We all crave more free time from work. But it might not be as satisfying as we think.
Victoria-born Cristobal Young, now an assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University who earned degrees from the University of Victoria and Princeton University, has done some fascinating research showing that time off usually needs to be shared with others to feel rewarding. That could explain why extra time off during the work week tends to be unsatisfying. It's something that advocates of shorter work weeks may have to include in their thinking.
The research, with the University of Wisconsin's Chaeyoon Lim, is an outgrowth of his studies of unemployed people, who provided a fascinating comparison with working people.
Most of us with jobs, of course, run flat out during the work week, lusting after the rest and comfort the weekend might provide. That shows up in the Gallup Daily Poll the two academics studied: Measuring such things as anxiety, stress, laughter and enjoyment, our well-being is at its lowest Monday through Thursday, edging up on Friday, and hitting its peak on Saturday and Sunday.
"We are, in a real sense, living for the weekend," Prof. Young wrote in a New York Times article.
But it's essentially the same pattern for unemployed people. They don't have work to create anxiety and stress, but they are not blissful Monday through Friday. For employed people, the positive emotions studied increased by about 5 per cent on weekends. Among the unemployed, the weekend boost is essentially the same.
On weekends, workers' negative emotions drop by about 24 per cent on average – ranging from 10 per cent to 35 per cent, depending on the variable. Worry, stress, and anger show the largest drops, whereas sadness has the smallest decline. The jobless experience a drop in these negative emotions on weekends of about 12 per cent. So not as dramatic a drop, but still oddly similar.
He believes the reason is our need for social time – time with others – and the role the weekend plays in co-ordinating social time for most of us. "Weekends provide centralized co-ordination – most of society is off work on those two days and it's dramatically easier to co-ordinate [social activities] with other people," he said in an interview. "The standardized work week is such a part of our lives, it's hard to imagine what life would be like if we didn't all have the same two days off."
Actually, it's not hard to imagine. We have two striking examples, one quite close at hand and one from the Soviet Union. Churches hold their main services on Sundays, not on Tuesday or Thursday, because they know the vast majority of the flock is free to attend on that day. He notes a rotating, seven-day workweek was implemented on a mass scale in the Soviet Union in 1929, in an effort to maximize industrial production by not letting factories sit idle and also curb the church-going proclivities of Russians in the Stalin era. The new "Red Calendar" divided the months into five-day rather than seven-day weeks. Factories operated every day, with 80 per cent of staff on duty. That meant individuals often had different days off than their spouses, relatives and friends. The experiment lasted only two years. "People hated it," historian Clive Foss wrote in History Today.
Time, Prof. Young notes, is not "fungible" – you can't trade or replace it. "We talk of saving time, but you can't. It's not like money, where you can put it in the bank. If somebody gives you two hours off this afternoon, you can't store it and use it when a friend is free," he said.
And we often want to spend it with others. Indeed, he describes time as a "network good" – a term usually associated with technology, since network goods are things that derive their value from being widely shared. Your computer and many forms of technology derive value from the fact that other people have computers and are using the same app. We want to spend time with others. And that means weekends.
He found that time spent with family and friends by working people was roughly double on weekends what it was during the week. It appears this increase of social time accounted for roughly half the spike in weekend well-being. Since the unemployed are free during the week but many people they want to spend time with aren't, the impact of weekends was also significant, although only half as strong as for working people.
This illuminates a little-discussed aspect of work-life balance: You cannot get more of a true weekend simply by taking an extra day off work yourself. Yes, you would have more time off. But you would have to spend that time, like the jobless, waiting for other people to finish work.
"There are some unintended consequences of work-life flexibility that we haven't thought about. In the immediate moment, it's great – you can be at home with a sick child," he says. But for the longer term, you may be unable to co-ordinate activities with others you relish spending time with. Looking to the European model, he feels we need to define more time when we are all off, so we can be together, decreasing stress and increasing well-being.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter