Do you regularly log 10 to 12 hours of work per day? How about weekends and holidays? “Of course,” you say, “Who doesn’t?” And vacation, what is that? For several decades, professionals have been caught up in a trend toward ever-increasing performance pressure accompanied by ever-lengthening work days. But if you think all of that hard work is putting you on the fast track to the top, it might be time to take a moment and check your assumptions. It turns out that “all work and no play” might not only make Jack a dull boy, but also a less productive worker.
Even though most companies – at least in theory – measure performance in terms of results rather than time, it is not surprising that many professionals end up putting in long hours.
In the pursuit of performance, many people work outside of regular business hours, sacrificing the recovery that would normally come during weekends or holidays. Some researchers argue that it is the application of “lean production” techniques (e.g. business process re-engineering) that has led to intensified work pace and increased work demands. These initiatives relentlessly pursue efficiency — reducing the cost of labor through the elimination of “waste” or anything that is not absolutely essential to production. In a professional organization, walking time, talking time, listening time, reading time, rest time, lunchtime and Starbucks time might all appear to be “wasted” time. Moreover, most of us probably don’t think of holidays or vacations as productive activities.
In Japan, where the authors of this article work, labor law protects employees from overwork by regulating the number of hours workers are allowed to work during a day, at night, on holidays and during vacations. Yet these laws, written originally with factory workers in mind, may not sufficiently protect the safety of workers in a knowledge economy. Hours logged alone don’t reflect the outsized role work plays in the life of many professionals, for whom the lines between work and life are easily blurred. Even for those who resist the urge to fire up their laptops after hours, the issues of the day often emerge and re-emerge in their minds long after the workday has officially ended.
One of the authors remembers a job interview back in the early 1990s in which the interviewer told him that whoever got this job was expected to live, breathe and even dream about the company. The interviewer said the role required 24-hour focus. A few decades later the author considered going back and re-applying for that job when he went through a period in which he did literally seem to be thinking about work issues all night long. There were nights when he woke up every 15-20 minutes with a new problem to be solved or a new way to solve the problem that had woken him up in the previous hour.
A lot of people say that this is what it takes to get ahead or even to just keep up in a competitive labor market, but is that really true?
Research suggests that people who make work the central focus of their lives by habitually spending more than 11 hours a day working may be putting themselves on the fast track to a heart attack. Studies have shown that individuals who log excessive overtime – especially on tasks over which they report having limited control – exhibit markedly-elevated levels of stress hormones – adrenaline, nor-adrenaline, and cortisol. While stress hormones are useful in emergency situations, sustained elevated levels of stress hormones have deleterious effects on both short-term productivity and long-term health. These hormones can damage the heart and undermine the brain’s ability to process information and create memories. In short, jobs entailing prolonged effort and emotional distress don’t just wreak havoc on an employee’s physiology and psyche; they also undermine that individual’s ability to perform.
Research into how our brains operate suggests that we need to rethink our approach to worker productivity.
We humans are not robots. Neuroscience research shows that our brains (not to mention our bodies) make valuable use of the “wasted” time for recovery, associative thinking, and problem solving. “Wasting” an evening by sleeping – or at least trying to sleep – on a problem gives your brain time to tap into the power of associative, integrative intelligence. When you take time out to share a laugh with co-workers, you boost your immunity and lower your blood pressure. Leaving the office early to get in a walk or trip to the gym is associated with improved decision-making. When you take a moment at your desk to close your eyes, plug in your headphones and listen to some relaxing music, your brain renews its ability to think clearly by clearing out the desktop folder (operating memory) and releasing calming chemicals that ward off the damaging effects of stress.
Regular breaks are a key building block of physical and mental resilience.
In an article in the Harvard Business Review (November 2005), Associate Professor of Medicine at the Harvard Medical School, Herbert Benson summarized his work as the founder and head of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute. Benson had been exploring the benefits of meditation for many years; he summarized this research in his 1975 book on the topic called The Relaxation Response. At first, Benson’s was primarily interested in the coronary health benefits of meditation, but by the 1990s he had concluded that meditation had much broader health benefits because the mind/body connection was much more profound than previously realized.
