I was a pioneer in what’s now called the “lying flat” movement, and I didn’t even know it. As a graduate student in the fall of 1998 at the University of Florida, there were many days I did little else than lie flat on my bed alternating between daydreaming, reading, and sleeping. I would get up mid-morning, go to the McDonald’s Drive-Thru for a breakfast sandwich and cinnamon roll, and then drive home to eat and resume lying flat. Other than McDonald’s, I would move from my lying flat position only to go to my few graduate classes and visit with friends.
Imagine my surprise when I opened The New York Times app on my phone last week, and saw that my old way of life is forming the basis of a new movement in which former employees are giving up their responsibilities to make relaxation the centerpiece of their lives. Cassady Rosenblum writes of people pushed to the point of psychological exhaustion by their work, so that they no longer even want to participate in social movements that used to make them feel fulfilled. In addition to anecdotal evidence that more people are voluntarily dropping out of the workforce, Rosenblum writes of the new labor statistics in which there are now more than 10 million job openings in the U.S.
And it isn’t just lower-paid former employees who speak of the joy of relaxation on the porch. It’s also those we think of as highly paid, “type A” personalities. Rosenblum cites leaked reports of entry-level employees at Goldman Sachs who have been pushed to the brink: “According to a leaked internal survey, entry-level analysts at the investment bank report they’re facing ‘inhumane’ conditions, working an average of 98 hours a week, forgoing showers and sleep. I’ve been through foster care,’ said one respondent. ‘This is arguably worse.’”
As noted, I have a great talent for lying flat. However, I think I know why others, who don’t have my natural abilities, are choosing to build their lives around relaxation. That reason is skeleton staffs. How many times have you heard people speak nostalgically about the old days when the place where they worked was so well staffed that employees had time to relax within the span of a workday? Now it’s all many can do to relax after hours and on the weekend. In my own industry, trade journalism, I heard stories of days with enough open time built in that employees used to practice golf putting in the office. When I started in the workforce nearly 20 years ago, I worked as a member of a team of six on a monthly publication with weekly online updates. There were days between deadlines when we would spent vast amounts of time talking and laughing with one another, or on the (landline) phone with friends, or, in my case, reading a newspaper or a magazine for pleasure. Some days I would bring in a huge bag of junk food, and feed off it while working only intermittently, letting my mind wander as I read whatever articles peaked my interest. The thing that may surprise you is I was such a productive person I was given what the company called an “Entrepreneur’s Award.” I got significant work done and came up with many new ideas for articles.
Stories of yesterday when many others, considered productive and successful, worked like I did, are not unusual. I bet many of you have similar stories. Contrast that old workplace ethos, in which relaxation and “down time” were considered acceptable parts of every workday, with the way it’s been for at least the last decade, with a focus on reducing “waste” so that business units can make do with half, or fewer, of their former staffs. It’s a stark contrast, isn’t it? Money spent on payroll and employee benefits has been saved, but at what cost? It may be a case of penny-wise, pound-foolish. The organization achieved cost savings and added productivity, but those gains may not be sustainable. The pandemic offered many employees a chance to see what life is like with a more flexible work life, and some were forced to drop out altogether from the workforce. After a taste of freedom, it’s hard to accept the old way of feeling strapped to a grinding machine pushing you along without time for thought or enjoyment.
Another point for organization leaders to ask themselves: Has the insistence on productivity with reduced staffs been applied evenly? From my own observations, I can answer it has not. I personally know of a woman employee doing all work on her own while a “co-equal” male colleague running a less profitable, less demanding publication has a junior employee to provide support. The department heads behind this decision would say it’s because this colleague does other things besides work on his publication, but I suspect the real reason is a double standard in the work a female employee must do to justify her position and pay and that which is expected of a man. Is this same unequal scrutiny on productivity happening in your organization?
Skeleton staffs can be a good short-term fix in an emergency, but it’s not suitable as a long-term way of life. People forced to do work that would have been spread among two—or more, people—years ago may have finally had it. Many are throwing up their hands and reaching for a glass of iced tea, or a more adult beverage, on their porch or bedside table.
Are you increasingly asking fewer employees to do more work? Does the long-term damage of this strategy outweigh the short-term gains?