Tara Oakman knows what it’s like to work in a high stress, adrenaline-fueled, always-on 21st century workplace. A few years back, she was up against tough deadlines, intense public scrutiny, and the pressure of creating a massive new federal program from scratch as director of a team overseeing implementation of some key elements of the Affordable Care Act. “It was totally crazy,” she said. “Everyone was working all the time, 24/7. It made sense in a lot of ways—there was a lot of work to do—but our people were getting incredibly stressed out. We had a really high level of turnover and morale issues that were, in part, related to the fact that people were working like crazy.”
While Oakman understood the maniacal pace—her team was on a tight turnaround to bring healthcare to millions of Americans—she thought things would be different when she moved to a nonprofit. In 2013, Oakman began to work on programs to improve lifelong health, healthcare and well-being at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. She expected a more reasonable pace. And for the most part, that’s what she got. Except that she found herself in yet another work culture where everyone still seemed to work. All. The. Time.
True, she and her coworkers are working to solve some of the most complicated problems of our time. Their job description is to make the world a better place—an undertaking that doesn’t lend itself to easily identifying when one is “done” for the day. In fact, many staffers come to work on Monday talking with relief about weekends filled with mowing lawns, planting gardens, organizing closets—all tasks that, unlike their day jobs, have a distinct ending. Research has even found that people who work at nonprofits tend to put in longer hours–some call them “hero hours”—than others, with higher rates of burnout and turnover, possibly because they’re driven by a higher purpose. But it’s not like nonprofits are alone in the arms race toward constant overwork. “Overwork is not new in this country,” said David Waldman, vice president for human resources at RWJF. ”But in some ways, it seems like it’s hitting critical mass.”
Oakman began to wonder why there is so much pressure to chronically overwork. Even ER docs, reporters in a war zone, or first responders to natural disasters work long hours, but only for short bursts of intensity. And she began to worry about what all those long work hours, stress and the struggle to juggle work and home responsibilities was doing to people’s health. She began to think that solving the interminable problem of work-life balance, rather than being an employee perk, could instead be central to her job.
Oakman was right to worry: Research has shown that long work hours are associated with increased risks for hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and depression. One longitudinal study found that men who don’t take vacations are 30 percent more likely to have heart attacks. For women, that increased risk goes up to 50 percent. Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, and his colleagues found in a meta-analysis of 228 studies that work-life conflict is worse for one’s health than second-hand smoke, and that overwork increases the risk of death by 20 percent. Hardly environments conducive to improving lifelong health.
And so Oakman, Waldman, and others at RWJF decided to do something about it: to see if they could redesign their own workplace culture to improve work-life balance and health. And if they could, they could not only make their own lives better, but they could show others the way, and fulfill their mission to make the world better.
But they weren’t sure what, exactly, to do. Other organizations have turned to “wellness initiatives” like free on-site yoga and meditation classes or anti-smoking campaigns to try to change overwork culture and promote work-life balance. But the results are mixed: Some studies have found a 6-1 return on investment in improved health, others have found little to no immediate effect on what employers spend on healthcare. And they don’t get at the heart of the problem: Why do people work so much?
Some companies have sought better work-life balance through experiments with flexible work, results only work environments, rotating on-call nights so everyone has predictable time off, or family supportive training for managers.
But RWJF already had a slew of such policies with work-life balance in mind at their Princeton, NJ headquarters: meeting-free Wednesday mornings, flexible work, generous paid vacation and sick time, and managers who make clear they don’t expect a response if they send emails on weekends.
“The policies aren’t really the problem,” Oakman said. “It’s the culture. We decided we needed to figure out how people really operate, understand how they think, and see if we could nudge the culture.”
So the nonprofit decided to try something new: behavioral science.
Far from using traditional—and sometimes comically flawed—economic models that attempt to predict human behavior on based on what a “rational actor” would do, behavioral science recognizes that the way in which humans make decisions is complicated. There’s so much more than rationality at play: Behavioral scientists have found, for instance, that when we’re preoccupied with what we lack, whether it’s time, money or relationships, our mental bandwidth gets used up. We get stupider—one study found overtaxed bandwidth can cause one to lose 13 IQ points. And we tend to narrow our focus and “tunnel” on what’s most immediate, losing the capacity to make good decisions in the process. Good decisions such as what’s really the most important thing to focus on at work, or when to call it a day.