From Bill Gates boasting about how he never took a day off work in his twenties to Elon Musk defending his 120-hour work-week with declarations like “Nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week,” it’s clear the tech world has long had a workaholism problem.
And the pandemic hasn’t made things any easier. With remote work, the traditional boundaries between home and work have blurred even further. A recent report from human resources software company Ceridian has found that over the last two years 84 percent of Canadians have experienced burnout, with 34 percent reporting high or extreme levels. And with a tight labour market, many are thinking about their options.
“The relationship between employer and employee has fundamentally changed over the course of the pandemic, creating a reset in expectations as employee needs rapidly evolve,” says Steve Knox, vice president of global talent acquisition at Ceridian. “It comes down to the employee experience — from the way people get paid, to the benefits and growth opportunities that are made available to them. The organizations that solve for these factors first will be the employers of choice moving forward.”
Some startups are taking meaningful steps to make work more manageable, encouraging their employees to adopt flexible working hours, take longer vacations and take full advantage of their benefits.
“Workaholism is a contagious disease. You can’t stop the spread if you’re the one bringing it into the office,” write Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson in their latest book, It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work.
Partners at Chicago-based Basecamp, Fried and Heinemeier Hansson have become vocal opponents of Silicon Valley’s glamorization of overwork. It’s not unusual to find the latter on Twitter calling out what he calls “hustle culture” — the toxic idea that overwork and stress are a necessary part of startup success. “Sustained exhaustion is not a badge of honor, it’s a mark of stupidity,” he and his co-author write in Crazy.
To fight overwork at their own company, Fried and Heinemeier Hansson have put their money where their mouths are. Basecamp offers employees an impressive list of benefits, including a $5,000 a year use-it-or-lose-it travel fund, a month-long sabbatical every three years and four-day summer work weeks.
And while it isn’t a formal benefit, Fried emphasizes that employees at Basecamp are encouraged to work no more than 40 hours a week. He says that it’s led to a happier and more productive staff, a key factor in how Basecamp has turned a profit almost every year since it launched in 1999.
“You don’t need to build a crazy company,” says Fried. “You can treat people fairly and do well.”
As the last few months have shown us, productivity is not a product of being at an office between certain hours. Focusing on outcomes — not hours worked — can help employees find a better balance. For instance, retail mobile platform provider Tulip, has found that shortening work hours has helped boost employee experience.
“We’ve committed to a flexible work environment where we try to accommodate any employee’s schedule, provided it works for our internal teams and customers,” says Marco Osso, Tulip’s vice president of employee success. “Our guiding principle is flexibility.”
Starting in 2022, workers can take workcations, by tacking on a reduced work week after a vacation to help their stay. “We understand the market is extremely competitive and there are opportunities not just in Ontario but globally now,” says Osso. “We need to ensure Tulip is a place people want to work.”
The hybrid model seems like a winning solution, one that allows employees to choose whether to come to into the office. Experts warn, however, that it could be the next “career killer” for women if underlying issues in workplace culture aren’t addressed. Working mothers and family caregivers may need to continue to work remotely as the pandemic continues, which means that business leaders need to ensure those employees have access to same opportunities as those who are in the office. To that end, chatbot software maker Ada Support, has instituted a rule so that no remote workers are left out of key discussions. If remote teammates are outnumbered by those in the office, everyone logs in to Zoom so nobody feels excluded.
When Toronto-based entrepreneur Erica Pearson left her high-powered job in finance to found Vacation Fund in 2017, she envisioned the service as a tool that would help people save money for travel.
She was inspired in part by her travel-filled upbringing, during which she visited 40 countries by the time she turned 22. “My dad was very big on saving and prioritizing vacation time,” she says. Those experiences helped Pearson understand the value of travel — not just as a form of leisure, but also as a way of staving off career complacency and what she calls the “autopilot” tendency.
But North Americans can be quite bad at taking time off. A 2020 survey found that most employees in America shortened, postponed or cancelled their vacation; and an Expedia survey reported that the average Canadian leaves at least two vacation days unused every year. So when companies began telling Pearson how afraid their employees were to actually take time off, she pivoted and turned Vacation Fund into a tool designed to offer financial incentives for employees to actually take time off.
These incentives — think of them as “paid paid vacations” — can help dial back vacation shaming and tackle overwork. While workers at most companies only claim 50 to 60 percent of employee benefits, Pearson reports that companies that use Vacation Fund report an 80 percent opt in.
“I’ve found that companies would rather lose someone for two weeks then lose them forever,” she says.
This story was originally published in January 2020. It was updated in November 2021.
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