How to pull workers back from the brink of burnout

In August, Marissa Mayer kicked up a dust bowl of criticism when she told Bloomberg Businessweek that Googles early success had a lot to do with 130-hour work weeks. There was plenty of outrage but none of it will do the average American knowledge worker a bit of good.

The 130-hour workweek backlash doesnt move us toward more sane working lives for ourselves or for the teams we lead. Actually, it sets us back. Were not nearly that bad, we can say, and congratulate ourselves because, in our organizations, we only work 12-hour days. Or we only work Sundays when its important or to get ahead of the week. Or we only work at night after the kids have gone to sleep.

After all, we have great benefits, were focused on work we like to do and, heck, its better than a minimum-wage job where we could get fired for taking a couple of emergency sick days. However, just because basic job protections for low-wage workers in the United States are continually under siege, and depressing, that doesnt mean knowledge workers arent getting gamed, too. Too many professionals think they should feel lucky, honored and chosen as their work steals their time, health and well-being.

Whats the win in this game? A big payout from stock options after three years of indentured startup servitude? Multiple no-shows at important events with your family?

Pointing fingers at the most extreme examples of white-collar sweatshops will change nothing. Incremental improvements will change nothing. Reading lots of aspirational articles about perks and work flexibility to demonstrate great culture will change nothing.

Work/life balance in startup culture is total BS. And you are probably part of the problem. Until you say enough and fight back, stand up and resist youre perpetuating a culture of burnout in which no one wins.

Extreme work schedules dont work

Unfortunately, simply working longer hours doesnt lead to better work. As CNBC recently reported, a Stanford University study found that employee productivity falls off a cliff after 55 hours per week. After 20 years of working in Silicon Valley, I understand that this can be hard to accept. I didnt accept it myself until recently, when, for the first time in my career, I took a position where I am not expected to be always-on. In fact, Im encouraged to be off, and Ive never been more productive. But I struggled with the shift. I pushed back hard. It took time for me to assimilate to this new normal.

Humane work schedules dont have to be in conflict with business success.

Heres an example. A few months ago, I needed a business forecast for an upcoming executive discussion. I asked a colleague for help. When it came to light that this person worked through the weekend to produce the forecast, my co-founders told me its never acceptable for someone to work through the weekend.

I was shocked.

It was a powerful moment, because I realized that mine was a self-imposed deadline. The business wasnt going to rise or fall on that information being available that day. To the contrary, my previous back-of-the-envelope forecast was close enough for our discussion. I could have (and should have) made it clear that this work could have waited (but I didnt).

Humane work schedules dont have to be in conflict with business success, but they do force us to weed out the type of reactive work that chews through hours of the day. If youre a knowledge worker, by definition you should think about your work but its almost impossible to find time to think if youre constantly reacting. Youll want to carve out time to do the more important things (that may take longer) first before you run out of your more productive hours. Sadly, most of us work the opposite way.

We spend precious cycles on reactive work and then try to squeeze in the important work or do it after hours. Interestingly, I first heard about a different way to work while at Yahoo. We were led through the concepts in Rockefeller Habits, which suggest putting big blocks of work into your schedule first, so theyll get done. If you do that, youll be heads down for a good part of the day. Youll get a lot of real work done, but youll have to put off reacting to everything that comes in to avoid working 18-hour days, seven days a week.

Leaders must set the example for their teams to follow.

Now, if I dont believe my own lower-priority tasks can wait, I cant model the way, as Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner describe it in their popular Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership model. Leaders must set the example for their teams to follow. Ive thought about why I used to believe my work couldnt wait. I identified two reasons. First, my previous bosses behaved like their work couldnt wait. That drove a false sense of urgency for me. Second, it felt good to think I was working on something urgent; it produced a rush of adrenaline.

Business owners and CEOs: You have to lead the way

I was part of the problem. Are you? Heres a quick test to help you see if you are:

  • Do you have an advanced degree but struggle to schedule dinner with your spouse?
  • Do you complain about your nonstop meeting schedule, but feel worried if you have downtime?
  • Do you squeeze 30 minutes out of every week for hot yoga and feel like you got away with something?
  • Do you work at night after the kids have gone to sleep and tell your boss its because you want to do it?
  • Do you actually want to work nights because its the only time you can ever get work done?
  • Do you email your team when inspiration strikes at 3 a.m.?
  • And, do they respond immediately?

These are signs of a toxic culture of workaholism. We can do better.

In the nine months since I joined Basecamp as its chief operating officer, Ive been learning to reimagine my work. It hasnt been easy, and Im not there yet, but heres what Ive learned so far:

  • Choose what youll accomplish in a set period. (Try setting 30- or 60-day windows.)
  • Schedule blocks of work time for specific focus areas. Exhaust everything you can do in that area before turning your attention to other matters.
  • Set work hours and adhere to them. Turn off notifications. Let others know you wont be checking email after, say, 6 p.m.
  • Be mindful at work. Trying to participate in a meeting, read emails and field chats at the same time means you wont do anything well.
  • Ask yourself, What work am I doing now that actually can wait? Then, stop doing it.

Marissa Mayer told Bloomberg Businessweek, [successful] companies just dont happen. They happen because of really hard work. Shes right. But as weve heard from experts countless times, hard work is not equal to nonstop work, all the time. Thats bad for employees and its bad for companies. But it wont change until we change.

What can you change today? Start by shutting off the lights at 6 p.m. and going off to live your life.