How smart do we work?

Not sleeping, improving the cognition: Studies suport the value of a siesta.

Productivity is all the buzz but as one economist says, it’s “nice to talk about and hard to get”.

Taking a break from work – eating lunch, grabbing a coffee or a breath of fresh air – has become a contentious topic recently as arguments have been flying over how downtime impacts on productivity.

The received wisdom runs that if Australia is to increase productivity, it must become leaner and fitter – essentially, there must be fewer people working harder or smarter. On the other hand, some economists warn that laying off staff is a short-sighted approach that ill‑prepares Australia for later expansion. Instead, companies need to focus on the wellbeing of their employees as one avenue towards growth.

In June, Sydney Ports CEO Grant Gilfillan suggested the port could increase productivity by 20 per cent if workers in the terminal staggered their lunchbreaks, in the way mining workers do so that core machinery can be kept running continuously. Gilfillan says he wasn’t suggesting that port workers miss lunch or work harder.

“It’s about coordinating the way people work,” he says. “Growing evidence seems to support the idea that it’s not necessarily the amount of time spent away from work tasks that affects productivity, but how time is allocated.”

Ernst & Young’s Productivity Pulse survey for 2012 shows the most unproductive workers actually took fewer breaks, but spent more time travelling to work and less time on leisure and recreation. In contrast, highly productive workers who spent two-thirds of their time on meaningful work took longer breaks, travelled to work in less time and allocated more time to leisure and recreation.

There’s no doubt that Australians work long hours. The report on the ACTU’s Working Australia Census 2011 reveals working time has been creeping up annually, with many Australians now putting in more than eight hours each day. An average Australian worker clocks up 1686 hours a year – considerably more than the typically industrious Germans, who work 1419. In addition, 61 per cent of Australian employees reported that they worked overtime without getting paid.

Curiously, Australia scores low on productivity compared with other developed nations and has done so for the past decade, ranking 17th out of 34 OECD countries. A Reserve Bank of Australia report by Saul Eslake, an economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, says Australia has experienced particularly large declines in productivity growth in labour-intensive sectors – the wholesale and retail trade, transport and storage, financial services, public administration and defence, and education.

“It is management’s job to combine labour and capital to most efficiently produce goods and services,” Eslake says. For example, staggered meal breaks, he says, are particularly relevant when customers want to access services in their own lunch hours.

Workers are legally entitled to a break, generally after five hours, and how an employee spends that break is up to the individual – but the tendency for many is to plough on.

The era of the long lunch hour has certainly passed. More than 30 per cent of women and 24 per cent of men in Australia don’t take a lunchbreak and eat at their desks instead, according to a poll last year commissioned by Sandhurst Fine Foods.

"40 per cent: The percentage of improvement in cognitive ability gained from a 30-minute sleep." – NASA

Many cite the pressure of work as the main reason, but workplace safety agency Comcare says this practice is killing people, literally. Research from the University of Sydney shows that people who sit between eight and 11 hours a day were 15 per cent more likely to die earlier than a control group, while those who sit for more than 11 hours were 40 per cent more likely to die, taking into account weight, outside activity and health status. Loss of productivity due to chronic disease is just one reason behind the Medibank’s Stand Up Australia campaign, which aims to get workers moving more often during the day.

Physical exercise has been shown to reduce stress, improve morale and boost physical energy at work, but what about mental energy? John Trougakos, of the Department of Management at the University of Toronto, visited Sydney recently to talk about his research. Trougakos says that, like muscles after exercise, mental concentration needs to be rested in order to recover. “Employees generally need to detach from their tasks and their work space to recharge their internal resources.”

Spending a lunchbreak relaxing, walking, sitting quietly or even napping benefits people by making them feel less tired, he says.

However, Trougakos found that socialising with work colleagues during lunchbreaks wasn’t as relaxing as might be expected. “Your colleagues may not all be people you want to socialise with,” he says. “Behaviour is a little more formalised than if you were with friends at the weekend, because you’re still ‘on’ and using up psychological and cognitive resources.”

When it comes to mini-breaks, such as grabbing a coffee, checking a Facebook account or making a personal phone call, academics argue over the benefits. A new study reported in the international journal Cognition shows that workers who took two brief breaks from a given task were able to focus for longer than those who worked without stopping. In another study from Portland State University in the US, micro-breaks were shown to be counterproductive and may increase a sense of tiredness.

“Going out for fresh air showed no statistical relationship to vitality and fatigue levels,” says research author Professor Charlotte Fritz. “The idea seems to be that when you’re in the middle of work, you’ll do better and feel better if you focus just on work.”

Sleeping on the job?

Is lack of sleep holding Australia back? A survey by CQUniversity and Sealy Sleep Census this year shows that 38 per cent of Australians have drifted off at their desk or during meetings. The study also found a third of respondents had called in sick due to lack of sleep, potentially costing employers millions of dollars in lost productivity. Nearly 70 per cent admitted that their work was being negatively affected by tiredness.

The average person needs between seven and eight hours of sleep a night, but even then many experience a natural drowsiness in the afternoon. Power naps may help to make people sharper, according to a NASA study that shows sleeping for 30 minutes improves cognitive abilities by about 40 per cent. A 20-minute nap restored brain activity with neurons firing more effectively, making people more alert and enhancing memory and problem-solving skills.

Even closing the eyes for five minutes has the benefit of reducing stress and helping people to relax, say experts.

Perplexed by productivity

A big problem for many Australian companies is understanding how to measure productivity. While 80 per cent of leading companies made productivity a top business priority in Telstra’s Productivity Indicator this year, only 25 per cent measure it. Those that did were winning market share.

“Productivity is hard to measure,” says Telstra director of strategy and business development Antony de Jong. In an online interview with Productivity Spectator, de Jong said: “Productivity is about working smarter and needs to be unpacked in the case of each individual company. It’s not something that can be done in one quarter or one year, but over several years.”

Investments in profitability initiatives, mainly technology but also training and engagement efforts, are what distinguish the productivity leaders, according to Telstra.

Productivity needs to be a whole-of-organisation topic, de Jong says. “If you can eliminate errors on the way in, then you can eliminate errors on the way out and customers are more satisfied as well.”

He says breaks are definitely part of the overarching productivity picture, but at grassroots level organisations also need to look at how work groups engage, how decisions are made, how meetings can be conducted more effectively and ways to prevent repetition and wastage.

Economist Saul Eslake concludes: “The difficult economic times worldwide mean managers must now understand, measure and improve productivity. [But] productivity involves difficult decisions, such as sacking people and getting the remaining ones to work harder.

“Those employers who want to be seen as employer of choice don’t want to annoy their staff. Productivity is nice to talk about and hard to get.”

This article is from the September 2012 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.

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