In the early pages of their book The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz share a turning point in the trajectory of their business working with world class athletes.
After years of helping athletes perform consistently at a high level under competitive pressure, Jim and Tony were invited by a number of organisations (including hospital emergency wards and the FBI) to help improve staff performance and engagement. It was while working with these organisations that they discovered, and I quote:
“The performance demands that most people face in their everyday work environments dwarf those of any professional athlete…”
Wow, right? The reason, they say, is that athletes spend the majority of their time in either training or active recovery and only a short amount of time actually performing.
The everyday worker on the other hand spends very little time training and even less in active recovery, yet are expected to perform at a consistently high level 8-12 hours per day, 5-6 days per week.
These expectations put a lot of stress on the mind and the body and, as numerous studies now show, have a negative impact on productivity, quality of work produced and overall work engagement. Worst of all, our addiction to overworking is rapidly degrading our physical and mental health.
It’s easy to feel like we can’t take a break from the things we’re working on or from the place where we work. The excuses are many and easy to find. We already don’t have enough hours in a day.
The work is too important or the project won’t progress without us. The office will fall apart and the world will end if we’re not around to fix every problem. We all like to believe we’re indispensable. As though the office and the people in it just can’t live without us.
Life gets easier when we realise that we’re kidding ourselves. No one is indispensable and we’re doing ourselves and the cause or project we’re working on a disservice by working through burnout. Just think about every job you’ve quit and moved on from. The project, the team, the organisation you left behind are doing just fine without you.
This isn’t to say that you’re not valuable or making an important contribution. After all, you wouldn’t still be employed if you didn’t. But, so can so many others. And, don’t take this personally, but you’re not the only one who can manage a crisis, progress your project or deal with clients and stakeholders.
You’re not the only one who has something to contribute. Who can add value.
The longer you put off having a break, the closer to burnout you get, the less value you add to the cause or project you’re working on and the sicker you become. You, your mind and your body are not designed to withstand the long hours and six day weeks you’re working. You need active recovery to stay healthy and perform at your best.
Taking a break is not a sign of weakness. It’s a matter of self-awareness and it will make you stronger. It’s not just important, it’s essential. Especially if you want to build a strong, enduring career and a happy, healthy life.
So, here’s what I want you to do:
1. Take breaks throughout your workday.
10-15 minutes here and there can make a huge difference. Go for a walk, make a cup of tea, read the news (in an actual newspaper, not online). Do whatever it takes for you to let go and recover from the intense focus you’ve just given to whatever task you’ve been working on.
To help me take more breaks, I’ve been experimenting with the pomodoro technique. Learn more here.
2. Go on a holiday at least once a year.
And I’m not talking about going back to your home town to visit family. I’m talking about an actual holiday. Get out of the city. Go overseas. Go to the beach, a concert or on a cruise. Scuba-dive, bungie jump or sit for days in a shack in the country side reading great books.
Give yourself the gift of a break from your everyday life. Get away from it all, even for just a week. You’ll be better for it.
3. Always be in holiday planning mode.
Even if you only take one vacation a year, know when it will be, where you will go, who you’ll be with and what you will do. Knowing you’ve got some reprieve coming can help you push through mental blocks and minor crises of motivation.
In the lead up to your vacation, organise your work affairs so that you can forget about work as much as possible. If you can help it, don’t take work with you and don’t check emails.
4. If you’re a manager, make sure your team members are getting the breaks they need.
Encourage them to step away from their desk several times per day. Let them go home early once a month and don’t dock their pay. Actively encourage them to take holidays.
While they’re on holidays do not, under any circumstances call them. Reassure them that everything will be taken care of while they’re away. Not because you don’t need them, but because you need them to be at their best.
Working through burnout serves no one
Especially not ourselves. At the end of the day, we can only give as much as we have. Once that’s depleted our contribution loses its value. Take breaks throughout the day. Plan and go on holidays. Make sure your team are well rested.