Working Smarter

Slam Dunking Job Stress and the Mental Health Taboo

Posted by Joe Robinson


IT'S ONE OF THE FEW REMAINING TABOOS left in the closet: mental health. This is particularly true when it comes to the wellness of the brain on the job and conditions invisible to the naked eye, such as stress, anxiety, and burnout.

Few speak up about these health and job hazards, out of a fear of being seen as weak or less promotable, and it's making us sick. Millions suffer in silence, the very condition that fuels more stress through what happens when we don’t talk about and manage demands—rumination.


This is why it was big news when one of the top stars in pro basketball, six-foot-ten inch Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers, stepped forward to tell the world about his struggles with anxiety. Outwardly Love seems the calmest player on the court, but inside it's a different story.

He had to leave a couple of games because of anxiety. One panic attack left him gasping for air on the locker room floor and thinking he was going to die. His heart was beating out of his chest, and he could barely breathe. He thought he was having a heart attack, which is what everyone thinks who experiences the profound terror of a panic attack.

He was taken to a hospital, where doctors gave him a clean bill of health. Without an obvious physical disorder, some teammates and many fans started questioning his commitment to the team and toughness. After a period of intense speculation about whether he was a slacker or malcontent, he decided to open up.

Love admitted he suffers from anxiety and depression, a family issue from way back. The revelation lifted a huge load from his broad shoulders, and people started to understand that this All-Star athlete, a giant of a man and fierce rebounder, had a medical condition, except, instead of it being a knee or hamstring or physical problem we can see on a scan or x-ray, it was in his brain. Lebron James shook his hand and told him he had helped a lot of people with his disclosure.

There’s a great article on here about Love and the challenge of getting NBA players to seek mental help. One insider estimates 40% of the players league could benefit from a mental assistance program, and the league is now making them readily available. Yet few players think they need assistance, primarily because they think a session with a mental health expert makes them less tough and might affect their valuation on the market.


The story got me thinking about what I see in the corporate world and how similar it is. People suffering from high stress seldom seek out the help they need. People who would think nothing of getting a broken arm fixed, endure months and years of high job stress, which is doing much worse things to their bodies and brains. They have been led to believe they are supposed to take stress as a badge of courage. To admit anxiety is almost to admit defeat. You can’t handle it.

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Wrong. Courage comes, not in enduring punishment and getting sick, but through speaking up and resolving demands and getting healthy. Stress has to be challenged, contested, and disputed, or it doesn’t go away. You can’t do that unless you can get it into the open and admit to yourself, your spouse, a friend, a coach, a counselor, or a supervisor that the bottleneck, deadline, high stress levels or pressure are not sustainable, that something isn’t working, and that it’s draining you and your productivity.

When management doesn't get any feedback to the contrary, it's assumed all is well, but when people speak up, it can lead to adjustments that can solve the stressors and to training programs of the sort I lead, in stress management or work-life balance. The most common phrase I get from clients is that work-life balance or stress management "keeps coming up on our surveys of employees."

It's also good idea to speak out, because it's much healthier to do so. Studies show that verbal expression of emotions reduces stress (Pennebaker) and suppressing emotions increases anxiety (Roemer). 

The ostrich approach is the first instinct, but it’s a waste of health, performance, and life too, since stress suppresses the play equipment in your brain. You can’t have fun when a part of your brain thinks you are about to die every second of the day. The false belief and catastrophic thoughts of stress will keep orbiting the brain until you convince it there is no mortal threat and turn it off.


When we switch off the false danger signal of non-life-threatening stress, the stress response stops in four minutes. Yet almost none of us are taught how to do this by managing the thoughts that cause stress.

We don’t know how to turn off catastrophic thoughts and increase perceived control over demands, the key to shutting down stress. We don’t know that it’s not others or external events that are driving stress—it’s the stories we tell ourselves about the stressful events that fuel stress. These are stories we can change and deactivate as triggers when we know how to reframe appraisals from life-or-death autopilot to manageable.

Stress does its damage when it lasts for a prolonged period of time. So nipping it in the bud by addressing it head-on is crucial. Chronic stress left unchallenged can lead to burnout, the last stage of chronic stress, and to depression, stroke, and other serious health problems.

I work with many people in my coaching and stress management training practice who have had chronic stress long enough that it has morphed into burnout. They typically have had chronic stress for six months to a couple of years. That takes a huge toll on the body, from heart problems to insomnia to irritable bowel.

Yet breaking through the stress cycle usually only takes three or four one-hour training sessions. As the optometrist says, “Which is better?” Three or four hours? Or upwards of a year or more of anxiety? 

Many of my male clients come to me because their wives have convinced them to seek help. This is why it's so important to talk to loved ones, friends, and family members about stress and anxiety issues. They can help us see beyond the emotional impasse to an outside solution.

In 2018, it’s still hard for men, but also women in the ruggedly individualistic culture we celebrate, to come to terms with the fact that they can't figure it all out themselves. A social worker I met told me she didn't tell her supervisor or even her husband about how overloaded she was until she was in the hospital with a nervous breakdown.

The stigma on mental health can make it seem we are not as capable as others, if we need some help. But stress isn’t about capability; it’s about a brain that wasn’t built for the social stresses of the modern world. We have defective brain architecture that makes us prone to go off unless we know how to manage reactions.


Since we are not psychics, we don’t know what’s in the heads of the people around us. I can guarantee you, though, that there are plenty of others who may not look it but feel the way you do, who are struggling to manage intense pressure every day. Even top professional athletes, such as Kevin Love.

Stress left unmanaged can build to high anxiety levels that can tip over into panic. If you have ever experienced a panic attack, you know you don’t want to have another one. It’s a condensed burst of terror that sends blood pressure sky high and heartbeats pounding like bass drums. It’s sheer panic that comes from a feeling of being trapped, like being cornered by a grizzly. It mimics a heart attack, but it’s simply a state of intense anxiety that has a finite duration. Twenty minutes, and it’s over.

Yet, as Love discovered, once it happens, you live in fear of it happening again, the biggest fear being that others will see you having it. It can lead to avoidance of anything that might trigger another attack, which can lead to seclusion and aversive behavior that leaves you isolated and fearful.

Love took the hardest but surest step to end the syndrome. He disclosed his vulnerability, sought help, and did so under the glaring lights of television cameras and Twitter feeds. He got help, and now he knows that talking about his mental challenges was the best thing he ever did. So much so that he is helping many others who have reached out to him for advice. He is now looking to set up a foundation to help young boys manage anxiety and depression.

“I think I found my life’s calling,” he told

Finding ways to manage reflex reactions and emotions is a life calling for all of us. Reaching out puts us on the path to awareness and knowledge, without which we are at the mercy of events, and with them, master of those events.

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Tags: job stress, mental health, mental wellness, speaking up, panic attacks, Kevin Love

Searching for Boundaries and Balance in Mumbai

Posted by Joe Robinson


THEY GET TO WORK at 9 a.m. and often don’t leave the office until after 9 p.m. The competition for the top jobs is fierce, so no one wants to be seen as having less stick-to-itiveness than the next person. The work ethic is enshrined in the culture and religion of the land, devotion to the divine seen in every task you do.

The place? India, not the U. S., something I discovered while leading a work-life balance training for the Reserve Bank of India in muggy, monsoon-soaked Mumbai. The religions may be different, but each helped forge a habit for overdoing it that would lock millions into a queasiness about boundaries that has been further aggravated by an always-on world at the command of digital devices.


The two countries also share the stress load that comes from overperformance, compounded by white-knuckle commutes that make L.A. gridlock look like Fargo’s in comparison. Yes, there are lanes painted on the road, but they are a formality. Three lanes are a waste of space when you can cram in between them with every possible conveyance—tuk-tuks, motorcycles, trucks, pedestrians, bicyclists, rickshaws, carts pulled by humans or horses, and cows and water buffaloes in cities like Varanasi--to create five or six lanes.