Mental and physical activity have a direct impact on your brain chemistry and brain chemistry has a direct impact on your physiology.
Benson’s early research indicated that we humans have the ability to change our brain/body chemistry by inducing the relaxation response through meditation. He found that deep breathing and focused attention triggered the release of dopamine, nitric oxide and other “relaxation” chemicals in the brain and body. The release of these chemicals was associated with reduced sympathetic nervous system activity, lower blood pressure, heart rate and other markers of a phenomenon sometimes referred to as the stress response.
He later realized that those who find meditation difficult can also induce the relaxation response through many other kinds of intentional practice. Long walks, rhythmic sports like tennis and even sedentary activities like knitting all induce the relaxation response for some people. The key seems to be intentionally shifting your attention away from something that is causing your mind and body dis-stress, and intentionally focusing instead on something that you find enjoyable and relaxing. The act of shifting your attention away from something that you categorize as work and toward something that you categorize as play seems to have powerful physiological and neurological impacts.
The regularity with which you allow yourself to experience the relaxation response serves as a pretty good proxy for mind/body health.
In Timeless Healing (1996), Benson continued to build on the proposition that you can influence your brain chemistry by adjusting your mental and physical behavior. His research showed that meditation and other intentional practices induce chemical changes that improve immune function, blood pressure and other health indicators. This finding implies that there is a relationship between neuro-immunology and the body’s ability to fend off or overcome illness. Benson proposed that there might be a connection between the relaxation response and a phenomenon known as the placebo effect, a mysterious phenomenon in which people’s ailments are ameliorated or even cured even when they receive a placebo rather than an actual medication. The placebo effect often accounts for a surprisingly high percentage of successful outcomes in clinical trials for new medications. Benson hypothesized that it might be possible to intentionally induce something like the placebo effect as a part of an intentional wellness practice based on a combination of a relaxation response inducing routine and positive ideation.
Benson also proposed more research be done on a phenomenon he called the nocebo effect. If the relaxation response increases your resilience to illness, then it followed that neglecting to induce the relaxation response might unintentionally increase your risk of illness. Whether you ask for it or not, every day brings new sources of stress, and we all have experienced how negative experience can trigger negative thinking. Benson suggested that if you don’t take advantage of the prophylactic benefits of the relaxation response, the lack of this positive input could negatively influence your brain chemistry in ways that would raise blood pressure and reduce immune function, leaving you more vulnerable to illness.
Over the past 20 years, many others have conducted research on the relationship between meditation, mindfulness and related practices and wellness. While there is little evidence that the placebo effect can be consciously leveraged as a treatment for disease, there is evidence that these practices are useful in alleviating certain symptoms such as pain.
Overcoming the Yerkes-Dodson law through the Breakout Principle
Over time, Benson also became interested in another potential benefit of the relaxation response. As early as 1908, psychologists Robert Y Yerkes and Dillingham Dodson had observed an interesting relationship between stress levels and performance. Increasing stress initially raised performance, but only to a certain point beyond which increased stress led to decreased performance. This principle, known as the Yerkes-Dodson law – has been subsequently validated, and much research has been done on how the stress response can impede performance.
In The Breakout Principle (2003), Benson proposed that there might be a way to not only get around the Yerkes-Dodson law, but also harness the stress response for enhanced performance. Intense mental effort is often associated with heightened concentration and efficiency; however, if we push too hard for too long, stress chemicals start to build up in our brains and bodies, undermining mental performance and physical health. Benson found that the deleterious impacts of this stress could be overcome through the incorporation of meditation or a similar practice into daily routines.
The Breakout Principle provides a formula for converting dis-tress into eustress, thereby, increasing resilience and performance.
Benson found that reducing stress was not the best way to increase performance or resilience. Stress is a given in life, and research shows that stress reduction does not necessarily correlate with increased productivity or resilience anyway. The key is not to eliminate stressful negative experience from your life; it is to add positive experience to your schedule that trigger the relaxation response and break up periods of dis-stress. Benson suggested that enhanced mental performance – like physical health – might be subject to significant influence by brain chemistry. When you alternate between periods of stress and relaxation, you create conditions under which the stress chemicals coalesce with relaxation chemicals, triggering physiological changes associated with a peak performance state. By regularly repeating cycles of stress and relaxation, you set your self on a course toward ever-increasing resilience and performance.
