Rest is key to productivity: A defining lesson of the COVID-19 era
We are learning how to support individual and collective wellbeing at work, and finding that it builds our capacity to thrive.
In this peculiar situation which we find ourselves in, there are notable shifts in how people are working, specifically among those of us who are privileged to continue working while being confined at home (for we are certainly not “working from home” like we used to with ease and comfort). We are noticing that there is more space for checking in, with an unspoken agreement to use the first five to ten minutes of every call to ask each other how they are doing. There is explicit discussion about our mental and emotional health. There is more grace around time, with more flexibility in being late to or rescheduling meetings. We have standardized remote accessibility for all types of events and meetings — previously a rare option that often was considered too great a burden on event planners. We are more considerate of each others’ needs in terms of safety and protection, as well as economic needs to distribute work based on our respective class privilege. There are plenty more examples of how we are practicing different ways of working during the COVID-19 pandemic that are enabling us to be more embodied and whole while at work.
This is not to dismiss the real hardship and negative impacts of trying to work while confined at home. Rather, it is to point out that the pandemic has created a rift in the normal operations of business that, for some people in some situations, has offered an opportunity to listen to their needs, be more transparent about them, and take care of themselves with attentiveness and patience. It has introduced a shift in perspective that the “costs” to tend to worker health and wellbeing in the broadest sense of those terms are, in fact, essential to keep operations going and support productivity. Time and effort toward rest, care for each other, and accessibility are now seen as contributing to the health and wellbeing of the company, community, and economy.
What might it look like if these qualities remained present in our work cultures after this period? What would it take for that to happen? To explore these questions, we need to unearth the ways that have prevented this until now.
The slowing down that we are experiencing is conventionally seen as an antagonist of economic productivity. In capitalism, productivity is determined by how much we produce — how many reports we write, shipments we deliver, meals we serve, groceries we ring up, etc. The more efficient we are, the more productive we are, the higher the profit — hence the desire to maximize time producing. However, another key element here is the minimization of production costs, such as the supplies needed to make products, the fuel used to deliver goods, and — critically — the wages, benefits, and paid rest breaks for workers. Capitalism functions by eeking out more from workers for less investment; put simply, it functions on exploitation. This is why only 8 states and the District of Columbia have mandatory paid family and medical leave. It is why the federal minimum hourly wage is an insulting $7.25 and only 29 states have higher requirements.
In order to stay productive in this system, workers must learn to deprioritize and altogether ignore our needs. When you feel tired at work, you’re likely to grab for coffee or a snack — easily-processed fuel to keep your body going. When you’re stressed out and need a break, you might scroll through Instagram or step outside for a cigarette. These are all quick fixes that enable us to respond to what we’re feeling, but it’s unlikely that they actually satisfy what we really need. To be clear, these quick fixes are normal and perfectly OK; in fact, they are resilience strategies that we use to care for our body as much as we can, given the constraints we face. What is problematic are the constraints themselves — capitalism’s unreasonable expectation that we churn out as much work as we can at the expense of our emotional and physical health and wellbeing.
Even more disturbing is that employers have actively encouraged these quick fixes under the auspices of worker benefits to boost productivity. Coffee and tea breaks with extra sugar have long been embraced by employers to keep workers going. A more covert strategy has emerged in recent years with the growing movement toward wellness in the workplace. On-site fitness centers, nap rooms, healthy lunches and snacks, and smoking cessation support — these types of wellness perks are becoming more commonplace, especially among companies with 200 or more employees. While some of these benefits may generate meaningful health outcomes for those who participate, a core intention of these offerings is to boost employment outcomes in terms of fewer days missed, longer tenure at a job, and increased productivity. It’s noteworthy that there is scant evidence in academic literature demonstrating that wellness programs consistently benefit either employees or the employer. The point here is that the capitalist drive for productivity is so insatiable that even the strategies that have potential for genuinely supporting workers in listening to their bodies are co-opted, repackaged, and commodified into a quick fix to superficially meet needs while keeping people productive.
In contrast, in the biological world, the expenditure of energy through the process of production is not at all a waste or cost, but rather is an investment that regenerates the system’s productive capacity. In other words, what it truly means to be productive is to have a circular, regenerative feedback loop. As eminent ecologist Amyan Macfadyen writes about plant productivity:
“…any given ‘quantum’ of energy will be dissipated by some organism and will thus be lost to the system, while the ‘degraded’ matter eventually finds its way back to the plants to be re-charged with energy once more.”
