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Ashamed to take a break

Gestresste Frau im Büro - Burnout, Überstunden, Personalmangel

Rest is essential to personal well-being and professional productivity. But employees in high-pressure environments feel ashamed to take a break, even after hours. When they do, they spend the next day covering their tracks — which is bad for them and bad for business.

Timothy Kundro, an organizational behavior professor at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, researches workplace morality and ethics.

How employees felt the morning after taking a break was the focus of a study he jointly led with PhD graduates  Salvatore Affinito (PhD ’21) and Casher Belinda (PhD ’23), and UNC Kenan-Flagler colleague Mike Christian. Their findings are published in The Journal of Applied Psychology.

The researchers found that employees in high-pressure jobs experienced heightened levels of shame after resting the previous evening.

In a vicious cycle, shame increased reputational concerns, leading employees to make it seem like they’re doing more work than they actually are. Since no one benefits when employees are burned out or misrepresent their work, Kundro recommends that managers lead by example: take breaks themselves and encourage employees to do the same.

The empty rhetoric of self-care

In recent years, more governments and companies have embraced the language of mental health and self-care. From encouraging employees to take email breaks to allowing more remote work or personal days to spend time with family, policies appear to reflect an understanding that an unhealthy attachment to work can become a problem for employees’ health and the organization’s bottom lines.

White Button with Break on Computer Keyboard. Business Concept.Unfortunately, despite the language deployed by leadership in many workplaces, detaching from work is easier said than done. Even if a company doesn’t ask employees to work overtime or be on call beyond regular working hours, the researchers show high-stress environments signal employees that detaching from work is “counter-normative.”

To better understand the mindset of employees who feel ashamed about taking time for themselves, Kundro and his colleagues surveyed hundreds of participants in sectors such as manufacturing, transportation, finance, retail, healthcare and education. Upon returning to work after an evening of relaxation, many admitted to “making it look like I was working even when I wasn’t” or “creating the impression that I was working harder than I really was.”

Employees who felt ashamed engaged in “cheating behaviors,” artificially and unethically elevating the appearance of their workload and performance. It’s possible that nobody at work suspected that anything was amiss after a break.

Rather, it’s all about the employee’s perceptions: The experience of shame is a deeply private one, and in employees’ minds, cheating behaviors mitigated the likelihood that others would view them negatively.

How can organizations address this phenomenon of next-morning detachment and workplace cheating? The onus should be on bosses, not on workers, says Kundro.

“Employers need to realize that there are consequences for high pressure environments, which could result in bigger problems in the long-term,” he warns. Employees who engage in “cheating” behavior at work can distort performance measurement, throw a project off track and, ultimately, cost a company money.

Management has a strong incentive to change the culture: Companies operate more smoothly when employees can disconnect without shame and return to work without feeling judged. Professionals such as surgeons, truck drivers, pilots and detectives are mandated to take time off to ensure safety and performance. Rest sharpens cognition, improves mental health and reduces errors — outcomes that employers in every industry should strive to promote.

Leading by example

In a society where careers become our identities, unhealthy attachments to work are common at all levels. Kundro notes that it can be disingenuous when, say, a corporate executive tells their staff to take time off work, but then proceeds to log 80- or 90-hour work weeks.

One solution is for employers and managers to lead by example. When leaders occasionally disconnect from work, they signal to employees that resting won’t cost them promotions.

Certain high-pressure workplaces should consider implementing a “use it or lose it” vacation policy, where it becomes mandatory to take time off, says Kundro.

“Once empowered by their organization,” he says, “employees can detach peacefully,” and detachment can lead to greater productivity and earnings in the long term.

Organizations need to do more than just talk about self-care and mental health, says Kundro. They need to enact formal policies and informal norms to ensure workers rest and therefore perform their best.

The team’s research shows how the cycle of intense pressure, evening detachment, morning shame and workday cheating is harmful and widespread. Companies need to break that cycle to secure employees’ health, performance and, in turn, their profits.