The Importance of Rest

10th January 2021

Many years ago, I remember looking over a senior colleague’s shoulder and seeing her diary. Her diary was an overlapping patchwork of meetings, conference calls and commitments seemingly from the moment she woke up until the moment she finally logged off in the evening.  I remember feeling slightly envious of this colleague—not only was she a fantastic, inspirational person to work with, but she was also in-demand.  She’d always make time for her colleagues and people seemed to really respect her.  People who are in-demand must be important, I concluded… 


As the old expression goes, “be careful what you wish for”.  Fast forward a few years and I had my own patchwork calendar, with overlapping meetings and all the pressure that goes with it.  It certainly didn’t feel as good as I thought it would, and finding time to keep up with all of the other elements of the job (including the avalanche of e-mail that arrives each day) became difficult. I was experiencing stress like never before and was working longer and longer hours.On reflection I recognise that I was conflating stress and long hours with success. Somewhere along the way I’d internalised the view that successful people work in stressful roles—therefore being stressed is one of the signs of success. 


Breaking Through The Culture Of Busywork 

As I write that sentence down, I can’t help realise how absolutely ridiculous it sounds.  Not only is the logic completely flawed, the sentiment is worryingly corrosive too, however it felt very real at the time.  I suspect it was partly due to the culture of the organisation I was working for, as well as my own perceptions on what success looks like.   I suspect I’m not the only one to have experienced this pattern, perhaps you have seen it too?  It can be even more pressing in distributed teams when there’s the desire to be ‘seen’ to be busy.  Our inner ‘work conscience’ can lead us to worry that people think we are slacking off.  If we’re not sending e-mails, in a meeting and if we don’t immediately respond to Instant Messages (IMs) then we’re slacking off!    Of course, nothing could be further from the truth… if we’re stressed, tired and run-down our levels of creativity and productivity are probably below where they could be. 


Think about a time when you were being really creative—either at work or perhaps when working on a hobby—when you created something you were really proud of.  Were you stressed at the time?  Were you exhausted, having been to seventeen meetings that day without the chance to grab a coffee (let alone a sandwich)?  I suspect, for most of us, the answer is ‘no’!  You were probably well-rested, fully-charged and in a positive mindset.  There might well have been some positive stress (e.g. a sense of purposefulness driving your forward towards a tough but achievable deadline), but I’m guessing you were probably fairly present, relaxed and undistracted. 


Have Rest Without Guilt 

I’m going to say something that might sound controversial.  It’s OK to rest, in fact it’s not only OK, it’s necessary.  As the world moves more and more towards flexible working and the lines between work and home blur, this means we need to accept that rest blurs into work too.  If it’s necessary to take a call at 8pm from a colleague in a different timezone, why not take some time out earlier that day to recharge? To go for a walk, run a few errands or just sit and stare out of the window.  Yes, there are e-mails to answer but there will always be e-mails to answer.   Rather than reaching into the bottomless pit of work and picking another item, why not look after ourselves first? 


As practitioners of change, it’s important that we recognise that our own work practices are changing too.  As practices evolve and change we have the ability to influence the norms of the organisations that we work in.  We should lead the charge and lead by example, we should avoid the temptation to always be ‘seen to be busy’, and make sure there is some space in our diaries.  We shouldn’t be afraid to stop for coffee or lunch, knowing that doing this will likely increase our productivity.  Most of all, we should support other colleagues who may be caught in a ‘busywork doom-loop’, colleagues who are forever ‘fire-fighting’ and never seem to have any downtime.  We might offer to help with their work, to temporarily take the pressure off, or maybe even just check in with them by picking up the phone. 


However we do it, as a global community of change practitioners, we need to cut through the perception in some organisations that over-allocated is normal, and stress is good.  Imagine what we could achieve with organisations full of people whose batteries are fully charged? 


by Adrian Reed, Business Analysis Expert