By: Chris Russell
In an ‘always on’ world enabled by hyperconnectivity, divisions between office and home, and work and rest are becoming increasingly porous, with a new email notification never far away. As such, the attendant stresses and strains of work are multiplying all the time.
But is it really necessary, and does it even get the best results? In her new book The Happiness Track, Emma Seppälä, science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, draws upon the latest research to argue that these high-intensity work styles are fundamentally misguided, and it is time for change. As she writes in the book, “We have simply accepted overextension as a way of life.” In this interview, Seppälä, who previously lived and worked in Shanghai, sets out why that’s a mistake and what we can do to improve our wellbeing.
Q. Just to begin with, could just briefly set out what are the main problems with our conventional understanding of success? What are the negative by-products of that?
A. Well, we tend to have a misconception that in order to be successful we need to sacrifice or postpone our happiness. So for example many people feel like they have to work themselves into the ground—that you can’t have success without stress and they feel that they have to be constantly focused on the next thing and getting things done constantly, and so forth. But what research actually shows is that if they prioritize their own wellbeing as well as that of the people around them, they’re going to be more productive in the end. They’re going to be more creative, they’re going to be more charismatic and get more done.
Q. In what way do different personality types affect the issue? In cases where people are very career driven, they are go-getters so to speak, how does that affect the way that their wellbeing interacts with their working life and with these intense work styles?
A. In a lot of ways go-getters are rewarded because that is the kind of modus operandi—it’s that you need to be working non-stop, workaholism is good, you need to burn the candle at both ends because that’s just how it works. But what research shows is that with that kind of attitude to work we are seeing very high levels of burn out across industries because we’re living in this high adrenaline mode constantly—constantly going, going, going—fuelled by coffee, fuelled by packed schedules, tight deadlines, waiting ’til the last minute to finish things, etc. It’s basically chronic stress—it really impairs your health and it exhausts you… it actually impacts your mental faculties, your cognitive faculties, your memory and attention and so forth.
There’s nothing wrong with stress, stress can get you through a deadline and so forth—it’s great when it’s a short-term thing—but when it’s something that you’re constantly involved with because you’re constantly in that high-adrenaline mode, it’s actually leading to burn out. So I talk about energy management, and by staying in that constant high-achieving mode we’re not managing our energy. A much better way to manage your energy is to learn to stay calmer, it’s learning to not just tap into your fight or flight nervous system but your rest and digest system, the part of your nervous system that helps calm you down and that helps your body restore itself, and your mind as well. If we are able to stay calmer, we are able to manage our energy so we don’t exhaust ourselves continuously.
The other thing with staying calmer also is that you’re going to be more creative because when you’re constantly in a very highly focused, very high-intense state, that is not a place where the brain comes up with its most breakthrough ideas, most innovative, creative moments. ‘A-ha’ moments, eureka moments come when the mind is at rest. So that’s another reason to unplug. We need to detach from work and research shows when you detach from work you come back to work more engaged, you come back more creative. A lot of people are not taking their vacations—they come home and they take their work home with them. But it’s not serving them.
Q. Something you just touched upon there—companies reward go-getters, these are the kind of metrics that a company might look for or often they’re the ones that align with that kind of go-getter, intense work style. To what extent then do companies make it hard or maybe in some cases preclude these various sorts of strategies to manage our wellbeing?
A. Absolutely. Workplaces may not adopt these ideas yet, although they will with time because they are supported by data. But in very few cases do people have actual control over their environments—you cannot control the demands placed on you by your workplace, by your managers and so forth. You can’t do much about the environment, but you can do something about the state of your own mind. For example, one practical tip is let’s say everybody always has a number of different activities that they need to do at work—some require a lot of high intellectual focus and others don’t. For example, high intellectual focus might be preparing a PowerPoint presentation, and less intense would be entering some data, filling out some paper work, doing some administration, cleaning your desk. So what someone could do is alternate during the day the high intensity activities with the more low intensity activities. That allows you moments of recovery, it also allows you moments where your mind can drift a little bit and that’s where it can access its creativity. The other thing you can do is that no matter where you are and what your schedule’s like, you can always take five minutes—after all, we take five minutes to go to the bathroom, right. You could take five minutes to close your eyes and just do some deep breathing and relax your nervous system, restore yourself in that moment and then you’ll still have more energy to keep going and you’ll also be calmer.
Q. For managers, what can they do to help engender a culture of happiness and wellbeing in their workplace?
A. What research shows for managers and employees alike is that if you were actually kinder with people around you, if you’re helpful and supportive, if you’re compassionate when your colleagues or employees are going through hard times, you will actually end up doing better and being more productive, your team will be more loyal and overall the results will be greater for everyone. Not to mention that your psychological health will be better, your physical health will be benefitted and even your longevity is impacted by living with an attitude that’s more oriented towards kindness, service and supporting others. So what managers can do and leaders can do is adopt that more compassionate stance to the people that are working with them. Find out what’s going on in your employees’ families—is anyone going through a hard time?—being there for them as a human being, adding the human touch back into the workplace, which is sorely missing these days. You know we’re not just robots working and completing our tasks—we are first and foremost human beings who need social connection desperately as a very fundamental predictor of happiness and wellbeing, we know that from research. So that is what I would say: reintroducing the humanness back into the workplace and that is through kindness, through creating an environment that’s characterized by trust, by respect, by forgiveness, by understanding and by empathy.