Traffic in India

Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, is the financial and film capital of India, home to the most prolific movie hub on the planet, Bollywood. It's a hectic mix of British colonial structures, gleaming high-rises, and slums.

And a sign of India’s growing future. The nation's economy is growing fast, upwards of 7%, and for the first time it is no longer the home of the most impoverished people on the planet. Nigeria is. Tech companies are flourishing and Indian cable TV has hundreds of Hindi-language channels. Barefoot tuk-tuk drivers use the GPS on their smartphones to navigate the chaotic streets or watch videos in gridlock.

Yet some executives in India know that the long-hours, work-until-you-drop style is a prescription for burnout and poor performance. General manager of RBI Academy and Welfare, the human resource division of the Reserve Bank of India, Dr. Vijay Shekhawat reached out to me to come to Mumbai and provide some tools for stress management and work-life balance to leaders with some of the toughest work schedules, which combine their normal jobs and oversight on the boards of Indian commercial banks.


We dug into the factors that drive overwork—mechanical momentum (habit), the cultural overlay of their own work ethic, guilt, fear, and what I call the performance identity. Just as the Protestant work ethic derived from beliefs that idle time was the devil's time and all work was a glorification of God, so too Indians viewed work as the path to the Hindu deity. Work can be the way to self-transcendence if it's done without regard to ego and external personal gain.

Like the American work ethic, the Indian work ethic has been largely secularized for the upwardly mobile track, which results in a very similar sense of self-worth derived from output. I was struck by how similar the performance ID in India is to that in the U.S., a belief that all worth comes from external output.

Yet the job is just part of who we are, a persona, a social handle for the world to peg us. When we think it’s the entirety of our being or validation, we get fidgety in a free moment and find it hard to relax if we’re not getting something done. Life can’t get on that calendar, because it leads to squirminess without production.

There’s a study that Mark Cullen of Stanford Medical School did in which he looked at super-successful retired executives who made lots of money on Wall Street. Two days after they walked out the doors of the company into retirement they felt worthless. They weren’t producing anymore. They had no leisure skills.

Achievement is an important factor for our core need of competence, but we can find ways to feel it outside the job as well. In fact, mastery activities in the leisure-skill world are some of the most potent in delivering competence since they combine with another powerful core need, autonomy, as we gain abilities in a pastime or hobby.

We need a balance between achievement and the internal gratification that comes from intrinsic satisfaction and experiences on the life side of the work-life hyphen. As I reported in my last blog, balance is part of the human mandate, built in to our physiology, which offsets activation and tension with the parasympathetic system of rest and digest.


Balance is also a resounding feature of the most famous symbol of India, the Taj Mahal, thought to be one of the most synchronous pieces of architecture ever created and an apparition I found myself staring up at on a very early morning side trip. As I stood gaping at its seamless use of marble and decorative patterns and scripted phrases from the Koran, every inch was in symmetry to the rest of Shah Jahan’s fabled ode of love to his deceased wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

On either side of the courtyard surrounding the monument, out of view of most images of the Taj, which was designed as a mausoleum for Mumtaz and also holds the remains of Shah Jahan, there are two large, identical temple-like structures. One is a mosque still used today, and the other is its twin edifice, which is there for no reason other than to balance out the mosque. Nothing askew here.

Taj temple

There is quite a bit askew in our work style these days, which has repercussions on performance and health. Here are some brief cites we discussed in Mumbai for what the science says happens to us with chronic overperformance and with work-life balance:

— Sixty-hour weeks reduce productivity 25% (Clifton)

— People who have good work-life balance work 21% harder (Executive Conference Board)

— WLB increases productivity 10.6% (Federal Reserve Board)

— WLB tripled shareholder return (Hewitt Assoc.)

— Working more than 51 hours a week results in a 29% greater risk of cardiovascular disease (Yang, Schnall)

— People who work more than 55 hours a week have a 33% increased risk of a stroke (Kivimaki)


Boundaries aren’t a frill in an unbounded digital world; they are a necessity to avoid the emergency room and burnout that grinds performance down to going through the motions. They are also a choice we can all make, since ignoring boundaries is mostly a byproduct of reflex behavior and fear of being seen as less than gung-ho.

I shared with the Mumbai audience an anecdote from my friend Tom Freston, former head of Viacom and MTV.  “At the end of the day, I was waiting for my managers to leave, so I could leave. And they were waiting for me to leave, so they could leave.” 

The Indian executives smiled, because they live that standoff every working day, as do millions of people around the world. What if we could be smart and productive enough to go with the science, instead of the fear? How different would our lives and output be?

The job is not a triathlon in pants. Endurance is for sports, not performance, as any brain researcher can tell you. We have limited powers of attention, which are shredded by excess time on task.

As India joins the ranks of modern nations, with a thriving tech field and growing entrepreneurship, it has a chance to learn from the mistakes of industrialized nations that bought in to the “more hours are better” trope. I salute Dr. Shekhawat and his colleagues for opening the conversation to a more successful road to performance and for knowing there can be no progress while operating on the same old unconscious reflexes. 

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Tags: overwork in India, long work hours, overload causes

The Work-Life Balance Imperative: Why Excess and Overload Are at Odds with the Human Mandate

Posted by Joe Robinson


When your car is out of alignment, you know it. It drifts into the other lane when you take your hand off the wheel, and you wind up fighting your own vehicle to stay on the path. So you take it to the shop and get the wheels balanced. When humans are misaligned by overwhelm, 60-hour weeks, or five hours of sleep a night, we know it too.

That’s because our physiology was designed to function with all systems operating in tandem at a level the brain can manage most efficiently, known as allostasis. It’s another way of saying we are born to be balanced.

When we’re not, we drift out of our physical and mental lanes into exhaustion, stress, and serious illnesses and diseases that burn up our health and performance like unbalanced wheels burn rubber—for nothing.


You wouldn’t know it from the state of the world or the sales of Tums, but staying aligned is a favorite topic inside each our heads and bodies. In one study, researchers measured what happens in the brain when it’s confronted with crazy, dissonant music with no discernible melody. The MRI scanner captured brain neurons furiously firing away, trying to find something, anything resembling a pattern.

They were looking for harmony, things in melodic equilibrium. Finding none, they couldn’t do their job, which is making sense out of the scrambled hash in front of us every day.

Another study measured what it is that people like about good dancers, which obviously we do, considering the number of dancing contests we have on the air and the appreciation of clever footwork going back to Fred Astaire and Soul Train. Researchers digitized the figures of the dancers, so the study’s participants wouldn’t be distracted by looks or clothes to go for the coolest or most beautiful person's moves. It turned out that what we are attracted to in the best dancers is their symmetry, the flow of body movements—harmony once again.

Balance is an aspiration and a mandate, from balanced minds, to meals to work-life balance. Someone who is unbalanced we tend to want to give a wide berth to.

We can see that maintaining equilibrium is an essential part of the physiology and not a frill by the body’s own balancing acts to counter stress. As Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky puts it in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, “a stressor can be defined as anything that throws your body out of allostatic balance and the stress-response is your body’s attempt to restore allostasis.”


When a threat overloads capacity to handle it, it sets off autonomic activation of the body’s defense system to cope with it, the stress-response triggering an alert that gushes hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol, jacks up blood pressure, rounds up energy stores in the body to push blood to the arms and legs to fight or run from the danger, and stops energy storage, unneeded when life is on the line.

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The activation process burns up energetic resources, such as fats and sugars, which have to be replaced. No problem. The body’s counterbalance squad, the parasympathetic system, is there to put a brake on the hyper-arousal and fuel-burning with its mandate—rest and digest. It makes us hungry for foods that can help us replace the lost nutrients (which can wind up to be junk food, if that’s what’s handy), and serves to calm us down after the threat is gone.

