Make the weekend work


There was a time when slowing down at the weekend bugged me. It was while working in France, where the supermarkets and stores were mostly closed on Sunday. I lamented this situation at first, but came to really love it as it meant the day became more actively devoted to family and friends. 

No longer could the rhythms of a busy working week seep into the weekend. Instead there was time for long lunches with friends, visits to castles, museums and galleries, artsy movies, and meandering walks.

France may shut up shop at the weekend and force people into thinking more expansively about leisure activity – but elsewhere an overstuffed work schedule is something to brag about.

Many of us genuinely enjoy working the weekend. That was the finding of Harvard Business School researcher Francesca Gino and her colleague Bradley Staats. Gino says people were at their best and happiest at a time when they felt productive.

She suggests that by feeling productive we are making some sort of difference in the world. “As long as you love what you do, what’s the problem with working on the weekend?” she asks in It’s the Weekend! Why Are You Working, the HBR article she co-authored with Staats.

The problem Gino and Staats discovered was that even though our demanding jobs make us energised and motivated, the cognitive resources needed to keep performing at our best were a finite supply and needed topping up over time.

Long hours of work were more likely to result in simple errors and a compromised moral compass. Getting by with minimal sleep and productively long work hours is a badge of honour few can actually achieve.

Sarah Green Carmichael, a senior editor at the HBR, says most of us tire more easily than we think. Only one to three percent of the population can still function well on five or six hours sleep. 

“Moreover, for every 100 people who think they’re a member of this sleepless elite, only five actually are.”

So we’re deluded if we think short-cutting sleep will lead to better work outcomes and we’re also deluded that more time on the job reaps good results.

Green Carmichael pointed to a study by Erin Reid, a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, who found managers couldn’t tell the difference between staff who worked 80 hours a week and those who just faked it.

“While managers did penalise employees who were transparent about working less, Reid was not able to find any evidence that those employees actually accomplished less, or any sign that the overworked employees accomplished more.”

A long day, or even a long week, every now and then is fine, and sometimes necessary, but all too often it becomes an ingrained habit.

“Our passion for our work and the pleasure we gain from feeling productive may explain why we so often work on the weekend, but we still need to be sure to make time to recharge,” say Gino and Staats.

They suggest applying “fierce intentionality” to both work and leisure – when we’re working we need to ensure we’re really working and when we’re renewing, make sure we’re really renewing.

I know that the weekend break is essential for me to regenerate. For me that involves wrapping up my working week on Friday, even if it means the occasional late night on a Friday at my desk.

I try to limit looking at work emails over the weekend and, in turn, resist the urge to fire off emails to colleagues over the weekend so they can have time off work too. Back at work on Monday morning I can occasionally see the stress of colleagues who have instead spent their weekend working.

Many of us – including some French people I know – work more hours than mandated. Interesting though, despite other problems, France’s productivity remains relatively high, especially when measured per hour of labour. The research would suggest you should work hard when you work – and enjoy your weekend when it comes. Vive le weekend!  M


Kate Kearins is currently Acting Dean in the Faculty of Business, Economics and Law at Auckland University of Technology.

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