The Easiest Well-Being Initiative Ever

I was at the grocery store Tuesday evening, minding my own business and looking at the displays of Styrofoam-backed cod fillets.

A conversation at the seafood counter caused my ears to perk up. A regular customer and the guy manning the counter were talking about the Fourth of July holiday and what plans they had.

I can’t remember what the customer said, but what stood out to me was the employee’s response.

Today, he will be working from 2-10 PM. And, in his words, unless he gets a chance at a Fourth of July “brunch”, it’s unlikely he’ll be sharing the day with family or friends.

Ouch.

Yeah, I know that some places will be open for business today. Most of them will be service-sector companies, like groceries and restaurants: ones that aren’t required to observe federal holidays. As much as I don’t like it, and wish that the country could actually take a full day off, I understand. 

What I don’t understand are those knowledge-sector companies or managers that “strongly suggest” employees to work on holidays or weekends. You know, to show how “dedicated” they are.

It might not mean being in the office, but it definitely means being on call or within arm’s reach of a phone, “just in case.” Some even go so far as to have vacationers stay connected.

Ridiculous, isn’t it? That’s why, among all the other hallmarks of a company that fosters well-being, there’s one trait that sets them apart from the rest.

It’s quite simple. Ready?

They encourage their employees to disconnect.

I’m talking about federal holidays. I’m talking about personal vacations. I’m talking about taking care of an acutely sick relative (e.g., a child with strep throat). Weekends, nights, even some days.

One of the biggest stressors office-dwellers can encounter is their superiors’ inability to allow subordinates to separate work and home.

Imagine if you had to answer your boss' call here.

Imagine if you had to answer your boss’ call here.

Doing this launches a rather interesting downward spiral for the affected employees:

  • You (the boss/manager) encourage your employee(s) to work longer / harder, including holidays or weekends.
  • More time spent at work, or thinking about work, increases anxiety about work performance.
  • More anxiety = more stress.
  • More stress = higher cortisol levels.
  • Higher cortisol levels = higher chances of eating poorly, gaining fat and weight, exercising less, losing work focus, losing motivation, and losing the connection to friends/family.
  • All those effects above yield worse work performance and feelings of burnout.
  • Worse work performance and feeling burned out mean more stressing about work. Now it’s about getting a good review, avoiding being told to work harder (“you’re slipping!”), avoiding discipline, or keeping the job.
  • Even worse health habits, which affect health metrics and the body in general.
  • More worry about health, which adds on to work stress, further affecting performance.
  • You (the boss/manager) get pissed off and start in with the discipline.

And the vicious cycle continues.

Several books have been written about stress management, how to get employees to separate work and home, and the benefits it has for the company. Of course, a lot of those benefits are looked at from the perspective of work quality and employee happiness.

What you should also know is that the benefits can also be shown via your medical expenses. Employees with the time to go home, fix a healthy meal, relax, enjoy some physical activity and family time, and get a full night’s sleep are markedly healthier than their overworked, “forced to get take-out Chinese to eat at the desk” comrades.

With time, those extra hours tethered to work have a detrimental effect on work quality. 40 hours of a happy, healthy, focused employee are more productive than 60 hours of a stressed, overweight, and decidedly morose coworker.

You must allow your employees to step away from work once they leave the workplace. Don’t badger them on the phone at home. Block their work email when they go on vacation if you have to. Just make sure employees have plenty of time to disconnect entirely. No work email. No calls to the employee from the office (except in the direst of emergencies). None of that mess.

It’s the easiest thing you as a boss can do. Knowledge economies don’t work like manufacturing economies. Productivity isn’t measured in the number of doors attached to cars, and thus isn’t measured by how many hours spent working.

The quicker your company realizes that, and drops the manufacturing-era style of management, the better.

Added bonus: You can have one outstanding Fourth of July barbecue.

Has your company made that first step? Share your experiences below.

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