When the activation system of stress isn’t shut down, and we can’t return to allostasis for long periods of time or chronically, it can lead to any number of major health issues that we could term diseases and syndromes of imbalance. Irritable bowel. Hypertension. Diabetes. Stroke. Insomnia. Back pain. Adrenal dysfunction. Chronic fatigue syndrome. We get sick when we can’t counterbalance the forces throwing our system out of whack.

A mind out-of-balance because of excess demands and the chronic stress that results from them has less attention and focus, which undercuts performance on the job or anywhere else. Stress constricts the brain to the perceived crisis of the moment. You can’t plan or see the big picture. Emotions are on a hair-trigger. Rapport with customers or colleagues plummets.

It takes more effort for a fatigued mind to get anything done. Every task seems more difficult than it is as the strain of rumination keeps minds projecting an obsessive loop of worries.

One of the afflictions trending these days in many workplaces is Attention Deficit Trait. It’s not something you are born with, like Attention Deficit Disorder, but it mimics the symptoms—highly distracted, hard to stick with a task, flitting from one thing to the next, time urgency, shrunken attention span. It’s a condition that comes from overstuffing brain cells with excess demands, information overload, and various short-circuiting that comes from trying to do too much without a clone at your side. It’s your brain’s warning light that the gray matter is severely unbalanced.


We tend to procrastinate about things we don’t feel have value. Clearly, balance shouldn’t be one of those things. It is invaluable, crucial to our health, critical thinking, performance, and outlook. When we don’t pay attention to it, the default is to overload, chronic stress, burnout, and an unconscious mechanical momentum that perpetuates all of that.

Taking work-life balance seriously is a process of proactive self-management and awareness. We need to be aware of stress when we are in the middle of it, aware of emotional reactions and moods when we are in the middle of them, aware of where boundaries are needed, aware of demands that overwhelm coping ability, aware that we have to engage in work recovery processes after the day is done to enable the body’s balancing resources to shut down the activation of demands and start the re-creation process.

With awareness, we can catch ourselves and do what we need to dispute stress, solve challenges, restore the body’s natural recovery processes, and find the counterbalance to get back to where we once belonged, as Lennon-McCartney once put it.

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Tags: work-life balance and productivity, work-life balance and stress, physiology of balance, work life balance and the mind

The Best Stress-Buster We've Never Heard Of

Posted by Joe Robinson


The greatest motivator isn’t on an auditorium stage or audio book. It's a force that lies within all of us. It’s the drive of self-motivation that comes from an internal propulsion system that drives us toward achievement and progress, a hidden resource that can dramatically cut stress and increase work-life balance: mastery.

Whether you are trying to improve a 10k running time, or learn an instrument or ballroom dancing or yoga, the call of self-mastery propels you to do better—or less worse than you did last time, as one aikido enthusiast told me.


We are designed to continuously improve our skill at pursuits we are interested in and practice them regularly for the learning and self-challenge itself, intrinsic motivations shown to increase persistence and accomplishment. Studies show that students learning a musical instrument stick with it if they are self-driven and not forced by parents or peers.

The same is true of dieters. If they are losing weight because they want to and not externally motivated by the pressure of others, they are more likely to reach their goal. Students motivated by grades, an external metric, will drop a tough class, such as physics, while those whose goal is to learn will persevere even if it means a “C” on their records.

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester have documented why intrinsic motivation and the mastery compulsion it fuels are so powerful. We all have an overriding need to determine the content of our lives. Activities that let us experience mastery help us do that, allowing us to steer a course we have designed.

Self-mastery satisfies two of the three core psychological needs Deci and Ryan identified that all humans seek to satisfy—autonomy and competence. And if we do the activities with others, we gratify the third need, relatedness, or close social connection with others. Satisfy these needs, and we are gratified in a lasting way that external goals—money, success, status—which are ephemeral, can’t approach. We don’t really buy the fickle approval of others that comes with external metrics, so they don’t stick with us. Mastery, though, is self-validating. 

We can experience mastery on the job in work that we find challenging, and as we get better at our craft for its own sake, which can tap the competence need. But where we can really advance our mandate to be skillful is outside the professional world. Autonomy and competence can be best satisfied in our time off-the-clock.


Besides making us feel great and touching off a dopamine dance of satisfaction when we learn and advance our abilities, mastery also happens to be one of the best stress management tools on the planet. Work recovery science, which looks at the ways bodies and minds need to recover after a day of pressure and tension on the job, places mastery activities at the top of the list of strategies that can separate us from work stress and the thoughts of work that keep us ruminating about the day's events.

Relaxation and recreation are also good work recovery options, but mastery if the most effective at cutting stress. It fires up your competence, confidence, esteem, and sense of control, in addition to the learning and progress, which make you feel you are moving forward in life no matter what is happening on the professional side.

Mastery activities also have something else going for them. They force us to pay full attention to the rules and moves of the activity. The more attention we have on what’s before us, the less stress, which lives in the other two tenses.

There is a complete cutoff of the thoughts that drive stress. We are able to completely detach ourselves psychologically from work and work thoughts, which researchers say is the key to the recovery process from the overactivation mode we have been in all day.


The only competition in self-mastery is yourself and no goal except for developing your abilities. That’s the learning process, something we used to be very good at. As kids, we jumped in without worrying if we were good at it or not, and that’s how we learned.

Anyone who has ever seen a class of first-graders waving their hands, so enthused to answer a teacher’s question that some kneel on their chairs to try make their hands go higher knows that learning is exciting. Though we lose that spirit as we get older and worry too much about what others will think, that spark of mastery is still alive and well.

We just have to put on our kid hat again and do these five things we once did without thinking about it:

Don’t wait for an invitation

• Be eager to try something new

• You don’t need to know how

• Jump in without thinking about what anyone else thinks

• You want to try because you’ve never tried it before

Mastery activities trounce stress because they also contain the two keys to sustainable happiness. Kennon Sheldon of the University of Missouri and Sonya Lyubomirsky from the University of California Riverside have shown in their research that staying happy comes down to two proactive choices: initiating intentional activities and sustaining intentional activities.  

This puts mastery pursuits squarely at the center of a happy life. Mastery activities are a work-life balance insurance policy, making sure you indulge in the things that provide purpose and fun and connect you to your real life and that you actually have one.

Research from the University of Montreal shows that if you have a passion, you can add eight hours of joy to your week. Is that something you could use?

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Tags: leisure activities and happiness, stress management at home, mastery activities

The Best Employee Retention Strategy Ever: More Vacation Time

Posted by Joe Robinson


Most companies spend a lot of time building customer loyalty and usually know what to do to get it. Yet there is a lot less attention paid to another kind of loyalty that is just as important: employee commitment, and the much less known routes that make that happen. That's a big mistake in a strong job market with a couple of generations that have well-known commitment issues. 

Take a look at these numbers from a 2018 Deloitte survey. Some 43% of millennials don’t plan to stick around for more than two years and almost two-thirds of Gen Z, 61%, want to bolt within two years. Only 28% of millennials want to be at their company five years.

This is a ticking turnover time bomb, but there is a hidden tool to stem the outflow and improve the morale of employees to such a degree that they feel so respected, they don’t think about going anywhere else: more vacation time.


Mary Miller, co-owner of Jancoa, a cleaning firm in Cincinnati, says adding a week of vacation to her two-week policy reduced a 360% turnover rate to 60% in two months and lower as time went on. “The three-week vacation has been the most successful retention program we have ever had,” Miller told me. Productivity shot up, as did sales and profits.

“We realized that, with the money we were putting out for recruiting, training, and background checks for new employees, the extra week of vacation really cost us nothing.”

