Weekends aren’t what they used to be. And it’s become a serious problem.
That’s the message of Katrina Onstad’s new book The Weekend Effect: The Life-Changing Benefits of Taking Time Off and Challenging the Cult of Overwork. Onstad, a Canadian novelist and journalist who has written for the The New York Times, starts off by documenting the origins of our 64-hour escape from the office (Thank you: religion, unions, and Henry Ford). Then she dives into the ongoing struggle to step away from our smartphones and make the most of that time, with compelling stats, quotes from progressive CEOs, and anecdotes that will make you nod in agreement or shake your head in recognition.
Not that there’s much chance you’d argue with her thesis. Nearly 40 percent of Americans reported working 50 or more hours per week, putting us far ahead of our European counterparts, with less to show for it. But that’s starting to change. Onstad interviewed leaders who are capping workers’ hours to brilliant effect (including Jason Fried of Basecamp and Dustin Moskovitz, formerly of Facebook). And she offers myriad ways we can reclaim our leisure time with meaningful pursuits, as opposed to another Netflix bingefest that leaves you wondering where the weekend went. Here she speaks with 99U about her findings.
Q. Early in your book, you compare the United States and Canada to typical working hours in other countries. What stood out to you?
A. The one idea that surprised me is that shorter-hour cultures are more productive, and have stronger economies, which seems counterintuitive. But over and over, researchers have discovered that after about 40 hours a week, our productivity drops off. Sometimes people can go through crunch periods, particularly in the creative industries: If you have a big project, you may be able to fight through it and hit 50-60 hours for a few weeks without a degradation in the work.
But it’s not sustainable beyond that. It’s not just the health issues that arise, with exhaustion, substance abuse, heart disease, and all the physical ramifications of overwork, but people start to introduce more errors. So the argument in favor of overwork becomes much more of an emotional and social-status argument rather than what we know about how people work and how to get the best out of employees. Germany has a short-hour work culture and is one of the strongest economies in the world. Mexico and Korea have the longest hours and are among the least productive. The U.S. and Canada are somewhere in between.
It’s really interesting the way a work-first mentality can grip an entire nation: France recently passed “right to disconnect” legislation that essentially says that after 5 or 6 p.m. and on weekends, your boss cannot contact you unless it’s an emergency. We’re so tethered to our workplaces and our devices that that concept seems almost sacrilegious or a sign of weakness, but France is recognizing that asking people to work crazy hours just isn’t helpful economically.
Q. Much of the efficiency research cited in your book relates to manual labor, which isn’t surprising because creative work is really hard to measure. Has anyone tried?
A. It’s definitely hard to gauge. There’s a whole body of research around wartime industries and mechanized environments that are easy to measure, but with creative workers we have to look at case studies. In the book, I talk about the Electronic Arts scandal about 15 years ago where programmers in the gaming industry were working 70-80 hours a week and completely exhausted, and not being compensated for overtime.
What happens in those environments is this conflation of work and play. As creative people, we often think of ourselves as artists, and we’re even encouraged to do so—you’re supposed to do it for the love of the job or the love of the art, which sets up a dynamic that’s really open to workplace exploitation and exhaustion.
If you love your work, it’s really hard to turn it off, and there are all kinds of forces at play that are opposed to you turning it off, including your own sense of self. If you’re a creative professional and you’re in a museum and you get a note of inspiration, you might think, This is something I need to post to Instagram. But if we’re always feeding our “work selves,” it takes us out of the present moment, and that has really bled out from the creative class into other spheres—everybody is curating their brand, from the designer to the accountant.
To be clear, I didn’t write this book to scold people, just to point out that it can be a grueling way to live, and it’s a gateway to missing out on so many other experiences of the world, if work is the driving force of every experience, including leisure. For me the lens is the weekend: Can we protect 48 hours, where we’re not just in promo mode? Is it possible anymore, and what would that look like?
Q. And you’re not just asking questions: Your book shares some stories of Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp, who embraces shorter weeks during the summer, and Facebook founder Dustin Moskovitz, who has had a lot to say about the topic.
