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No time for downtime anymore

Recently we celebrated Presidents Day, a designated federal holiday where offices and many government institutions were closed.

Still, a surprising number of American workers both in and outside of the office were working. Leading up to this day off, those who decided to enjoy it probably fell into the pattern of cramming in as much work as possible before Monday and then leaning in to catch up upon their return.

According to a 2015 study conducted by Yesware, an email tracking and analytics company, on a holiday Monday such as Presidents Day, people only send 40 percent less emails than they would on a regular Monday, even though they’re technically off work. On the weekdays leading up to and following a holiday, there is a noticeable bump in email volume.

Let’s face it: In today’s world, whether in the office or not, we are never really off the grid. Nowadays, rest has been commercialized and repackaged as “leisure,” and there is little time for that.

In an opinion piece by The New York Times’ Tony Schwartz a few years back, which the Times recently republished, Schwartz mused about the current world of work.

“Think for a moment about your typical workday,” he wrote. “Do you wake up tired? Check your e-mail before you get out of bed? Skip breakfast or grab something on the run that’s not particularly nutritious? Rarely get away from your desk for lunch? Run from meeting to meeting with no time in between? Find it nearly impossible to keep up with the volume of e-mail you receive? Leave work later than you’d like, and still feel compelled to check e-mail in the evenings? … More and more of us find ourselves unable to juggle overwhelming demands and maintain a seemingly unsustainable pace.”

Consequently, burnout, anxiety disorders, substance abuse and stress-related diseases are on the rise. With the value placed on work ethic in most companies, downtime continues to be viewed as time wasted. The need for more downtime also continues to be counterintuitive for most workers. Yet, in a study a few years ago of nearly 400 employees, researchers found that sleeping too little (less than six hours each night) was one of the best predictors of on-the-job burnout.

In recognition of this growing body of research, “InterNational Downshifting Week” was established in 2003 to heighten awareness and help workers to slow down their pace. Soon, there was the “slow movement,” described as an approach for people to trade in their high-pressured lives for simpler ones — to downshift wherever and whatever possible in order to “upshift” the overall quality of life.

This also involved being mindful about the way you’re living and being consciously aware of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. The net result of it all is that neither concept, in this age of ever-accelerating change — from downshifting to slow movement — has significantly changed the pace at which people are compelled to work.

As Schwartz points out, time is the resource we use to get things accomplished. Time is finite. Energy is also finite, but unlike time, it is renewable.

Spending more hours at work often leads to less time for sleep, and insufficient sleep takes a substantial toll on performance.

A recent analysis conducted by Harvard University estimated that sleep deprivation costs American companies $63.2 billion a year in lost productivity.

It is simply not true that those who push the hardest are necessarily the most productive. We must take time to recharge our batteries. Unfortunately, under pressure, most of us experience the opposite impulse — to push harder rather than to rest.

“The importance of restoration is rooted in our physiology,” Schwartz points out. “Human beings aren’t designed to expend energy continuously. Rather, we’re meant to pulse between spending and recovering energy.” According to the Basic-Rest Activity Cycle, we move from a state of alertness progressively into physiological fatigue approximately every 90 minutes.

This crazy, ever-accelerating, nonstop pace we are on is also occurring seemingly in lockstep with a growing addiction problem in this country. The opioid epidemic aside, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recently reported that nearly 1 million alcohol-related deaths were recorded from 1999 to 2017. Alcohol-related deaths in the United States have doubled among people at least 16 years old since 1999.

A study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology also revealed that the percentage of U.S. teens and young adults reporting mental distress, depression and suicidal thoughts and actions has risen significantly over the past decade. They found the rate of individuals reporting symptoms consistent with major depression over the past year increased 52 percent in teens and 63 percent in young adults over a 10-year period.

As Robert Croesner, a researcher in adolescent health and the chair of the sociology department at the University of Texas at Austin, recently explained to NPR, “I think we are living in a time of great uncertainty, where people are unsure about the future of the country but also their own futures. And that is anxiety provoking for anybody but it’s especially true for young people whose whole future is ahead of them.”

We need to take more time for ourselves and, when refreshed, take a hard and critical look at the present world of work — if not for us, then for the future for those who follow us.

Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness.

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