Stats from the Society for Human Resource Management show that it costs 90% to 200% of an employee's salary to replace them with somebody else.

How can another week of vacation make the difference in someone staying, instead of plotting to leave? It might have something to do with the fact that researchers (Hershfield, Mogliner, Barnea) have found that people who value time more than money are happier.

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When companies offer three weeks, for instance, over the standard one or two, it’s a perk that pays off in better work-life balance, which increases life satisfaction, and that in turn boosts job satisfaction. You need time to get recuperative benefits (two weeks to cure burnout) and go anywhere out of the country. Talk to people who have good vacation policies, three or four weeks, and they don't want to go anywhere else and lose that benefit.

People feel valued by a generous vacation policy, and that is the most important factor in employee engagement, which can result in the team working 21% harder, according to the Corporate Executive Board.


When Bart Lorang, CEO of Full Contact in Denver, Colorado, wanted to increase the appeal of his company to top software engineers so he could compete with tech hubs in California and Seattle, he decided to offer a sweetened vacation pot. Not only would he offer unlimited vacation time, but he would also give his employees a $7500 stipend to pay for their vacation. Recruitment and retention concerns solved.

The kicker on the $7500, though, is that you can only collect the money if you really take your vacation and stay unplugged the whole time you’re on it. He wants brains reset when they come back, because he knows it results in better work and fewer mistakes.

Competition for the best coders and computer geniuses in the tech world is fierce, so they have to provide serious perks to attract the top people. One of the most popular is the unlimited vacation policy. Employees can take the time they need, as long as all the work gets done. It is becoming commonplace for tech firms to adopt unlimited vacation. It attracts the best people and helps keep them there.

Millennials and Gen Z employees are particularly attuned to vacation policies. They value work-life balance and travel more than baby boomers, but they have less vacation time than boomers to take vacations. Additional vacation time goes a long way to give these two cohorts the sense they can have a life as well as a job.


The appeal of vacations may seem self-evident. Turn off stress, cure burnout (Hobfoll, Shirom), cut heart attack risk (30% in men, 50% in women who take two vacations; Brooks, Gump), relax, have fun, explore new places and foods, and live your life as fully as possible.

Yet there are deeper reasons why vacations can have a profound impact on outlook, attitude, and commitment. Humans have three core psychological needs that are paid off on a vacation like nowhere else: autonomy, competence, and connection with others.

We need to feel like we are writing our own scripts, the research of Ed Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester shows, and vacations give us that opportunity to determine the content of our lives to the max. We choose where we’re going to go, what we’re going to do.

We get from here to there using skills that make us feel competent. And we spend quality time with family and friends and make a host of new friendships that satisfy the need to connect with others. These are powerful souvenirs that make us feel intrinsically gratified. They translate to the positive outlook that we bring back to the job, and make us feel good about ourselves and the company that provides time to recreate, recharge, and discover our lives.

The energizing nature of a trip loaded with fun, positive emotions, and powerful new experiences increases productivity on return. You have more focus, and it takes less effort to get the job done. Reaction times have been shown to increase 40% after a vacation (Rosekind) and productivity along with them. Attention is the chief productivity tool, and a holiday restores it to working condition in the same way that a good night’s sleep rejuvenates an exhausted body or a charger brings your cell phone back to life. 

Ron Kelemen of the H Group in Salem, Oregon told me that he doubled his income when his company switched to more vacation time, as he took a month off himself each year to go snowboarding or visit Costa Rica. Relaxed and energized brains do more focused work.


Adding another week of vacation isn’t that hard to do. It starts with a quick change of the vacation policy. It has to be followed up, though, with organization. Employees should choose their vacation times at the beginning of the year, so that everyone knows when coverage will be needed. When holidays are figured in to the workflow and operations of the company, it all runs much more effectively than the seat-of-the-pants approach, where nothing is planned and there's no contingency for when it's time for someone to go on holiday.

Another key part of smoothly run vacations is crosstraining. Have teams learn each others’ jobs, so they can fill in when colleagues are out. This works when people are ill too. That’s what Kelemen does in his company. He says crosstraining builds incredible teamwork, since you owe your vacation to others filling in for you and vice-versa.

So the vacation strategy brings stellar teamwork, more productivity and focus and a feeling that the organization values employees’ lives. That makes you feel a part of the team, not apart from it. It's human nature that people want to stick around where they feel they belong. 

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Tags: vacations and work-life balance, vacation time, vacations and employee retention

6 Bogus Excuses Why We Don't Take All Our Vacation Time

Posted by Joe Robinson

Beach couple-1

We can come up with excuses for just about anything. Inventing false justifications is a talent for which all humans are Picassos of creativity, and it can extend to things that seem downright unbelievable—like why you can’t take a vacation.

This particular excuse is an American talent, if you can call handing back the best time you have all year to live freely and fully a talent. It’s more like self-sabotage, aided and abetted by instant technology, time urgency, and a belief that if you aren’t in contact with the digital world for 15 minutes, you might miss something earth-shattering. Yet when we fall prey to this reflex, what we really wind up missing is our lives.


A survey by Project: Time Off showed that more than half of Americans (55%) left vacation days on the table. That amounts to handing back your paycheck and working for free. That doesn’t add up.

That’s certainly true for the rest of the industrialized world, such as Europe and Australia, where not taking all your vacation time would be certifiable. “You’d be considered stupid, if you didn’t take your vacation,” Zurich, Switzerland native Sybille Hartman told me. “Leisure is like a people sport in Europe. It’s very important that you take this time. It’s something you’re proud of. The topic at work is often about holidays.”

Small Travel girl Slovenia

In Europe, people are either talking about the trip they just had or the one they are planning. It doesn’t really go that way in American offices because of a variety of false beliefs and myths about productivity, technology, and identity that drive real-appearing reasons to avoid living your life—like I might get laid off if I take all my vacation days, or there would be too much email when I return, or I might miss something.


The latter is one I get in my coaching work with people whose chronic stress has developed into burnout. I find out that the person hasn’t taken a vacation in years. Why? Something important might happen while they are gone. They worry everything would fall apart if they took a holiday.

What’s falling apart, though, is their health. The human physiology is designed for rest and maintenance to counter the activation and demands in our life. When there’s no interruption of the demands driving the stress response and a chance to recharge lost energetic resources, major medical blowbacks occur.

This is why vacations have been shown to be such a great stress management strategy. They cure burnout (Hobfoll, Shirom) over a two-week period of regathering crashed emotional resources. Vacations reduce the risk of heart attacks in men by 30% (Gump, Mathews) and in women who take more than one vacation a year by 50% (Framingham Heart Study). There is no health food that can give you that benefit.

It’s time to dispense the smelling salts and come to our senses. Excuses that keep us from living DON’T MAKE SENSE. What is the work for, if not for allowing us to live our lives to the fullest and participate in experiences of recreation, relaxation, and exploration that satisfy one of our deepest needs—autonomy, the feeling that we are determining the content of our life.


This is what researchers say our brain neurons want more than anything else for long-term fulfillment—writing our script to search out novelty and challenge. Nothing delivers those two qualities like a vacation. So why would anyone want to forego this awesome payoff?

Well, it turns out that some pernicious and bogus excuses are pretty darn good at holding back our lives. Let’s detonate them now:


1. Might Miss Something. The fear of missing out is part-worry about an emergency or problem happening not on your watch, but mostly these days it’s about technology addiction. Constant email checking and interruptions erode impulse control, leaving more and more of us with no ability to regulate impulsivity to check constantly. That leaves the thought of not checking mail for a week or two terrifying. Some 62% of Americans check work email on vacations (Travel Leaders), while 77% of British holiday-makers don’t, according to a new survey by Panoramic Villas.