A. Moskovitz is a really interesting case, because he has spoken so openly, yet tentatively, because there’s still such a stigma around this idea that working less is a strategy for success. When he and I spoke, he talked about the early start-up days being insane and all the typical responses—back pain, living off of energy drinks, and feeling terrible all the time. He’s written about it on Medium, saying, “If we’d worked less, we would’ve done better work,” which is unfathomable to people on the outside. Now he has his own company, Asana, and he has tried to undo a lot of those habits by instilling some progressive workplace practices like not infantilizing workers so they can create their own schedules, and trying to ease up on weekends. And he’s modeling that behavior, which is one of the most important things leaders can do, actually showing employees, “I’m off-line, and that grants you permission to go off-line, too.”
Q. For years, we heard people focusing on the concept of “work-life balance,” but lately I’m hearing more people say that work-life balance is just a myth. Has your research led you to believe that?
A. It can definitely feel like one of those unattainable goals that may set you up for failure—that thing on the horizon that you’re always chasing. So I don’t know if the concept of work-life balance is a useful idea. Because it’s all life, right?
What I don’t like in that equation is that it almost encourages this masking of our real lives. In the book, I mention a study that focused on men and women in a high-pressure consulting firm: The women would clearly articulate to their bosses, “I need time to take my child to the dentist or to attend a funeral,” whereas the men were doing the very same things, but doing it invisibly, and they were rewarded for not saying it out loud. What I would hope, instead, is that we can shift workplace models to something holistic, where we acknowledge that we’re people all the time, and that our lives are going to infringe on our work and our work is going to infringe on our lives, but when we’re not working, we use that time in a way that’s really healthy, and that we’re not expected to be on call 24-7. Because the idea that work will always be present is just not sustainable.
Q. The last half of your book discusses ways for people to embrace the weekend and really make it count. Are people really struggling with how to spend their weekends?
A. There’s some real anxiety about free time, and there must be something to this compulsion to fill every minute and commodify it, right?
The original scaffolding of the weekend was obviously religion, and the essential point of congregation was to stop working, and come together. But now, in our secular society, people don’t have that same compulsion. Today, many people spend the entire time “decompressing,” and research suggests those extremely passive forms of leisure don’t actually make you feel better; they just provide instant gratification or quick hits. As part of that Sunday night let-down, people think, “I went to the mall and I got a pedicure—why don’t I feel any better?”
So I was very interested in this category of “active leisure,” which has much longer-lasting benefits, and the biggest piece of it was socializing—finding real human connection. We know that rates of social isolation are higher than they’ve ever been; while we may be really digitally connected, we’re not necessarily connected to one another in a meaningful way, and that’s an urgent problem for our own happiness and for the health of our communities.
That’s why I wanted to talk to people who are doing creative things in their own communities, and they’re palpably happier as a result. I always thought volunteering seems so pious, and who wants to spend their weekend doing it, when it’s so boring? But it turns out that volunteering actually creates the sensation of more time. If you don’t want to spend 5-6 hours every Saturday volunteering at a soup kitchen, then try a one-off event here and there, because there’s incredible value in that.
Q. In your book, you share your own struggle with carving out time, and making weekends feel meaningful. How’s it going for you?
A. Well, as it turns out, my book is right! Which is incredibly vindicating. The biggest things for me is being attentive to how I spend my time, saying, “No, I don’t need to bring my phone with me when I go to the park,” and “It’s OK if I’m completely off-line for 24 hours—the world is going to continue to spin.” My family has really pulled back on scheduled activities for the kids, which is a huge piece for people who feel crunched. It’s OK to let your kids be bored, and set them loose—you don’t need to spend every minute shepherding them through the city. I’ve started volunteering with a writers collective offering workshops in marginalized communities, started to make more time to enjoy parks and greenspace in the city of Toronto. And I’m forcing myself to not rely on Netflix to fill empty windows of time, but to actually look at the big picture, and ask: What do I want my life to be?