Taking Breaks in an Overworked Culture

April 29, 2024

According to a recent survey from Pew Research Center, nearly half of all U.S. workers fail to use all their allotted vacation days. Why? Too much work to do and reluctance to ask their coworkers to cover for them are among the top reasons. It turns out, this stat is just the tip of the iceberg for our culture of overwork and under-rest. 

In a recent article from Harvard Business Review, Tony Schwartz, and Eric Severson outline some of the core reasons why we as Americans value business more than leisure; work over relaxation.  Some of these reasons are internal. “Immersion in work helps hold off feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, loneliness, sadness, and emptiness that can arise when we have time off.”  While other reasons are external. It turns out addiction to work is probably the most socially acceptable (even rewarded) vice.

Ironically, research tells us that working long hours and constantly thinking and worrying about our jobs actually makes us less productive over time. This hyperfocus on work leads to higher rates of burnout and “even increased likelihood of mortality.”

In many cases, we often do not slow down and prioritize rest until either a health event for ourselves or a loved one forces us to take a step back and evaluate how we are spending our precious time.

If you are looking to be more proactive in this space, the authors of this article have a few action steps to help you move in the right direction.

  • Acknowledge your tendency to overwork. As with other addictions (and yes there is a Workaholics Anonymous), recognizing there is a problem is step one. Honestly reflect on how fatigued you are and what impact your relationship with work has on your relationships and your mood.
  • Focus on sleep and exercise. These are consistently two of the most important aspects of general health by experts. Go to bed early, limit screentime in the hour before you plan to sleep, and have seven hours of sleep be your goal each night. For exercise, look to get 20-30 minutes of brisk exercise each day. Go for a walk with a co-worker at lunchtime or with your spouse in the morning and/or evening. Additionally, that connection with another person can be very healthy.
  • Take a break. Our maximum focused, intensive work time is generally 90 minutes. Set an alert every 90 minutes to take a quick five-minute break, stand up, take a quick walk, then get back to your work. Taking this break may seem counterproductive but stepping away from a task for a few minutes may be exactly what you need.

 Citation:  https://hbr.org/2023/08/why-we-glorify-overwork-and-refuse-to-rest