can slow down, deliver the same or better outputs, and improve your wellbeing at the same time. 

But the first task is to get over the addiction of being busy.

We also know that the brain chemistry that occurs with being busy is both compelling and hard to resist. Being busy drives a surge of both dopamine and adrenaline into our system. These hormones create something like an addictive effect—it feels great and so we crave more of it. That’s all good in the short term. Long term, though, that rush of dopamine and adrenaline leaves us feeling depleted. In direct contrast to this depletion affect, the work of Professor Sabine Sonnentag has shown that detaching from work, slowing down, and engaging in enjoyable off-job activities greatly improved people’s moods and productivity the following day. 

Consistent scientific research has shown that we experience less fatigue and maintain stronger wellbeing when we experience stress or challenge for specific periods of time, then balance this effort with active recovery (when we purposefully recharge our mental and physical batteries). Oscillating between periods of challenge and periods of recovery is ideal, with planned and regular recovery as optimum. 

When you need immediate recovery, try:

  1. 1. Slow down your breathing: Check you are breathing from your diaphragm (belly breathing), not your chest, and take slow breaths for a few minutes. This helps to return your body and mind into a restorative state.
  2. 2. Disconnect: Take a “no technology” break (even 5 minutes is useful) to reduce mental fatigue.
  3. 3. Do something pleasurable: Do the 5-minute quiz in the newspaper, or chat to a colleague you like, or plan something you enjoy for actioning later, as feel-good emotions provide recovery fuel for our brains and bodies.
  4. 4. Speak more slowly: Notice if you are feeling pressured to get the sentence out, or if you are tripping over your words. Breathe. 
  5. 5. Deliberately move more slowly: Notice the urge to rush and resist it. Give yourself permission to pause.

Remember, if you feel like you are too busy to take a recovery break, it’s a definite sign you need one!


For larger chunks of recovery, tap into your core wellbeing boosters:

1.    Physical

  • Sleep well: Try relaxation exercises or a meditation app, herbal teas, and light reading to wind down ready for a restorative sleep, and stay off technology for a couple of hours before sleeping.
  • Eat well: Choose the most nutritious foods you can and stay away from the processed, energy-sapping choices.
  • Stay active and move more in your day: Plan to meet friends for a walk, swim, yoga, or dance class. Ask colleagues to join you for fresh-air breaks, walking meetings, or stair challenges.
2.   Mental
  • Learn new skills and take on mental challenges that extend you: Both help to grow your brain and keep it elastic as well as buffering you from stress.
  • Practice mindful meditation: There’s overwhelming scientific evidence that regular practice will improve your mental clarity as well as reduce mental fatigue. If you are not sure how to start, take a class or do some online research for ideas.
3.   Emotional 
  • Connect with people who are important to you: Share experiences, talk together, offer support to others and ask for help yourself when you need it. 
  • Increase your experiences of positive emotion: Think of (or do) something that helps you feel grateful, content, hopeful, or satisfied. These experiences help to both energise and buffer us when life or work (or both) are draining.


The authors:

Dave Winsborough is Founder and Innovation Director at Winsborough

Gaynor Parkin is CEO of Umbrella Health


This article was originally written for and published by HR People + Strategy