Every year, I spend a couple of weeks in Europe in the summer. It’s my time to unwind, disconnect, and fully escape my North American existence. Without fail, every year during this time I reflect on how North America always seems to be working too hard.
In his 2015 documentary Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore shows that this idea of strong work–life balance is the norm in many European countries. Long lunches and longer vacations are de rigueur in places like France and Italy, where food and family are treasured above most other things. Is it a coincidence that Italians have one of the highest life expectancies in the world? They live, on average, four years longer than Americans.
The 2017 World Happiness Report reveals that: “Those who have a job that leaves them too tired to enjoy the non-work elements of their lives report levels of positive affect [emotions] in their day-to-day lives that are substantially lower than those who do not. Furthermore, workers who report that their job interferes with their ability to spend time with their partner and family, as well as those who ‘bring their job home’ with them by worrying about work matters even when they are not at work, report systematically lower levels of subjective wellbeing . . .”
But, as if poor health and happiness weren’t enough, our ability to be creative suffers when we’re working too hard, too.
Image attribution: Jad Limcaco
Do you ever notice when you’re facing an impossible deadline that your creativity seems to shut down?
Teresa Amabile, a renowned creativity researcher writing for the Harvard Business Review, says: “When creativity is under the gun it usually ends up getting killed. Although time pressure may drive people to work more and get more done, and may even make them feel more creative, it actually causes them, in general, to think less creatively.” Creativity needs time and space to grow.
Let’s explore the analogy Amabile uses in her article that represents how psychologists generally understand how creativity works in the brain. Creativity is kind of like a mental juggling act. The balls represent concepts that are being generated and thrown around to form new patterns and combinations. When two balls come together that are rarely combined, or are rarely combined in such a way with other balls, that is a creative idea. It follows that the more balls you have in play and the longer you have to juggle them, the more likely it is you’ll come up with new ideas.
So creativity is reliant on having enough juggle time. That is, not facing overwhelming time pressure when you’re in the office working on a problem. But it’s also reliant on generating the balls to juggle. How do we do that? I would argue we need to stop working so much. We need to get out of the office, we need to get away from our screens, and we need to have time off. For our brains, this isn’t time “off” but rather time to expand the sources from which we generate our juggling balls. If we’re not feeding our senses with new sights, smells, sounds, and experiences, how do we expect to have any new material for our brains to combine when we need new ideas?
Amabile’s study found that, surprisingly, people seem to be largely unaware of the negative effects that time pressure has on creativity and how long those effects last. She found that time pressure on any given day didn’t just reduce creativity that day but for the following two days after that, a phenomenon she describes as “postpressure cognitive paralysis.” She also found that the greater the time pressure people felt during the initial stages of a project, the less creative they were on that project for the first half of it, a period of time that ranged from three weeks to four months!
The worst working conditions (those under which creativity suffered the most when there was time pressure) include situations where people feel as if they are on a treadmill: They’re distracted, have a highly fragmented work day with too many different activities, they don’t have the sense that the work they are doing is important, they have more meetings and discussions with groups as opposed to one-on-one or time to focus alone, and they experience last-minute changes to their plans and schedules.
Within sectors like marketing, advertising, and media, the constraints on creativity that accompany the overworked lifestyle could actually be crippling our performance and innovation potential in addition to making us unhappy and unhealthy. The implications of a lack of work–life balance in our knowledge economy—where creativity has become a commodity—are dire.
So how did we get here? How did we arrive at a point of declining happiness despite growing GDP? The United States has no laws setting a maximum work week length, no limits on the amount of overtime an employee can work, no mandated annual leave, no national paid parental leave benefit, and no federal law requiring paid sick days. As one incredulous Italian worker explained to Michael Moore when he highlighted these stark differences between Italy and the United States, you only have one life, and it’s important to enjoy it.
When your health, happiness, and creativity is correlated with the success and innovation of your company, developing policies that support a strong work–life balance is an economic as well as a social boon. It doesn’t make good business sense to have employees working longer hours and struggling to meet tighter deadlines when creativity suffers as a result. Creativity is the backbone of companies’ innovation and growth. Those companies that recognize that better work–life balance boosts creativity will be the ones who prosper in the long run. With a lack of any nationwide policies, it ought to be a high priority for individual organizations to ensure concrete processes exist for their employees to have the kind of work–life balance that builds health, happiness, and creative power.
I personally find I do my best work after I’ve taken time off, gone for a walk, made a nutritious meal, and spent time with loved ones. And I’m sure I’m not alone.
For more insights into workplace health and happiness, subscribe to the Content Standard newsletter.
Featured image attribution: Toa Heftiba