Q. What are the signs that someone is overworking and approaching burn out? How can you identify this first in yourself and also in your colleagues or your employees?
A. Well, if someone’s feeling exhausted, if they continue to feel exhausted in the morning when they wake up, if they are having trouble focusing, if they are having a hard time concentrating, if they are having memory and attention difficulties, they’re having trouble sleeping and winding down when they get home, those are all some signs, and they’re things that most of us have probably experienced at one point or another, and that’s really a sign that the body is telling you that you’re burning out and it’s time to restore yourself. A lot of people think, “Well, I have no choice, I just have to keep going”, but if you just take a few steps back and take care of yourself you’ll see that you’ll actually do better.
And taking care of yourself can take other forms too—it has lots to do with your own relationship with yourself. A lot of people are self-critical because they think that will lead to self-improvement, but they couldn’t be more wrong because self-criticism actually leads people to have greater anxiety and depression and it leads them to be less likely to learn and grow from their mistakes and the challenges and failures that they face. On the contrary, there is self-compassion, which is basically treating yourself as you would a friend, in other words understanding when you’ve made a mistake and giving yourself a break rather than berating yourself. Not saying that you’re letting yourself slack off or letting yourself off the hook at all times, no, it simply means not being overly harsh with yourself, you know the way we would with a friend. So your relationship with yourself has a lot to do with the outcome of whether you learn from the mistake. We all, especially in business, face challenges, mistakes, failures—how resilient we are, how quickly can we bounce back, a lot of that has to do with your relationship with yourself.
Q. Obviously during our working lives there are some particularly intense moments because of, say, a particular project or deadline. When you’re in that very intense moment, what is it that you can then do to try and manage the pressures and the stresses when there is that intensity around you?
A. So I was talking a lot about the fight or flight system—we’re constantly activating that stress response in our body and when we’re in a situation like that it’s very high, and that’s why people take a lot of anxiety medication, and so forth. But what can you do in the moment? Well, there is one thing that you can do which will immediately calm your nervous system and it’s breathing. And it sounds simplistic, but the breath is tied into your nervous system, so when your nervous system is in fight or flight mode your breath is short and shallow, but if you can deepen your breath, if you can slow your breath, if you can breathe with longer, slower exhales in particular, you actually start to activate the other side of your nervous system, which is the calming, the soothing response—it’s the rest and digest response. So something that you can do when you’re in the moment and it’s a big stressful episode is just take longer, slower breaths; lengthen your exhales; breathe into your abdomen—it sounds simple, but it’s backed by research. When your body slows down and calms down, your mind calms down and you can think more clearly, you can be more emotionally intelligent, you can make better decisions.
Q. Technology is one of the things that can lead us to overwork and is just such a drain on our time and attention and so on. That’s the negative side of it, but how can we manage the negative effects of technology and are there even ways we can perhaps use technology in order to assist with our wellbeing?
A. Absolutely. On the one hand it can really lead to more stress, it can help you bring your work home with you—a lot of people sleep with their phone under their pillow. I mean, that’s really letting your work come right into your bedroom and that can lead you to never shut off, so you’re constantly in that mode of being on, being focused and you can never be in that moment where you relax, you let go, where you restore yourself, where you have these moments of creativity and insight. In that sense, technology can really interfere with your life.
However, if you can work from home a day a week and that’s more restful for you then that’s great and you can do that thanks to technology. It can also be a way where you really connect with others, and we’re seeing that there’s a loneliness epidemic happening where more and more people are living further and further from their families, they can feel really isolated due to the intense work hours, and so technology can be a way to connect. You can also be introduced to ways in which you can do some humanitarian work online or donate or anything like that. Those are all things that are tremendously beneficial for you as well.
Q. You said that living in Shanghai was almost what got you thinking on this track, so in what way was it that living and working in Shanghai informed your work? And are there any kinds of cultural differences?
A. Well, in particular I met some elderly people who had been through some challenging times due to just the historical fact of the things their generation has gone through, and one of them in particular, he was a very well-known professor at Fudan University and very respected and genius kind of guy, but he was also so happy despite having gone through a very difficult life, and I looked at him and saw this happiness even though he didn’t have much. And then in the US I saw how people have so much and they’re not happy and that’s when I realized: happiness, it does not lie in material possessions. Happiness is a state of mind, happiness has a lot more to do with how you approach the world. It’s an approach to yourself, it’s an approach to the world, and that’s what led me to go more deeply into this investigation. A lot of the things I talk about are quite East Asian in their approach—whether it is about staying calm or whether it is about doing practices that involve meditation and things like that. Some of them are, I think, very tied into a more traditional East Asian perspective that the West really needs right now. But I think that China also really needs it because everybody is moving more towards that incredibly intense, very competitive work life—it’s inevitable.
[This article has been reproduced with permission from CKGSB Knowledge, the online research journal of the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB), China's leading independent business school. For more articles on China business strategy, please visit CKGSB Knowledge.]