No Workaholics Allowed

Research shows the work ‘till you drop ethos is bad for business. Here’s how 3 companies combatted the always-on nature of today’s work.

In our connected culture, work can follow you everywhere. In your pocket. On the train. Even on vacation. Technology ties us to the office, and in recent decades, technology has made workaholism more prevalent than ever before. The mound of work may be overflowing, and employees may feel the need to get it all done. But culturally, being “busy” is a badge of honor.

Yet it’s no surprise that too much work is bad for your health, bad for productivity, and ultimately, bad for your culture. In fact, a study by Harvard and Stanford Business Schools found that health problems associated with work-related anxiety – such as heart disease, high blood pressure and mental illness – account for more deaths each year in America than Alzheimer’s or diabetes. Another group of researchers found a 67% increased risk for heart disease for those workers who put in 11 hours a day versus eight hours, and more studies showed an increased likelihood of alcohol abuse among people who work 50-plus hours a week.

Ultimately, working long hours doesn’t do you any favors professionally. It makes you flat out tired. And that means making more mistakes and experiencing emotional outbursts, not to mention burnout, resentment and general unhappiness. In the end, you’re usually less productive. (Of course, some argue that being a workaholic isn’t that bad if you love what you do and you’re invested in your work.)

So how do you build work-life balance into your corporate culture? Here’s how these three companies quash workahoilics in their offices:

Mandatory, Paid-Paid Vacations

Even though we’re starting to take more vacations as a nation, most Americans don’t use their vacation days. In fact, more than half of workers leave unused vacation days on the table, according to Project Time Off, a study sponsored by the U.S. Travel Association. Yet a recent poll by Huffington Post found that 40% of those who didn’t use vacation time said they felt like they had too much work to do.

Guess what? The verdict here is not surprising — a vacation is good for you! Research shows it’s great for your health, work engagement, creativity, and even marital satisfaction.

To get people to take that mental break, Denver software firm FullContact will actually pay workers to take a trip. Each employee gets $7,500 if they take vacation, but only if they unplug while away.

“First, employees are able to disconnect and come back refreshed, shining even brighter and working even harder when they return,” says CEO Bart Lorang. “Second, it eliminates single points of failure for each employee. If an employee feels they are the only ones who can take on a task at work, they will feel the need to complete that task while on vacation. The Paid-Paid vacation stipulations enforce the teamwork ideals for each department in FullContact.”

Lorang created a short checklist of things he does before going completely off the grid on his Paid-Paid vacation. About 72 hours before, he turns on the out-of-office message on his email, changes his voicemail greeting, deletes all business apps, social media, and news apps from his phone and then loads up on books and music.  Says Lorang: “The first 72 hours after going off the grid is tough, but I encourage people to sit with that anxiety and understand the source of the fear. Is it fear of missing out? Is it fear of being bored? Is it fear of not being connected? I read books or distract myself whenever I’m tempted to go back on the grid.”

Lorang says he created the policy because he felt like he wasn’t being present while on vacation and never really recharged. He hung a reminder of that need to get away inside the office: a photo of him and his fiancé riding camels past the Great Pyramids — but instead of taking in the sights, Lorang was looking at his phone.

A No Workaholic Policy

Utah-based software firm BambooHR also pays its 430 employees to take vacations, $2,000 apiece, but it also has a longstanding No Workaholics policy. Co-founder Ben Peterson said he implemented the policy several years ago after watching how overworking hurt one friend’s health (it put him in the hospital for heart problems) and led to the divorce of another friend (he refused to stop working on the holidays.)  Staff is asked to work no more than 40 hours a week.

Several years ago, BambooHR nearly fired a woman who continued to work 70 to 80 hours a week. The reason? Her performance suffered: She was tired, sleep deprived, and making mistakes. Ultimately, her tasks took twice as long as they otherwise would have had she rested.

“We’re here to do meaningful work. We’ve got families and hobbies and lives. Working 90 hours doesn’t give you time to even think about that. And what kind of life is that?” says Peterson, who’s married with six children. “We come here, work hard, and go home.”

That philosophy involves planning product releases and other deliverables within reasonable timeframes. “We don’t put undue pressure where we’re racing to market.” It hasn’t hurt growth: The company has grown to 13,000 clients in 10 years and grown its staff to 430 employees from 53 in just four years.

Nixing Presenteeism

In the past few years, people increasingly show up for work even if they’re not really working up to their full capacity. Maybe they’re sick and they come in to the office anyway, or perhaps they’re staying late at the office just to show their face to the boss and confirm their value.

This “presenteeism,” or the practice of showing up to work despite one’s inability to be as productive as they can be, can be a problem for companies, leading to overworked, unengaged employees. In fact, a recent report by Global Corporate Challenge (GCC) Insights estimates that presenteeism is ten times more expensive to businesses than employees absenteeism. And it’s far more common. The report concludes that companies must stop talking about how many sick days people are taking and focus energy on what they’re doing when they’re actually at work.

To quash the ethos that you must work until you drop, German-based Testbirds, which tests client software for bugs,  has policies that let people create their own hours and work from home. “That typical ‘walk of shame’ where you leave early and get looks from people, is something that has to change,” says Testbirds co-founder Markus Steinhauser. “There’s no point in staying if there is nothing left to do.”

Testbirds’ 100 employees must be reachable by phone or online during their core working hours, but they’re judged on results not on clocking in. Sahil Deva, the company’s PR manager, for instance, is not a morning person, so he comes in at 10 a.m., while his colleague comes in at 8 a.m. “It allows you to work in a way that suits many different lifestyles,” Deva says. The company’s philosophy was inspired the 300,000 crowdsourced workers who test client software for cash rewards. Says Steinhauser: “People want flexibility. They have children and hobbies and lives. People want choices on how they work.”