Does Down Time Make Better Employees?

When I first started my current job as a managing editor of a health trade publication, my boss was used to working with some of our business associates on the weekends. The first Monday I returned to the office and opened my work e-mail inbox, I saw a string of messages from him, with the last one asking, “Are you there?”

I didn’t panic, despite my neurotic nature. I spoke to him later in the day letting him know that, while I’m able to work late during the week when necessary, I’m not available on the weekend. Special projects and events on the weekend could be accommodated, I let him know in a nice way, but as a general rule, weekends belong to me. I let it go at that, but I might have added if I had the nerve: “You don’t have the money to keep me on retainer for the weekend.”

My boss did continue making on and off again allusions to work on the weekend, but since I did (and do) well at my job, fulfilling all of my responsibilities on time, there was nothing further for him to say about it, or at least he must have felt there was nothing he could say about it.

I realize now that setting work boundaries with my boss right after starting a new job was brave of me, and I give myself credit for it because by nature I’m a shy, gentle person. I’m glad I spoke up, not just because it freed up my weekends, but because having down time on the weekend makes me a better employee. My brain is able to wander where she chooses, reading books for pleasure (I’m reading “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood at the moment), taking long walks, visiting museums, attending concerts, or having brunch with friends. As I do those things, my wandering mind is able to generate ideas for new articles and new ways of improving our publication’s Website. For instance, sometimes the pleasure reading of magazines online gives me ideas for our site, such as when I noticed how much I liked the feature on magazine sites that tells you the best-read articles along the right or left margin of the screen. We’ve since added it to our site.

Funny enough, it was during a mental health break that happened at the office a few days ago, that I came across an article on New York Magazine’s site that resonated with me: “Please Don’t Text Your Employees at 9 p.m.” The author of the piece, Dayna Evans, notes that she was dismayed to read in The New York Times that Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini deliberately texts job applicants at night on the weekend to see if they respond: “Here’s something I do: If you’re in the process of interviewing with us, I’ll text you about something at 9 p.m. or 11 a.m. on a Sunday just to see how fast you’ll respond.”

Like Evans, I was disappointed to hear of an executive who still pulls stunts like that. Nardini tells The Times that she does it because she doesn’t necessarily want her employees working all the time, but she does want them thinking all the time.

“Yes,” I said to myself, “and precisely the reason to let them know, and to show them, that they are entirely free on the weekend, and hopefully after they leave the office at night.” Thinking doesn’t mean thinking about the business necessarily, but thinking about the world beyond your business that can benefit your business. It’s thinking about the service at a restaurant you visit, and how your company could emulate that kind of customer service, or it’s thinking about the inefficiency of a hotel check-in process, and thinking about whether your business puts customers through such inconvenience.

I’m reminded of the phenomenon of how when there’s a person you care about, whom you’re separated from, and very much want to see, you often can’t picture their face in your mind. But irritatingly you can easily picture many other people you don’t care about. Sometimes when you’re thinking too intently and too deliberately about someone (or something), your brain becomes blocked. That’s why sometimes a great idea will come to you when you’re in the shower or taking a walk, rather than sitting at your desk staring intently at your computer. When an employee is asked to be on call all the time, with a boss who texts at night and on the weekends, that time to disengage the brain as a workhorse is lost. The brain is never taken out of its harness to stretch itself and have a strong flow of ideas. The boss who doesn’t set his or her employees entirely free afterhours, in other words, is creating brain blocks.

Do you think Human Resources and Learning professionals should encourage—maybe even require—managers to leave employees alone outside of working hours?