How to pull workers back from the brink of burnout

In August, Marissa Mayer kicked up a dust bowl of criticism when she told Bloomberg Businessweek that Google’s early success had a lot to do with 130-hour work weeks. There was plenty of outrage — but none of it will do the average American knowledge worker a bit of good.

The 130-hour workweek backlash doesn’t move us toward more sane working lives for ourselves or for the teams we lead. Actually, it sets us back. “We’re not nearly that bad,” we can say, and congratulate ourselves because, in our organizations, we only work 12-hour days. Or we only work Sundays when it’s important or to “get ahead of the week.” Or we only work at night after the kids have gone to sleep.

After all, we have great benefits, we’re focused on work we like to do and, heck, it’s better than a minimum-wage job where we could get fired for taking a couple of emergency sick days. However, just because basic job protections for low-wage workers in the United States are continually under siege, and depressing, that doesn’t mean knowledge workers aren’t getting gamed, too. Too many professionals think they should feel “lucky,” “honored” and “chosen” as their work steals their time, health and well-being.

What’s the win in this game? A big payout from stock options after three years of indentured startup servitude? Multiple no-shows at important events with your family?

Pointing fingers at the most extreme examples of white-collar sweatshops will change nothing. Incremental “improvements” will change nothing. Reading lots of aspirational articles about perks and work flexibility to demonstrate “great culture” will change nothing.

Work/life balance in startup culture is total BS. And you are probably part of the problem. Until you say “enough” — and fight back, stand up and resist — you’re perpetuating a culture of burnout in which no one wins.

Extreme work schedules don’t work

Unfortunately, simply working longer hours doesn’t lead to better work. As CNBC recently reported, a Stanford University study found that employee productivity falls off a cliff after 55 hours per week. After 20 years of working in Silicon Valley, I understand that this can be hard to accept. I didn’t accept it myself until recently, when, for the first time in my career, I took a position where I am not expected to be always-on. In fact, I’m encouraged to be off, and I’ve never been more productive. But I struggled with the shift. I pushed back hard. It took time for me to assimilate to this “new normal.”

Humane work schedules don’t have to be in conflict with business success.

Here’s an example. A few months ago, I needed a business forecast for an upcoming executive discussion. I asked a colleague for help. When it came to light that this person worked through the weekend to produce the forecast, my co-founders told me it’s never acceptable for someone to work through the weekend.

I was shocked.

It was a powerful moment, because I realized that mine was a self-imposed deadline. The business wasn’t going to rise or fall on that information being available that day. To the contrary, my previous back-of-the-envelope forecast was close enough for our discussion. I could have (and should have) made it clear that this work could have waited (but I didn’t).

Humane work schedules don’t have to be in conflict with business success, but they do force us to weed out the type of reactive work that chews through hours of the day. If you’re a knowledge worker, by definition you should think about your work — but it’s almost impossible to find time to think if you’re constantly reacting. You’ll want to carve out time to do the more important things (that may take longer) first before you run out of your more productive hours. Sadly, most of us work the opposite way.

We spend precious cycles on reactive work and then try to squeeze in the important work — or do it after hours. Interestingly, I first heard about a different way to work while at Yahoo. We were led through the concepts in Rockefeller Habits, which suggest putting big blocks of work into your schedule first, so they’ll get done. If you do that, you’ll be heads down for a good part of the day. You’ll get a lot of real work done, but you’ll have to put off reacting to everything that comes in to avoid working 18-hour days, seven days a week.

Leaders must set the example for their teams to follow.

Now, if I don’t believe my own lower-priority tasks can wait, I can’t “model the way,” as Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner describe it in their popular “Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership” model. Leaders must set the example for their teams to follow. I’ve thought about why I used to believe my work couldn’t wait. I identified two reasons. First, my previous bosses behaved like their work couldn’t wait. That drove a false sense of urgency for me. Second, it felt good to think I was working on something urgent; it produced a rush of adrenaline.

Business owners and CEOs: You have to lead the way

I was part of the problem. Are you? Here’s a quick test to help you see if you are:

  • Do you have an advanced degree but struggle to schedule dinner with your spouse?
  • Do you “complain” about your nonstop meeting schedule, but feel worried if you have downtime?
  • Do you squeeze 30 minutes out of every week for hot yoga and feel like you got away with something?
  • Do you work at night after the kids have gone to sleep and tell your boss it’s because you want to do it?
  • Do you actually want to work nights because it’s the only time you can ever get work done?
  • Do you email your team when inspiration strikes at 3 a.m.?
  • And, do they respond immediately?

These are signs of a toxic culture of workaholism. We can do better.

In the nine months since I joined Basecamp as its chief operating officer, I’ve been learning to reimagine my work. It hasn’t been easy, and I’m not there yet, but here’s what I’ve learned so far:

  • Choose what you’ll accomplish in a set period. (Try setting 30- or 60-day windows.)
  • Schedule blocks of work time for specific focus areas. Exhaust everything you can do in that area before turning your attention to other matters.
  • Set work hours and adhere to them. Turn off notifications. Let others know you won’t be checking email after, say, 6 p.m.
  • Be mindful at work. Trying to participate in a meeting, read emails and field chats at the same time means you won’t do anything well.
  • Ask yourself, “What work am I doing now that actually can wait?” Then, stop doing it.

Marissa Mayer told Bloomberg Businessweek, “[successful] companies just don’t happen. They happen because of really hard work.” She’s right. But as we’ve heard from experts countless times, hard work is not equal to nonstop work, all the time. That’s bad for employees and it’s bad for companies. But it won’t change until we change.

What can you change today? Start by shutting off the lights at 6 p.m. and going off to live your life.