The fear of missing something is a projected anxiety that fuels overwork and burnout when we don’t have clear understandings about what constitutes an emergency as well as contingencies to take care of problems while we’re on vacation. Emergencies should always be handled by phone, not email, so we don’t have to be checking messages every five minutes even when we are home. The key is to plan ahead and designate someone else to take emergencies while you are on holiday. Put that person’s contact info on your email autoresponder so work problems don’t preempt your living time.

The key to work recovery, the physiological and mental recuperation from stress and tension, is psychological detachment from the sources of stress and work thoughts. That can’t happen if you’re checking in on holiday.

2. Things Will Fall Apart. This is another baseless fear. It stems from the center-of-the-universe false belief that you are holding the world together and that your departure would spell doom. This comes from deep in the American identity, the performance identity, which makes us believe we are our jobs. In fact, the job is just part of your ID and not even the lion’s share. It’s what psychologists call a persona, your social handle. It’s hard to pull away from the job for a vacation, when you believe that worth comes only from performance.

We can’t live our lives to the fullest unless we have identities outside the job as well as on. What are your interests, enthusiasms, affinities? Start identifying them now and head for the direction your brain wants: curiosity and exploration. And keep in mind the thought of things falling apart is just that, a thought, and thoughts aren’t real. Only experience is.

3. Too Much Email. It’s hard to believe, but I hear this one a lot. I can’t take my vacation because there’s too much email when I get back. Try saying that one more time, only thinking about what it is you’re saying. You are going to give up your best living time of the year because of EMAIL? The solution: Put a message on your email autoresponder stating that no email will be read by you or even received by you until you return from your trip. Leave the name and number of someone people can get in touch with while you’re gone, if an issue pops up.

4. Too Busy. This all-purpose excuse is very effective at getting people to be so consumed in the next to-do that they are willing to waive their just rewards for working their tails off for a year. It’s a self-infliction that comes from a brain addled by time urgency and overwhelm, i.e., the stress response, a false alarm that makes every minute of the day an emergency and forces us to make every minute on and off work jammed with productive endeavor. We can’t relax, because we’re too busy.

The mental block of “I’m too busy” is another false belief. There is no emergency, unless you want to consider the abdication of life as one. The way around this block is to remember that it’s not an emergency; it’s a speed trap. Ask yourself the real question: AM I TOO BUSY TO LIVE? Plan your vacation at the beginning of the year. Get it on the schedule for yourself and the company. This is one of the secrets of European vacation time. Everyone plans their big holidays well in advance, and everything is figured out in advance into the workflow of the company and the life plans of the individual, so it’s not the interruptive obstacle it’s made to seem here.

5. Too Guilty. Some of us fall prey to the bravado displays of workaholics around us or feel guilty about the burden we might inflict on others if we take our vacation. Schedule your time off for a less hectic time in the schedule, give plenty of notice, and there is no reason for guilt. You earned the vacation, and that vacation is on the books of your company’s policy for some reason, say, like permission to actually take the time off. Refuse to shave a minute off your vacation time because someone wished you “happy loafing.” The fact that some people choose to be work martyrs and miserable as a result is not your problem.

6. Might Get Laid Off. We live in a time of high job insecurity. It has made some feel that taking a holiday could be a strike against them and mark them for the next layoff. Giving up your vacation in the hope that defensive overworking will protect you from future cutbacks is a false belief standing on the neck of your life. I have talked to and interviewed many who were laid off even though they didn’t take their vacations. Trying to control what can’t be controlled is a futile exercise. The most memorable example of this is a woman at a large Texas tech company who barely took a week of her four-week vacation she had accrued after 15 years at the company. Then she got laid off. “Where did my life go?” she asked me, looking back over the years of untaken vacations.


All of the excuses for not taking vacations are byproducts of the biggest false belief, that time off is substandard to time on, and therefore, indulging in it is a waste of productive endeavor. All the research, not to mention common sense, tells us that this is not true. Time off is the engine of time on, providing the energy, focus, and fatigue-busting that helps us get the job done faster with less effort and the life satisfaction and positive emotions that make life worth living and increase job satisfaction along the way.

Part of the process of blowing up excuses to not take vacations or all the time we have on them is understanding the value we are walking away from. Vacations are nothing less than the time of our lives, which I’m sure you would consider a valuable thing. And you would consider it more valuable once you got out on a holiday for a couple of weeks of fun and head-clearing.

Push past the irrational fear and see how wrong the thoughts in your head are. An account executive I talked to in Lansing, Michigan, Anita Salustro, hadn’t taken a real vacation in years because she thought everything would implode while she was gone. A friend of hers at another branch of the office took a three-week vacation, so she decided to take a one too. She had an amazing time, and when she returned, the world was still spinning on its axis. 

“It was all in my head, as it’s in the head of so many people I know. I survived it, loved it. I realized that there’s life outside of work. My company didn’t fold.”

Tags: vacation time, vacations and excuses not to take all our time

Risk Factors for Burnout: The 6 Burnout Triggers

Posted by Joe Robinson

Stressed out guy-1

In an unbounded, lean-staffed world, burnout is never too far from jumping up and taking down any of us. What used to be the domain of mostly the people industries—education, social work, and health care, burnout has become a problem for everyone.

The last stage of chronic stress, burnout is the final stop after a prolonged bout of excessive stress that drains energetic resources until there is no remaining capacity to cope. All that remains are the signal dimensions of burnout: complete exhaustion—mentally, physically, and emotionally—depersonalization and cynicism, and an inefficacy that comes with reduced productivity and low morale.


It’s a strange, mysterious state to be in for most people who wind up with it, since they tend to be the hardest workers, the achievers, the most conscientious. They have always been able to bring more to the job than the average person—more endurance, stamina, intensity. But now it’s gone. What happened?

In a nutshell, their coping resources were drained over a prolonged period during which the stress response remained activated 24/7, unleashing a tide of defensive resources, from hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to jacked-up blood pressure velocity. At a certain point, the backup energy supply runs out, and the resulting fatigue is so startling that the burned-out can hardly recognize the person whose name is on their driver’s license.

Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

The bigger secret of burnout is that, yes, it can be set off by an individual overdoing it in the face of severe demands, but it’s often the byproduct of structural and organizational factors too. Researchers have identified risk factors in organizations—burnout triggers—beyond individual stress reactions that play a prime role in burnout.

The more we can become aware of these warning signs, or imbalances between the person and job, the more individuals can avoid the burnout treadmill and organizations can keep their talent from flaming out and running up health and retention costs. Some 40% of people who leave their companies cite stress as a factor.


Humans are the social animal, and that’s certainly true at the office as everywhere else. We are designed to connect, relate, and support and when that doesn’t happen in overloaded organizations people operating in isolation beyond coping resources can get trapped on the burnout treadmill, where pessimism and negative emotions fester. Burnout scholars Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter have documented that when we don’t pay attention to the human side of work, there are consequences—bad health to bad performance.

“People who are burning out are likely to withdraw from the job, both psychologically and physically,” she and Michael Leiter report in The Truth About Burnout. They invest less time and energy in their work, do only what is necessary, and are absent more often. In addition to doing less, they do their work less well. High-quality work requires time and effort, commitment and creativity, but the burned-out individual is no longer willing to give these freely. The drop in quality and quantity of work produced is the occupational bottom line of burnout.”

What they are describing is a decline in attitude and output that comes from disengagement in the work. It turns out that the main dimensions of burnout are the opposite of employee engagement—energy, commitment, and effectiveness. No management team would knowingly order up a prescription for burnout if they knew it would gut engagement.

Yet in a world where autopilot reflex is the driving force, action precludes thought and burnout triggers can become entrenched while everyone is up to their eyeballs in mechanical momentum. Let’s take a look a look at how group and interpersonal dynamics in the organization can create burnout triggers. Here are six warning signs identified by Maslach and Leiter, known as the Areas of Worklife Model, that can transform stressors into a much bigger problem: burnout.