Notice how different this understanding of productivity feels compared to capitalism’s definition. The former is imbued with trust in the purpose and value of all steps in the process. It has a sense of spaciousness and even an expectation for the system to be fully integrated and whole. Can you imagine what it might feel like if our workplaces held these qualities as the measure of productivity?
Finding time to rest
Consider this: if you took a 5-minute break at work every time you felt tired, your body felt sore from sitting for too long, or your brain was fried, how many breaks would you take in the workday? Now consider if you took a break every time you experienced a difficult emotion like anger, anxiety, or fear, to pause and process the emotion. How much time would that add up to? If you’re anything like me, your breaks would accumulate to at least 2 hours each day.
If we did this — actually listened to our bodies (including our mind, spirit, and emotions) and responded to our needs with care, we would likely find that it is simply not feasible to work 8 hours or more each day at the level of productivity that is expected of us. We need time to tend to the completely normal and essential ways that our bodies function. However, capitalism does not accommodate these essential needs. The structure of capitalism has determined that one 10–15 minute break per 4 hours worked is actually a perfectly reasonable amount of time to accommodate our needs. Compare that to the 2+ hours we calculated earlier. Clearly, if we were to truly listen to our bodies, we would not be nearly as “productive” in the capitalist sense.
Given this, to survive in our day-to-day lives — to keep food on the table and pay rent and bills — we’ve found a multitude of strategies to distract ourselves from the pleas of our bodies and minds. Yet now, in the confinement of our home, without any errands to run, meetings to attend, or events to gather at, we are stripped down to our barest selves. Tending to home, preparing meals, sleeping, trying to stay well — in this tender simplicity of living, we have found a level of intimacy with ourselves that we may never have experienced before. For many, it is unnerving to be in such stillness where we can hear our thoughts and sense our emotions without the noise of our daily activities and onslaught of information. We are suddenly more aware of how loudly and persistently our minds run through the mental to-do list. Those of us who are trying to work while confined at home may notice that our productivity declines, perhaps making us question the value of our skills or the work itself. Perhaps we realize that we had been measuring self-worth by the number of friends who attended happy hour, the reps we did at the gym, or some other external measuring stick that all of a sudden isn’t there. These realizations are bubbling up to the surface and underlying many of them are uncomfortable and even harmful thoughts like judgement, criticism, and self-doubt that contribute to feelings of shame, guilt, sadness, fear, anxiety, and other difficult emotions. Pre-pandemic distractions like work, social activities, and community engagements filled our schedules so much that it was easy to drown out these thoughts and emotions. Now, in this quiet space, it’s harder to ignore them.
Acknowledging this reality, even in this very moment you’re reading this, may bring up sadness and grief. It might reveal anger at the expectations that are simply not spacious enough for us to actually experience and process difficult emotions. It might uncover resentment at the system that drains you so much that by the time you arrive home from your commute, you barely have enough energy and time to cook, eat, and take care of family, let alone move your body and do activities that bring you pleasure.
If you’re feeling these emotions — pause and breathe for at least 3 minutes.
Then ask: what will we do with this precarious and precious time?
Choosing how to move forward
We are collectively in a universal pause on the moving sidewalk of life. This in-between space offers an opportunity for us to choose how we want to proceed — whether we want to turn the machine back on or create a new way to move forward. To be clear, being in this space of choice is a privilege that not everyone has right now. For many people, the pandemic does not represent a pause for choice — it is a crisis that triggers survival mode. In addition, for those who do have financial stability and good health, this time may be fraught with emotional tsunamis of grief, despair, and fear. This is not an either-or experience. It is all of the things at once, and let it be so.
In the midst of the unbearable intimacy with ourselves, might there be a sip of air that we can breathe in, a moment to be still and choose with intention how we will be now, in this time? Mindfully choosing so that when all of this has passed, we will not just return to a normal that has never served us, but instead, our workplaces, society, and economy will be better — more spacious, nurturing of our wholeness, and with more capacity for us to care for ourselves and each other, knowing from our current shared experience that these qualities are precisely what enables us to grow and thrive.
Thank you to my dear friend Lucas for great conversations that helped seed and evolve this piece, and for reviewing it with thoughtful feedback. I appreciate you!