By Alice Waagen
Management Training Expert
Owner, Workforce Learning
There’s a lot of excitement these days about the four-day work week.
The trend made headlines in The Washington Post last year when the Virginia legislature allowed state employees to take Fridays off. The leaders of the Commonwealth of Virginia estimated that they’d save millions of dollars on energy by shutting down government buildings across the state one day a week.
“Employees would work 10-hour days four times a week, although some agencies— including those involved in law enforcement, public health, higher education, and departments that generate revenue, such as museums—would be exempt,” wrote reporter Anita Kumar. “The state could save $3.19 million by moving 25 agencies to four-day workweeks and closing hundreds of state-owned buildings, according to a preliminary estimate by the Virginia Department of Planning and Budget. That includes $1.5 million on energy, $880,000 on cleanup, and $810,000 on overtime.”
Of course, there is a downside to the trend.
While adjusting work hours is believed to be a no-cost perk that gives people a long weekend every week of the summer, I see a trap.
If diligent, hard workers think that three days off is a substitute for a real break from the grind of work, they are sadly mistaken. A shorter work week means long days at the office, and often with work to do on those precious days off. So rather than striking a better work / life balance, the employees feels that the work is never quite done. How can they relax?
More important that that, what does it really mean to step back from work and relax?
When you own your own business, as I have for the last 15 years, it’s tough to step back and take time off.
So I recently challenged myself to truly unplug from work and see if it made a difference in my health and outlook.
For two weeks off in June, I shut down my business and went to the hills of North Carolina to take a watercolor class at the Penland School of Crafts.
I went alone, no family or friends with me, and spent the two weeks meeting new people and doing things I love but never have time in my regular life to accomplish.
Even more impressive, at least to me, was that I left the laptop at home and only used my cell phone to call home. No email, no voicemail, no television, radio, or newspapers for two weeks.
Wanting to learn as much as I could from the experience, I kept a daily journal recording my thoughts and feelings as the days progressed.
Here is what I learned about what it takes to truly unplug.
The first two days were pretty stressful, and I felt mildly anxious throughout this time.
I was literally withdrawing from conditioned behavior based on continuous stimuli of electronic beeps, buzzes, and rings. My brain was disconnected from these cues, and I believe that my anxiety resulted from feeling I was missing critical information.
I had to consciously remind myself that I had tied up all business loose ends before I left and that nothing “bad” was happening in my absence. I had to keep myself exceptionally busy those first few days to distract myself and ease the urge to borrow a laptop and check in.
After the stress and anxiety started to abate, I then had a day or two of feeling unmoored, adrift, and befuddled. When you totally unplug, you disconnect from all the feedback mechanisms that define who you are and what you do.
Relentless emails and phone calls reinforce my professional identity and utility. When the phone is silent, what am I to say and do? In my two week hiatus, I realized how much of what I do is “other-directed.”
Every work day, my calendar and commitments structure where I am and what I need to be doing. At Penland, I was able to be totally self-directed within a loose schedule of instruction and activity. Do I get up and eat breakfast or sleep another 30 minutes? Do I take a hike or read a book? I had only myself to ask these questions of. When most of our lives are externally directed, this plunge into self-directedness can be unnerving at first.
Once I adjusted to truly being my own boss, I was struck by how pleasurable life can be when you have total freedom of choice on how to spend your waking hours. At this point, somewhere about day four or five, I can honestly say that I was unplugged. I then had a delightful nine more days to wallow in being responsible to no one but myself and what I wanted to get out of the program.
I am smiling as I type this sentence as the feeling of total relaxation returns to me.
Back to Reality
Even though I’ve been back at work for about a month, I find that I am much more focused and calm than the wound-tight frenzied woman that I was before my break.
Just last week, I found myself running late for a meeting and unable to find a parking spot in the lot. My reaction? I just kept cruising and sure enough there was a spot around the bend. Things work out if you give them enough time.
This is why I read about the beneficence of a compressed work week with trepidation.
Unplugging for three days just won’t cut it. The brain and body need to withdraw a lot longer to really reap the benefits of shutting down. In three days, all you have done is suffered through anxiety attacks without really flushing the thought of work and deadlines out of your system.
I urge every driven professional to walk away from the job for a longer period to really get a full sense of renewal and regrounding in what really matters.
About Alice Waagen
Alice Waagen, Ph.D., is president and founder of Workforce Learning LLC, a leadership development company she founded in 1997. In the past three years alone, more than 125 leaders from 24 organizations have graduated from Waagen’s unique leadership-development workshop series. Learn more about Waagen’s work at www.workforcelearning.com.