Excessive workload is always the aggravating factor for burnout. When demands constantly push physiologies beyond capacity, energy sources are overloaded. Nobody wins when we do more than we can do well. If you are bringing home work and leaving late chronically, this doesn’t end well. You might be able to handle the work of an ex-colleague who hasn’t been replaced for a little while, but you and managers need to insist on getting the support, or the department will soon be down another person. The risk of heart disease and diabetes increase threefold with workweeks more than 51 hours. Excessive hours keep you from recharging and recovering from stress, allowing chronic stress to entrench, which crowds out positive emotions, which are absent in burnout.


Researcher Robert Karasek identified the chief driver of workplace stress, lack of job control, or latitude. Stress is a function of how much perceived control we feel we have over the demands coming our way. The goal for managers who want engaged staff should be to encourage more autonomy in how people do their jobs. More flexibility leads to more sense of control and more self-responsibility. More micromanaging leads to less latitude and more stress. Discuss ways you might be able to play a bigger role in how you manage email, deadlines, your schedule, or other stressors that create a work environment that feels out of control.


Extreme workload wears away at the energy and loyalty of employees. When overload becomes the expectation and there is no compensating reward for the extra effort or even a sense of gratitude, it is human nature to feel you’re on the short end of the stick. This is the breeding ground for disengagement. Having to make efforts continually beyond the call of duty or job responsibilities without recognition or reward deepens loss of trust and lack of commitment. People who put in a lot of effort and get inadequate rewards are twice as likely to have heart disease (Siegrist).


There is an implied contract for most of us that we will be treated in good faith. When that trust is broken, cynicism grows. As workload grows along with profits that don’t get spread around, loyalty fades and bitterness sets in. In the era of downsizing and restructuring, many feel their efforts are not valued, promises are not being kept, and everyone is replaceable. This climate added to chronic overload can ramp up the withdrawal and cynicism of burnout.


High-turnover, mergers, and constant changes within organizations can hollow out support systems and leave employees estranged as they try to do more than they are equipped for. Alienation is the route to cynicism, a main dimension of burnout. People feel more depersonalized when there is a sense that no one cares, and engagement disappears. The risk for burnout grows as trust fades. Be as proactive as you can and communicate with managers and lobby hard for support. Finding teammates and mentors who care can provide a critical buffer to the forces of overload.


People are more likely to embrace the vision of the company they work for when it reflects their values. Having a good fit on values can spur people to go beyond the extra mile. But when those values are contradicted by policies or behaviors that are at odds with deeply held values, the mismatch can lead to an acceleration of disengagement and withdrawal.

Burnout, then, is often a two-way street. The chronic stress that sets it off may start with incessant high demands that drain an individual’s coping resources. The experienced burnout, though, can be deepened by the social layers of organizational distrust and lack of support and reward.

Since the damage of burnout to individuals and teams is super-costly, from absenteeism to cardiovascular treatment, to depression (which is seven times more costly to treat than the average workplace malady), to tanking productivity, the status quo has to be challenged and solutions found. There is a healthier road to success.

Tags: burnout, social support and burnout

Wakeup Call: Bad Sleep Leads to Bad Mood and More Stress

Posted by Joe Robinson


Get only four hours of sleep, and you're not a happy camper the next day. Irritable. Cranky. People don’t want to be around you. You don't want to be around yourself.

Sleep, an endangered species in the glow of digital screens, is critical for so many things in our day, from physical vitality, to memory, to something that plays a major role in what we can get done and how well we get along with others: mood.


It turns out the quality of our sleep predicts the kind of mood we’ll be in that day. Poor sleep increases anger, anxiety, and nervousness (Watson, Clark, Tellegen) and inhibits positive emotions (Walker, Thurani). We’ve all seen it in action the day after a sleep-deprived night. The next morning you are upright under protest and the grump state follows you like a shadow.

You have become a prime exhibit of what’s known as negative affect, the display in your body language of negative emotions—irritability, impatience, testy. These are not winning qualities in the working world or anywhere. They cause conflict, time urgency, and drive stress. Impatience leads to irritability, which leads to anger, which leads to clogged arteries.

Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

On the other hand, when you get the quality sleep you need for real restoration of your faculties, the opposite occurs. You have more positive affect, an elixir that has been found to be key to goal-setting, innovation, problem-solving, rapport with others, and success.

As Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ed Diener, and Laura King put it in their fabulous study on positive affect, “Happy people are more successful, and their success is in large part a consequence of happiness and frequent PA (positive affect).”


Your brain is only 3% of your body weight, but it sucks up almost a quarter of your energy. That energy has to be replaced, and that happens when you sleep. Sleep is like charging your phone or electric car. It gives you the juice to operate. It restores needed glycogen, cleans up toxic junk like tao, and primes your mind to meet the challenges of the day. Sleep also shapes how you take on those tasks by coloring your mood.

There's just no comparison in daily effectiveness between a positive and negative attitude. Positive emotions broaden and build us, promoting initiative and receptivity, while negative emotions keep us in a reactive bunker. Which is going to do you more good during a day of demands and stressors pushing your buttons?

Positive emotions are an insurance policy against the vicissitudes of fate. When you have enough positive emotions in your mental bank, negative withdrawals don’t bring you down to zero or below, where self-reinforced pessimism can reign.

Another very important thing positive emotions do is help us see things with an optimistic lens. Research shows that optimism is the engine of resilience and not falling for the woe-is-me false apocalypse of pessimistic thinking.

We get a lot more done when we are in a good mood, less so when we’re feeling miserable and having attention split by perceived slights and crises.


Since sleep plays such a large role in determining which mood state we’re in, you could say it’s one of the most important productivity tools. There’s no app for it. We have to make that shuteye happen, or we’re not nearly as effective.

That’s hard for many today. Minds are tricked by the light of devices into thinking that it’s time to be awake. We eat late and have sugar and caffeine percolating in our veins. And, most often, we are at the mercy of stress, which is a massive stimulant telling the physiology that you can’t nap, because there’s imminent demise on the agenda.

Not surprisingly, insomnia is rampant these days. Some 75% of insomnia cases are the result of stress. Stress turns on the internal alert system, and it doesn't shut down when you’re sleeping.

When a threat is detected that overloads perceived coping ability, a hormone called CRH (corticoid-releasing hormone) flashes to the pituitary, where it activates ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone), which sets off a flood of adrenaline and cortisol, among other arousing agents, including the raw emotions of fear and anger that want to keep you awake lest your mortal end be met.


The activation mechanisms of stress make it hard to stay asleep. Fears keep intruding into a space meant for rest and maintenance. One woman I coached who had severe job stress had been getting only three hours of sleep a night. She was barely able to function at her job, a position that desperately needed the positive affect that comes from a good night’s sleep. She was a real estate agent. Uptight or grumpy agents—You wanna sell or not?—make few sales.

Stress sets off a cycle of rumination, circular thinking about a catastrophic thought that is generated by a belief in the ancient brain that you are doing to die. It comes out in the form of, I’m going to lose my job, or I can’t handle it, I’m a loser—bogus fantasies ginned up by obsessing about a false story set off by the caveman brain.

Your thinking at this moment is hostage to the irrational emotions of the primitive limbic system, the original brain that had the run of things before we developed the higher brain and prefrontal cortex that could weigh pro and con. We have to restore the 21st century brain and its rational thinking, something quality sleep helps us do.

My client and I took a closer look at the fears propelling her insomnia, held them up to the light of facts and evidence, and they crumbled. She was able to get back on a normal sleep cycle and got a promotion to boot. But when we started, her mood was high anxiety and fearful, a state that makes whatever job you have harder to do, because your intellect is undermined by anxiety and with it clear thinking.


