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Published: November 29, 2005

 
 

Best Business Books 2005: Work and Life

The Upside of Downtime

As long as clocks have ticked, people have complained about overwork and lack of time. But employees of the modern downsized, digitized, and driven corporation feel the pain and drain of work — and express their longing for leisure — more than ever, even as they enjoy more perks and protections than their predecessors.

In the business environment of “24/7,” global competition, and always-on-call connectivity, all hours are fair game for work. Sure, people can choose to unplug, but it is getting harder to resist the temptation to always be on call. When you can work anytime from anywhere, the long-standing culture of “presenteeism” — a kind of workaholic converse of absenteeism in which people feel compelled to be seen as working even when they’re not productive — is magnified.

It is certainly debatable whether time-related stress or life balance problems are really tougher for the corporate knowledge worker in the year 2005 than they were for the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit in the 1950s, or for a mill foreman in the 1850s. Undeniably, though, today’s employees, across generations, are looking for more meaning in their work lives and more choices in how they spend the time of their whole lives. This is especially true of women. Recent research shows that seasoned, successful women are opting out of corporate life in ever-greater numbers because they don’t want to make the trade-offs their employers demand.

Corporations are trying to respond with so-called work–life balance programs, but these only seem to scratch the surface of the frustration and exhaustion employees are feeling. Perhaps this is because piecemeal measures don’t tackle the larger strategic issue: the tension between the financial demands of an enterprise and the need to develop a social contract that recognizes each employee’s whole life as valuable. This is a management challenge for both employees and employers. As individuals, employees bear some responsibility for overworking and being overwhelmed. Still, there’s plenty of room for improvement in the way corporations set the tone, pace, and expectations for workers — both for outstanding performers who are disinclined, or unable, to have their jobs subsume their lives, and for those people whose contributions are diminished by overwork.

Four good books, published in 2004 and 2005, address the problem by raising a deeper set of questions. First, what is the best possible way to love, work, think, and grow old? Second, for those of us who must work for a living, how can our employers best support satisfying ways of living and still remain competitive?

From a variety of perspectives, each book examines the way we live when we aren’t working and how this affects what we accomplish when we are. The first — The Time Divide: Work, Family, and Gender Inequality (Harvard University Press, 2004), by sociologists Jerry A. Jacobs and Kathleen Gerson — presents insightful, data-rich research on stress in the American workplace and how corporations contribute to it. The other three represent more personal approaches to the work–life conundrum. Journalist Carl Honoré’s In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed (Harper San Francisco, 2004) looks at the pleasures that pass us by, and the unhealthy traps we fall into, when life is too hectic. Mary Lou Quinlan, author of Time Off for Good Behavior: How Hardworking Women Can Take a Break and Change Their Lives (Broadway Books, 2005), is a CEO who nearly burned out; her book focuses on the frustrations and aspirations of highly effective female professionals. Creating the Good Life: Applying Aristotle’s Wisdom to Find Meaning and Happiness (Rodale, 2005), by organizational behavior expert James O’Toole, seeks answers in Aristotelian philosophy. As unalike as these books are, each leads to a common set of messages: Labor and leisure are symbiotic, happiness and productivity are linked, and workaholism doesn’t necessarily benefit the bottom line.

Redivide Time
In The Time Divide, Jerry Jacobs and Kathleen Gerson, professors of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and New York University, respectively, bust myths about time-deprived families and time-greedy workplaces, and add fresh analysis to the debate about the overworked American. Whereas most researchers measure how people use their time — by either asking them or observing them — this book studies how workers feel about their time commitments, and how the particular cultures and structures of their workplaces affect them.

Drawing heavily on analysis of the National Study of the Changing Workforce conducted in 1992 and 1997 by the New York–based research nonprofit Families and Work Institute, the authors reveal the frustration of highly paid knowledge workers who are experiencing a gap between their actual and ideal division of time for work, family, and self. The employees who feel the most time-deprived are dual-income couples and single parents in demanding corporate jobs — none of whom have the support at home of a nonworking partner. Surveys show both men and women believe work demands cause them to shortchange their families and themselves. Parents with children under 18 say they feel significantly more stress than people without children, and 40 percent of all parents say they feel stress from work–family conflicts.

Among the books reviewed here, this one is densest, but it is worth the slog through the data and research methodologies to get to the authors’ conclusions. For example, without using the label, the authors point the finger at “presenteeism” as a factor that undermines the goals of family-friendly programs. “As long as the culture of the workplace and the message from bosses and supervisors equate work commitment with overwork,” they write, “workers face a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ set of alternatives that exact considerable costs no matter what the choice.” Corporations can counter this by making their own choice to recognize that increases in family time, downtime, and self-managed time lead to much higher levels of corporate productivity, commitment, and engagement. With such options as flexible hours and sabbaticals, people feel refreshed, renewed, and motivated to work.

Even though business leaders complain that the 35-hour workweek has made France less internationally competitive, Professors Jacobs and Gerson strongly advocate this change in the U.S. to lend support to working parents. It’s not clear that a 35-hour workweek law would solve the problem, but even an open-minded debate on the subject — counterintuitive though it may seem to those who preach about the incessant pressure of global competition — would be a symbolic reminder of the importance of downtime to the productivity of a company and a nation.