Breaks convert stress into productivity and resilience through the process of super-compensation
When you hit your limit, rather than pushing through that limit the smart thing to do is to disengage temporarily from the problem or task and “break out” by doing something that is relaxing and enjoyable. When you engage in a relaxing, enjoyable activity, you trigger the relaxation response aiding recovery of the brain and body. Moreover, during breaks, your brain continues to play with the problems you are working on, so that when you return to the task you often discover something that helps you solve the problem. Benson suggested that traces of nitric oxide might also play a role in the creative problem-solving breakthroughs we often experience after a break.
Benson argued that adding a positive practice such as meditation to your daily routine enables you to convert dis-stress into eustress, which is associated with higher performance and enhanced physical and mental resilience. Regular alternation between periods of stress and periods of relaxation enables you to benefit from a phenomenon known as super-compensation. Like a muscle that grows stronger during the recovery after a workout, your brain rebuilds and grows stronger during breaks after periods of intense concentration. This enables you to achieve and maintain higher and higher levels of focus and productivity over time. The reserve is also true. When you fail to take breaks for relaxation, this not only increases the likelihood that your brain and body will burn out, it also robs you of the benefits of insights and mental performance gains that come through the super-compensation process.
Whether you are looking to get more done or to improve your health, periods of relaxation and recovery are an essential part of the winning formula. When you need to put in long hours, it is especially important that you incorporate breaks for enjoyable activities that induce the relaxation response in order to ameliorate the negative impacts of dis-stress and gain the performance kick of eustress. You might even say that this cycle of stress and relaxation is the foundation of breakout performance.
As it turns out, it isn’t how much time Jack works that determines whether he is dull. It is how he brings play into his day that determines how bright he will become. So on days at the office when there is a lot to get done, the best question to ask your colleagues might be: ‘Anyone else up for a walk in the park?’
“Karoshi-Death from Overwork: Occupational health consequences of the Japanese production Management” (Sixth Draft for International Journal of Health Services) February 4, 1997 Katsuo Nishiyama, Ph.D, Department of Preventive Medicine Shiga University of Medical Science and Jeffrey V. Johnson, Ph.D. Department of Health Policy and Management The Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health
“Relation of Type A Behavior Pattern and Job-Related Psychosocial Factors to Nonfatal Myocardial Infarction: A Case-Control Study of Japanese Male Workers and Women.” Kouichi Yoshimasu, MD, and The Fukuoka Heart Study Group. Psychosomatic Medicine 63:797 (2001)
“Are your Working Too Hard? A conversation with Herbert Benson M.D.” Harvard Business Review, November 2005. See also Herbert Benson’s The Relaxation Response (1975), Timeless Healing (1996) and The Breakout Principle (2003).
For more information on the Yerkes-Dodson law, see:
For more information on super-compensation and other performance-related concepts, see: The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwarz and The Power of Story by Jim Loehr
For a more recent discussion of the research on the science underpinning the relaxation response, see: Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor. You can catch the highlights of his book in a Fresh Air interview at the following link: https://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/2020/06/06/870547444/fresh-air-for-june-6-2020-the-new-science-of-breathing-the-biology-of-migration?showDate=2020-06-06
For more on the role of nitric oxide in learning and cognitive function, see the article at the following link, which includes a graphic mapping of how the stress and relaxation responses are mediated through the nervous system:
Also see the following episode of Life Kit, which focuses on the upsides of anxiety and how to manage the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system to improve well-being and focus: “Good Anxiety Does Exist. Here’s How You Can Benefit From It. https://www.npr.org/2021/09/07/1034777586/good-anxiety-benefits-coping-strategies
For more information on autonomy, mastery and purpose, see: Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink
© Dana Cogan and Andrea Konuma 2005 and 2020-21, all rights reserved.