Stress wrecks sleep in a number of ways. You sleep fewer hours, the sleep you do get is more shallow, with lots of bouts of waking up, and you get much less of the chief restorative phase of the sleep process. The real damage is done by a loss of what's known as "slow wave" sleep, which is the deep sleep that restores energy. 

It’s easy to see how we get crabby and easily ticked off when we aren’t getting quality sleep—at least seven to nine hours per night. Besides the role that stress plays in interrupting and reducing sleep time and quality, the lack of shuteye itself adds to stress levels in a vicious cycle.

“Poor sleep worsens the negative outcomes associated with stress by making us individually cognitively, emotionally, and physiologically more vulnerable to stressful events,” note Jessica Blaxton, Cindy Bergeman, Brenda Whitehead, Marcia Braun, and Jessica Payne, summarizing their study, “Relationships Among Nightly Sleep Quality, Daily Stress, and Daily Affect.”

The study found that sleep quality decreased the impact of daily stress on negative affect, but that midlife adults with more severe stress may need several nights of quality sleep to keep stress at bay. In other words, we need to make good sleep habits as automatic as brushing our teeth.

They also discovered that daily positive affect buffers the impact of daily stress, something University of North Carolina researcher Barbara Fredrickson calls the “undo effect.” Positive emotions can literally reverse the symptoms of stress. Blood pressure slows down, digestion starts up again. 

“An individual experiencing high amounts of positive affect was less affected by stress than an individual with low amounts of positive affect,” Blaxton and company conclude.

This mild-mannered, unremarkable-appearing thing called sleep is an amazing resource, a built-in stress management system, capable of turning around our attitude and the outcomes that result from it. It can buffer the calamitous, ruminative thoughts that set off the destructive consequences of fight-or-flight chemicals run amok.

And it can restore an asset we all had as kids but that goes AWOL amid disappointment and setbacks—the positive spirit written on our faces.

If you would like to inspire your team or organization with tools to manage stress, overwhelm, and burnout, click the button below to find out about my stress management and resiliency keynotes and employee trainings.

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Tags: positive affect, sleep and mood, mood and performance

Increase Employee Engagement with the Most Potent Performance Tool: Self-Motivation

Posted by Joe Robinson

Business meeting Small

POPEYE HAS SPINACH. Managers and leaders have something that bulks up employee effort, except they don’t know it. It’s the hidden potential that lies within each employee when self-motivation is turned up to warp factor eight, something that happens with employee engagement.

When employees are engaged, they are willing to put out effort beyond the call of duty without anyone badgering them to do it. Work units in the top quarter of employee engagement in a Gallup meta-study of 192 firms and 1.4 million employees had 21% higher productivity outcomes, 22% higher profitability, and a 25% lower probability of high turnover. 


In my experience leading employee engagement training programs, engagement is something every leader wants, but few know how to get it. That is because it involves an approach to leadership that is the opposite of the norm—command-and-control, rewards-and-punishment. The carrot-and stick-approach has long been thought to be the only motivational model. Want more sales? Offer a bonus. Want more engagement? Provide a perk.

Motivation research pioneered by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester, shows, though, that external rewards only motivate a need for more rewards. External payoffs are ephemeral, because they are about what others think. That doesn’t last.

It turns out that the most potent motivation comes from a burning core within, from intrinsic motivation, acting for the inherent interest in the activity itself, not for a result. Employees who are intrinsically motivated are continuously interested in the work that they are doing, because they are driven by goals such as excellence, challenge, or craft that place the emphasis on the activity for its own sake.

Intrinsically motivated people have been shown to be more persistent and will stick with difficult tasks longer, because their aim is the task, not to get done with it.

Employee engagement “is not about pay or ping-pong tables,” says Marcus Buckingham, author of First, Break All the Rules and strengths-based strategy book, StandOut. Buckingham tracked engagement at Gallup for two decades and now heads his own consulting firm, TMBC. “It’s employees asking, Do I have a chance to use my strengths every day? It’s about getting to know your people and focusing on them every week.”


Employee engagement is a kind of jiu-jitsu in which leaders unleash the energy of others and get out of the way. Engagement can’t be commanded, only enabled, because the discretionary effort that defines it has to be self-generated by the employee.

The shift from commanding employees to enabling their intrinsic engines doesn’t come automatic for leaders brought up on motivating through external metrics—promotions, money, bonuses. “They think motivating is something management does to employees,” says Deci, author of a great Penguin paperback, Why We Do What We Do, and a psychology professor whose research led to a new framework for motivation and need gratification.

“Motivation is something that employees do to themselves. The job of managers is to create the conditions so employees will do that.”

What makes employees want to work harder than they have to for no external gain? Researchers have found many engagement levers, from open communication with managers, to employee development opportunities, to trust, a chance to contribute, and recognition. In a nutshell, people are engaged when they feel valued and a have a sense of purpose in what they’re doing.


Employee engagement has three main dimensions: vigor, dedication, and absorption or focus, which are the opposite of burnout’s chief qualities—exhaustion and cynicism. If you want to kill the productivity and profitability gains of engagement, burn out employees.

Engagement goes beyond mere job satisfaction. You can like your job, but that alone is not enough to generate effort beyond the call of duty. In fact, studies show there is a low correlation between job satisfaction and performance.

The trigger for engagement is another order of satisfaction—“higher needs satisfaction,” as Deci describes it, something that is rooted in participation and involvement, not just a job title, and that is self-propelled when leaders allow employees to satisfy certain basic psychological needs.

For millennia, humans haven’t had a clue as to what we really need. We’ve had to rely on peers, desires, and billboards, which has led to a lot of heartburn. Deci and Ryan’s breakthrough research, though, uncovered three specific psychological nutriments that everyone needs, as opposed to desires, to thrive—autonomy, competence, and relatedness, or social connection with others. “They have to be met for people to perform optimally,” says Deci.

Each of these needs can only be gratified if the goal behind the activity is intrinsic, a force potent enough that it has been called Motivation 2.0. All three are realized through initiative and involvement, keys to engagement, and help people feel as if they are determining the content of their life.

Known as self-determination theory, or SDT, the basic needs framework developed by Deci and Ryan means that we all have a need to write our own script. It’s also a universal human need across cultures, races, and continents. Your employees also need to feel a sense of choice and have opportunities to demonstrate initiative and competence.


Leaders can help employees gratify their basic needs through a model Deci created to take SDT into the workplace: autonomy support. How can employees feel autonomous working for someone else? “A lot of people take the word autonomy as independence, as doing something on their own. In SDT what autonomy means is a sense of volition, willingness, that, yes, at this moment I choose to be doing the activities I am doing,” explains Deci.

That feeling comes in the work setting from the autonomous decisions employees can take in how they do their job, process it in their minds, and communicate with their supervisors. Autonomy support is a style of managing in which leaders understand and acknowledge the employee perspective and encourage self-responsibility and initiative in goal-setting, decision-making, and work planning.

Autonomy support encourages free flow of communication between employees and leaders and has several main components: offering a sense of choice within limits, giving people a rationale for doing a task, and letting employees acknowledge feelings about a task. 


When you hear a rationale for doing something, it helps you feel like you are part of the team, more autonomous, competent, and connected to others. You internalize the reason, and the task becomes more important as a result, triggering buy-in/choice. The same thing happens when you are able to acknowledge how you feel about a task, even if it’s not positive. The expression of your view activates a sense of choice and autonomy and you are inclined to do it more willingly.

Key to autonomy support is communication and language. Everyone is encouraged to speak up and leaders try to make dialog more informational than controlling. “Stop using words like should, must, and have to,” says Deci. “Don’t tell them they did just what you expected.” That doesn’t go to their competence need. Instead, say ‘I like the way you did this.’"

Deci has demonstrated how autonomy can get employees more involved and engaged through interventions with companies such as Xerox, and  studies measuring self-determination theory in the workplace have found similar results.