Slowing Down
Carl Honoré’s In Praise of Slowness was inspired by a personal quest to get a life. In the opening pages, the author recalls the joy he experienced on a “sun-bleached” afternoon in 1985 as a teenager on a summer tour of Europe. Waiting for a bus near the outskirts of Rome, he lies down on a bench and turns up his Sony Walkman to the sounds of Simon and Garfunkel, soaking up a simple scene that, he writes, is “engraved” on his memory: two small boys kicking a soccer ball around a medieval fountain, tree branches scraping against an old stone wall, an elderly widow carrying her vegetables home in a bag.

Mr. Honoré’s epiphany came 15 years later, not far from that idyllic tableau. In 2000, he is a foreign correspondent for a Canadian newspaper racing through Rome’s Fiumicino Airport to catch a flight to London. “Instead of kickin’ down the cobblestones and feelin’ groovy,” he recalls, he’s resisting kicking anyone in his path as he runs with a cell phone at his ear to take the last place in line at the gate. “Standing in that lineup…I begin to grapple with the questions that lie at the heart of this book: Why are we always in such a rush?… Is it possible, and even desirable, to slow down?”

The answer is yes. A self-described reformed speedaholic, Mr. Honoré says that writing this book — which enabled him to learn about, and partake in, a variety of life’s pleasures and pastimes — changed his life. In fact, he now counts himself among those people who in “their many and diverse acts of deceleration are cultivating the seeds of a global movement to slow down and live better.”

The author’s rendition of the history of timekeeping in Western culture is colorful and fun to read. He reminds us of the sixth-century Benedictine monks who created primitive clocks by ringing bells at intervals to move themselves from one task to the next. “From early on,” writes Mr. Honoré, “telling time went hand in hand with telling people what to do.” The Industrial Revolution, of course, kicked off the need for speed. “It’s no accident,” he writes, that the phrase “to make a fast buck” emerged in the early 19th century. In 1901, presidential physician John Girdner coined the term “Newyorkitis” to describe an illness whose symptoms included “edginess, quick movements, and impulsiveness.” Recently, another American physician, Larry Dossey, has diagnosed “time sickness” — today’s pervasive fear that “time is getting away, that there isn’t enough of it, and that you must pedal faster and faster to keep up.”

Although Americans are the first to be criticized for obsessive work habits, Mr. Honoré shows how time sickness has infected Europe (respondents to a recent survey in Britain said they would prefer working fewer hours to winning the lottery), and Asia, too. The Japanese have a word for the “work till you drop” culture, karoshi, which means “death by overwork.” In 2001, the Japanese government reported a record 143 victims of karoshi.

Mr. Honoré is at his best when telling stories about the people he met while writing the book, and relating his firsthand experiences with slowing down — from attending a mandatory driver-education class in the U.K. after being caught speeding to indulging in a workshop with his wife on tantric sex just because they had the time. His descriptions of Slow Food, a worldwide movement to encourage more family time and fine dining, are all worth savoring. And, in highlighting how people think more clearly and creatively, and respond under pressure better, when they take time to relax, Mr. Honoré shows how meditation is going mainstream. He describes Bill Ford, the CEO and chairman of Ford Motor Company, as a “committed meditator,” and writes about a Chicago-based management consultant who tells him how getting into transcendental meditation has made him an “unflappable corporate warrior.”

What Women Want
The 2004 survey by the Center for Work–Life Policy at Columbia University of 2,443 American women between the ages of 28 and 55 revealed that more than a third had stopped working for some period of time. Twenty-five percent had chosen flexible or reduced-hour options. Almost 60 percent described their careers as “nonlinear.” Twenty-four percent had left their jobs for childcare- and eldercare-related reasons.

Mary Lou Quinlan’s Time Off for Good Behavior is about these women, for them, and for the corporations who employ them. Ms. Quinlan tells the stories of more than 40 women who, like her, are accomplished Type A personalities. Most are currently or were previously high-ranking executives, living and working in East Coast and West Coast cities for the most time-demanding U.S. corporations.

Ms. Quinlan, founder and CEO of the New York–based marketing company Just Ask a Woman, got to the happy place she is in life today by coming back from the brink of burnout. In 1994, at age 39, she was asked to be president of N.W. Ayer, the oldest advertising agency in the United States, and became CEO a year later. But while all was well on the work front, her personal life was falling apart.

She realized her problem two years into the top job, after a taxi in which she was riding to an appointment was struck by an oncoming car. “The accident should have been scary enough,” she relates, but what really scared her was her behavior that day. Lying on an emergency room stretcher with two broken ribs, unable to breathe without aching, she went “ballistic” when her husband casually told her that an assistant had called the client to tell them she would not make it. “What do you mean, ‘She said I could not make it’?” Ms. Quinlan recalls exclaiming. “I never miss a client meeting.”

