Monday, 25 April 2011

Work, rest and play

It is as if the planets were aligned – a late Easter coincided with a Royal wedding and the May Day bank holiday to give British workers a rare run of days off combined with three and four-day weeks. And to cap it all the brilliant spell of spring weather continued unabated.

It’s not so long ago that such four-day weeks were envisaged as the future. In the 1950s Winston Churchill saw a time when accelerating technological advancement would enable us to "give the working man what he's never had – four days' work and then three days' fun".

This did not seem as improbable then as it sounds now. After all, the weekend was a comparatively recent and expanding invention.

So where did it all go wrong? Not only has the concept of a three-day weekend pretty much evaporated but, for many, the two-day weekend is in jeopardy.

According to Ian Price, author of The Activity Illusion: Why we Live to Work in the 21st Century and How to Work to Live Instead, this crowding out of leisure time is due to something of a ‘perfect storm’ - hurtling advances in communications technology colliding with changes in attitude to activity.

In the headlong rush to embrace modernity, we have stripped ourselves and our work places of many of the old indicators of hierarchy, such as PAs and corner offices. Instead, we have conflated activity with status - how busy we are has become an indicator of importance.

Simply owning a BlackBerry, or similar device, drives a new kind of compulsive checking behaviour. The little vibrating object, with its flashing light, stimulates our brain's dopamine system in much the same way as the flashing lights of a fruit machine ensnare a gambling addict.

It might feel as if email and BlackBerry have crept into our lives gradually but, in the context of the 5,000 year history of written communication, their arrival has been sudden and disruptive. Hand-writing an internal memo to be typed up by a secretary was still the norm in the 1980s - and tended to make you more selective in its use.

Now that such barriers have been removed, so have the filters that weeded out messages that were either too urgent, or too trivial, to be committed to writing.

One unintended result of our busy way of working, straddling evenings and weekends, is that we have crowded out ‘deep thinking’. How often have we stumbled upon the answer to a problem when doing something else altogether such as showering, gardening or taking the dog for a walk?

It has long been recognised among occupational psychologists and physicians that proper rest and recovery is important, not just for long-term health and happiness but also for resilience at work, productivity and performance.

In all this busyness we may also neglect at our peril the spiritual element to life, of which Easter serves as a poignant annual reminder.

Easter Sunday’s celebration at Peterborough’s KingsGate church was certainly among the highlights of my own weekend. Quite wondrous! For the spiritually challenged it is definitely worth a visit... perhaps on one of those weekend’s off you’ve now promised yourself.

One way or another, I hope you had a restful Easter break. And, if not, the planets may still hold some favour - for there’s a Royal wedding and May bank holiday weekend coming right up.

As for my own plans on Royal wedding day. Sorry William and Kate, I’m afraid ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’ is attending something else on the other side of the pond - of which there will be much more in the coming days.

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