One, led by Fordham’s Paul Baard, measured SDT in workers at an investment banking firm. They found that autonomy supportive managers activated employees’ intrinsic need satisfaction, which in turn resulted in the best performance and performance reviews.

“When managers are more autonomy supporting, employees are more engaged in their work, get better evaluations, are better adjusted psychologically on the job, and are sick less often,” says Deci.


Nihal Parthasarathi, CEO and co-founder of, a portal for arts, business, and recreation classes in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, found that he needed to change his management approach when the company went from six to 12 employees. He wanted to build a company he would want to work at, where people had the freedom to solve problems and not be micromanaged.

“Managers default to telling other people what to do,” says Parthasarathi. “It’s easier, but it leaves a lot on the table in terms of human potential.”

After talking with his employees and advisors in the tech world, he and his partner, Katie Kapler, decided to make autonomy and self-responsibility the core of a management style designed to motivate and clear obstacles out of the way. Each employee decides the work they’re going to do on each goal and how they’re going to do it, which builds autonomy and competence.

There’s a high level of transparency, with performance metrics they can check every day to see how they and everyone else are doing. If someone isn’t hitting targets, they work with the founders to realign the goal. “They absolutely set their own agendas,” says Parthasarathi.


Since he rolled out the autonomy program, his staff “feel like they’re having a bigger impact. They’re happier when everyone shares autonomy. It’s like everyone has each other’s backs. The quality of engagement is much better.”

Another reason every company needs engaged employees is that the talent pool is shrinking and very used to having autonomy in the digital era. The biggest employee demographic, millennials, are accustomed to doing things on their own through apps or startups.

They want to know, “Are you going to help me achieve my dreams and goals?” says Bill Jensen, a management consultant and author of Future Strong. “If not, I can go to Kickstarter and start my own company.”

Jensen says only about 10% of employees at small companies feel they can achieve their goals. Across all companies, only 31% of employees are engaged, according to Gallup. Millennials are the least engaged demographic, at 28%. Jensen says managers need to engage their people with training and development programs that help them grow and give employees a cause or mission to believe in. That is crucial to develop intrinsic goals of purpose and meaning.

“Silicon Valley sets the standard on this. They get people to work very hard because they want to achieve the goals of the company.”

For those of you who think you don’t have enough time, that excuse won’t cut it. It’s about seven to eight minutes per person per week, says Buckingham. It boils down to two simple habits, listening and support, repeated on a weekly basis. “Check in with every employee every week. Ask, What are you working on and how can I help.”

If you would like to learn more about unleashing employee engagement on your team and how to roll out the motivational power of autonomy support, click the button below for details on my employee engagement training.

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Tags: employee engagement, intrinsic motivation, self-determination theory, leadership, autonomy support, Edward Deci

Major Survey on Work-Life Balance Shows It Boosts Performance 

Posted by Joe Robinson


STUDIES OVER THE YEARS have consistently found that work-life balance policies are a fabulous thing for performance, morale, and commitment. So why aren’t more people and companies benefitting from these policies? That’s also a very consistent answer: Few employees feel they have enough support from leadership to actually participate in those policies, from telework to flexible schedules and wellness programs.

This finding gets new support in a major new work-life balance survey of more than 64,000 federal workers, the first-ever Governmentwide Federal Work-Life Survey in the U.S., conducted by the Office of Personnel Management. In the survey, which included employees and supervisors, only 35% of respondents said senior leadership support work-life balance practices, while only 45% thought supervisors have their back on WLB policies.

The lack of management support is a very counterproductive bottleneck, since offering employees opportunities to reduce the conflict between work and home responsibilities pays such big dividends. In the new report, employees who utilized telework and wellness programs were 76% and 74% more likely to get performance ratings that exceeded their last rating. Those who participated in work-life balance programs were also 75% - 80% more likely to be satisfied with their jobs. 


Even when there are telework and flex options on the books, unless employees see credible support from leaders, they don’t feel the permission is there to partake. I hear this time and again in my work-life balance employee trainings. If leaders don't walk the walk and expressly encourage the policies, the team gets the cues to tread carefully.

Work-life balance is a topic hard for many managers to talk about. There's a belief that the message is at odds with performance, when it's just the opposite. All the data shows that work-life balance drives productivity and employee engagement. Too much remains unspoken in the balance realm, and as a result, people are reluctant to go out on a limb. When they do, and arrange a schedule around a child’s play or an elder’s care, they don’t feel good about it and it adds to stress levels.

As a result, in the OPM survey 83% said they experience work-life conflict. There’s a big difference in the numbers between those who would like to telework, 58%, and those who actually do it, 35%. While some 83% of workers want flex schedules, only 54% have them. Fifty-five percent said they would like to use the employee assistance program, but only 13% actually do.


One of the reasons that it’s difficult for leaders to talk directly about work-life balance and let their team know it’s okay to telework or adjust a schedule is the ambivalence we have in the culture about anything that could be perceived as letting up or not undeviated, flat-out, nose-to-the-grindstone mode. The reality, though, is that adjusting schedules to reduce conflict, cuts stress, increases concentration, and more attention results in better performance.

The Corporate Executive Board, which is made up of 80% of the Fortune 500 companies, found that employees who feel they have good work-life balance work 21% harder. That’s the dividend of employee engagement, willing extra effort, when people feel they are valued and supported.

In the knowledge economy and digital world, productivity is not a function of brute stamina, a triathlon in pants. It’s about the level of attention and engagement in the mind of the employee. Anything that is undercutting attention, such as the saboteur of stress and the guilt it drives when work-family issues are top of mind, is counterproductive. When the brain gets signals that it’s overwhelmed by home pressures it can’t address, working memory is impaired by intrusive thoughts, attention spans shrink, and it takes longer to get the work done. Absenteeism and retention problems increase.

One of the major side effects of telework, for instance, is that it increases focus by decreasing the distractions of the office. In the survey, the number one reason people cited for teleworking was to minimize office interruptions and distractions; the second most popular was maximizing productivity. That productivity helps people feel good about their work and provides the mental space to take care of the home front without guilt.


When managers get the topic of work-life balance into the open and talk to employees about their own work-life struggles or hobbies outside the office, studies show it makes a big difference in the success of work-life programs. A study that measured the ability of employees to recover from work stress (Bennett, Gabriel, Calderwood, Dahling, Trougakos) reported that employees whose supervisors encourage them to unwind after work are more likely to do it. Without that permission, the study found, people are more likely to take work home with them and ruminate about work problems, preventing the mental separation that allows bodies and minds to recover and come back to work the next day in a positive frame that enhances productivity.

Most of us have grown up with the idea that facetime is essential for productivity, yet surveys of teleworkers have found that being able to have a day or two a week to work at home minus distractions increases productivity—and even the hours employees work. The data shows teleworkers put in more hours at home without time lost to commuting and because they have more control over their schedule.

Despite the increase in employee performance ratings in the OPM report, only 55% of the federal supervisors in the government study thought telework improved performance. This may be because of a very telling finding, that just 48% of managers felt they had the ability to manage and assess teleworkers.

This leads us to one of the essential ingredients of effective work-life balance policies: education. Leaders need to be shown the evidence that WLB programs make their teams more productive and get training in how to assess employees when staff works from home. As the data in the new survey shows, work-life balance practices make everyone’s jobs easier, managers to staff.

All we have to do is follow the science (for more studies, visit our Work-Life Balance Research page) to a healthier and more open approach to full-life performance. We are human resources, after all, and when we acknowledge human challenges, we increase the connective tissue that transforms individuals into teams.

If you would like to know more about our work-life balance training programs and how they can increase engagement on your team, please click the button below for details.

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Tags: work-life balance policies, work life balance and performance, work life balance and telework

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