It wasn’t until more than a year later, however, that a concerned friend suggested a sabbatical. When Ms. Quinlan finally took some time off, she had no particular plan in mind. “I sat there in the sunshine and asked myself, ‘What do I want to do today?’ I asked myself that every day for five weeks.” Her happiest moments during those five weeks were the “simplest ones,” she writes — eating breakfast in a neighborhood diner, taking Latin dancing lessons in a studio, ice skating in the middle of the afternoon for the fun of it. She saw a movie alone for the first time in years. She took a kickboxing class with her niece.

Time Off for Good Behavior offers a heavy dose of female honesty for those male-dominated corporations that want to know why their highest-performing women are leaving, and how they can get them to stay or come back. “Self-directed and company-endorsed time off is a new concept for companies and for women,” Ms. Quinlan says. Sometimes, however, there is nothing a company can do. Writes Ms. Quinlan: “A good friend of mine said that when it comes time to leave a job, it’s not that you are wrong or that the company is wrong. For many years, your goals were aligned. But at some point, your paths diverge. You each move on as individual entities, glad for the time you had together.” Indeed, when Ms. Quinlan returned to her post at Ayer in New York, she knew immediately she did not want to continue as its CEO. Within a few weeks, she resigned to start the company that became Just Ask a Woman. By “a stroke of luck” (and no doubt because of her talent, as well), her boss, Roy Bostock, who was chairman of the MacManus Group, the global communications holding company that owned Ayer, saw her idea as a business opportunity and helped her fund it.

Consolation in Philosophy
James O’Toole is a highly regarded author of books on leadership and a longtime teacher and researcher at the University of Southern California’s Center for Effective Organizations and at the Aspen Institute. Yet he confesses in Creating the Good Life that he hit 55 feeling empty. “Like many of my generation, men and women born in the years immediately following WWII,” he writes, “I found myself in my fifties full of questions and doubts. I didn’t feel I had accomplished enough in my first five decades, and wasn’t sure how to make the best of the time remaining to me.”

Seeking guidance, he delved into Aristotle’s insights on “planning a life,” and the result is an elegant, original book that anyone, but especially executives, could benefit from reading. It is my choice as the year’s best book on work and life. “Happiness, in the Aristotelian view, demonstrates what good people do; it is the sum of the best activities of which human beings are capable,” explains Professor O’Toole. (For more on Aristotle, see “The Realist's Guide to Moral Purpose,” by Nikos Mourkogiannis, s+b, Winter 2005.) Some of the hottest ideas in economics and psychology today validate this thinking. For example, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes how people experience “flow” or are “in the zone” when they’re doing what they love to do. “I know I have been in the zone when I look at the clock and discover I have been at work for many hours,” writes Professor O’Toole, who says he experienced flow often while writing his book.

For Aristotle, ethical and moral decisions, in part, relate to how we allocate our limited time among the activities of earning, learning, playing, being with friends and family, and participating in our community. John Rogers, CEO of Ariel Capital, seeks the Aristotelian allocation among friends, family, sports, and community service. “Unlike many busy executives,” writes Professor O’Toole, “Mr. Rogers will drop everything in the middle of a workweek to travel out of town to compete in a 3-on-3 basketball tournament. When home in his native Chicago he serves on multiple boards of civic organizations.”

One of the most valuable pieces of managerial advice offered in Creating the Good Life has to do with Aristotle’s discussion of what it means to be a “virtuous boss.” Nearly every professional at some time in his or her career, he notes, can positively affect the quality of life of subordinates or co-workers. Aristotle, Professor O’Toole finds, inspires questions that all managers should ask themselves, such as: “To what extent do I measure my own performance as a manager/leader both in terms of my effectiveness in realizing economic goals and, equally, in terms of using my practical wisdom to create conditions under which my people can seek to fulfill their potential in the workplace?”

These books all argue that the ongoing struggle to lead a balanced life is getting harder. It’s not just that competition is more intense in the workplace, it’s that the modern workplace makes us feel its effects more intensely. But the more important message for corporations is that human-capital strategy can counter this trend only by seriously taking into account the effect of our mental, emotional, and physical state on our ability to achieve good results at work.

Some businesses will find ways to move beyond the focus on balance to help people integrate their work with their whole lives; most probably won’t. Indeed, the companies that stick with machine-based models of efficiency and effectiveness will continue to push down their costs and push up their stock prices by driving their employees as hard as they can — at least in the short term. But given the connection between employee happiness and productivity, it seems unlikely that companies led and run by people stretched to the max will succeed in maximizing returns in the long run. Alternatively, companies can heed Aristotle’s advice, as interpreted by Professor O’Toole. Like political leaders of ancient Greece, virtuous business leaders have a duty “to make ‘the good’ of the company commensurate with the good of its employees, in fact, to make the two mutually reinforcing.”

Author Profile:


Ann Graham ([email protected]), a contributing editor to strategy+business, was this magazine’s deputy editor from 2000 to 2005. She is currently the editorial director and a coauthor of a forthcoming book (with Peter Senge and others) that applies organizational learning and systems theories to the creation of sustainable businesses. The book will be published by Doubleday in 2007.
 
 
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