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Can Slow Productivity Be the Answer for Burnout?


Over two years of the global pandemic made the discussions on blending office work and remote working options possible, also allowing us to talk about the elephant in the room; burnout. Cal Newport, the author of books like Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, proposed the concept of slow productivity as a solution to burnout in his article in The New Yorker at the beginning of 2022.

The term burnout was coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s when he wrote about his observations about the experience of his staff and himself working in a clinic for drug addicts. Burnout is defined as emotional and physical exhaustion due to long periods of constant unresolvable stress. 

According to Forbes, burnout is on the rise. Their survey shows that 52% of respondents experienced burnout in 2021. While Indeed’s survey before the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated that 43% of the respondents were experiencing burnout.

One of the most affected groups is the Millennials. Today 59% percent of millennials are going through burnout and were already feeling burnt out before the pandemic. Gen-Z is following the Millennials pretty closely with 58%. The workplace has an impact on burnout for 80% of all respondents.

During the first months of the pandemic, the amount of work also increased when everything seemed to be going up in flames. Since working from home was quite a new concept for most companies, a new working system had to be placed, and problems due to remote working had to be solved swiftly.

All these could mean 8-hour-long Zoom meetings or answering emails from the point you open your eyes in the morning until you sign off to sleep. Even though you could be wearing your comfiest pyjamas and slippers under your work-appropriate shirt, staring at a screen during all your conscious hours is never healthy.

But this overworking or hustle culture is not new or specific to the pandemic circumstances. Since the development of technological innovations like mobile phones and internet access through all mobile devices and their implementation in work environments, the way we comprehend work has changed drastically.

As Newport points out, work used to be clocking in and getting the task assigned to you done until you can clock out, before all this accessibility surrounded us. Now, we all have control over the time we have at work, meaning that we can decide on the task we want to tackle from the never-ending list of to-dos.

Autonomy in the workplace also means that the worker must always be accessible and responsive, getting things done non-stop. The volume of work becomes something that crashes the office worker under to-do lists and emails. In the end, one cannot leave work at work.

Hustle culture, which imposes that there is always more money to make, a better title to get, and one must work all day every day in pursuit of that professional glory, is not helping the cause either. This constant pressure to always strive to be better and keep being and looking busy leaves almost no space for hobbies, family, or self-care. It is even considered cool and trendy to complain about how busy you are and how many sides hustles you have.  

Many countries are trying to implement shorter work weeks as a solution to burnout-related problems. For example, Iceland ran trials of reduced working weeks of 35-36 hours with no pay cuts from 2015 to 2019. The analysis of the results showed that productivity and service either remained the same or improved in the majority of the workplaces. They also argued that workers’ well-being increased and did not cost any extra revenue for city councils or the government.

But decreasing the work hours is only part of the solution. The reason is that the symptoms of burnout, such as exhaustion from work’s excessive demands, headaches, sleeplessness, closed thinking, and even behaviors of depression, cannot disintegrate with fewer hours of work while the volume of it stays the same.

When an office worker needs to sort out many smaller tasks and endless questions coming in through emails, he does not have enough cognitive fuel and personal resources to tackle the big projects. When there is too much to even think about completing, the human shuts down, and burnout takes over.

The change can come through the concept of slow productivity, which argues for a sustainable volume of work. The work environment should let the individual focus on one thing at a time and work through them in order, while the manager waits for the completion of those tasks before bringing new ones.

The concept is influenced by the 2004 book “In Praise of Slowness,” by Carl Honoré, which discusses the various slow movements all around the world, started by the 1980s Slow Food movement.

Slow Food came out through the reaction of local activists to the opening of a McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps in Rome. They argued for the rediscovery of local cuisine and the promotion of its variety while rejecting fast food and fast living.   

Slow City, or Cittaslow, is perhaps the most well-known of the slow movements. It promotes small cities committing to grow sustainably while preserving their authenticity and celebrating their local culture and diversity.

Slow Productivity, which emphasizes sustainability and decreases the workload on individuals, scares companies because it seems like competition will cease to exist, and it would mean less work will be done, which would mean less profit in the end. There is always someone, in this case, some other company, willing to work harder in this extremely competitive work culture.  

But in reality, not piling up tasks on employees and letting them focus on one task without distraction should mean that they get more tasks done in less time. In short, less stress would mean more time to work on stuff.

The problem here is that this is only achievable if everyone embraces the slow productivity mindset and if the office workers, who are trying to work overtime because of competition, do not get the chance to do so through company regulations.

Some things are not addressed throughout the definition of slow productivity. Decreasing the workload and the work hours can enable a better work environment, but the concept lacks in supporting and promoting the unique contribution of the individual to the mosaic of work done.

As there are various ways of learning, there are also various ways to work. The concept of slow productivity should also make space for the office workers to be creative in their tasks, with enough independence, as well as space for them to come together to share, collaborate, and grow together.

Another part that is not mentioned related to sustainability in the concept of slow productivity is the lack of tools for dealing with mental health. Since slow productivity aims to solve the problem of burnout, then it should also promote equipping the individuals with the necessary knowledge and tools to deal with mental health problems.

One cannot expect a miracle that is the perfect workplace by only slowing the pace and decreasing the workload. Necessary insurance arrangements should also be provided when dealing with mental health in the workplace.

At the end of the day, there is still a long way to go to reach that perfect work environment, but the bright side is that slow productivity offers a good road map to start with.


Edited by: Hanieh Khakpour


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