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Work, Play, Rest: How to Bring Balance to a (Hybrid) Workday

Hybrid and remote work require us to learn how to leave the job behind.

Key points

  • We have struggled for centuries to make sure that we all get enough time each day to recover from work.
  • In 1817, the Welsh labor activist Robert Owen encouraged spending eight hours of the day on work, play, and rest for better balance.
  • As we have reduced time at the office, we also have lost the structure that helped us create a balance in our day.
Pexels/Vlada Karpovich
Source: Pexels/Vlada Karpovich

Over 200 years ago, in 1817, the Welsh-born manufacturer and labor rights activist Robert Owen argued for “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” The belief was that the human body — and the human mind — needed to break the 24-hour day into even thirds, to recover from the demands of work and be a more productive employee. It would be another hundred years, in 1938, before the United States government required employers to pay overtime if employees put in more than a 40-hour work week. To help workers recover? Not really. It was the Great Depression and President Roosevelt thought that major employers would hire more workers if they could only use any one person for an eight-hour shift.

We need to work less if we want to work better.

It feels like the eight-hour workday has become a quaint relic of the past, something that sounds vaguely familiar but unknown in our own lives. But technically, most Americans tend to work between 38 and 40 hours per week, according to a Department of Labor report from 2021. But that isn’t the whole story. Many Americans work closer to 47 to 48 hours because they discount how much they actually work. For example, when most people were working at the office, they would check in on work after they get home most weekdays and at least once on the weekend. When you add in a 30-minute commute, that’s another hour per day related to work. That adds up to nine to 10 hours per weekday dedicated to the job.

We need boundaries in our day, balancing work better. But it may be harder than ever.

Owen’s idea of only eight hours of work was radical at the time, years before even child labor laws were implemented. However, when we went to work — even if for longer than eight hours — we did so in an environment that encouraged a break at the end of the day. Think of all the bars and gyms and restaurants in the business center of any major city, designed for the post-workday respite. In London, where I live, it is common to see pubs full in the early evening on weekdays. It is a social and mental shift from the workday: we tended to make plans after work, near the office, that “forced” us to leave at a designated hour. I wrote in my first Psychology Today post about how the commute similarly helped enforce that break. While many of us worked longer than eight hours, and technology meant we were always contactable, working at the office forced us to leave work — the place and the concept.

We're learning how to make hybrid healthy: the new work reality is a work in progress.

Now that a hybrid work schedule has become the new norm (and even full-time remote has skyrocketed since 2020), we often don’t have the commute to force us to break away from the day. Even the infrastructure like gyms and pubs near our place of work no longer draw us the way they used to since we’re not at work every day. And employers, while technically offering full or part remote work opportunities, have yet to provide the culture and mindset of how to make sure employees take a break. If you think about work over the course of the 20th century, we moved from no labor limits in mills or on farms, to additional pay if we worked more than eight hours (overtime). But by the 1980s, we hit a culture of the 80- or 90-hour work week, glamorized by movies like Wall Street. And then by the late 1990s, young Generation X workers emphasized “work-life balance.” In other words, we’ve continually redefined the right balance of the workday since Owen’s eight-eight-eight proposal. And it’s time to do so again.

We can work at home. And at the office. And everywhere else. How do you bring balance back?

In what we can now cautiously call the post-pandemic stage of work, employees will have to be their own advocate for balancing their workday. We don’t need labor laws to protect us, nor can we rely on the commute or urban planning to draw us out of the office. Instead, we will have to build our own limits on work. Because “the office” is down the hall, and work is on our personal phone, there are no boundaries. So, we must create them. It won’t be as easy as it sounds. Some employees may find it better to embrace a hybrid schedule and show up at the actual office several days a week, in part because it requires you to leave: no one expects you to sleep at the workplace. Others might want to negotiate an official schedule when they accept a fully remote job, making it clear that you won’t trade always remote for always available.

The biggest obstacle to balancing work, play, and rest might stare at you in the mirror.

For many, re-establishing a balance will require the hardest negotiation of all — with ourselves. The easy access to work life now is what makes it so hard to resist “just checking” email right before bedtime. But ask yourself what could have happened that can’t wait until morning. If you are trying to impress your manager, ask yourself if always being available really adds value... or is sustainable. Set physical boundaries and only check your email or voicemail when you are in your workspace. Most importantly, consider the impact on your mental health, your sleep, and your relationships. Bottom line, working at home is easier than ever — for better and worse. While the eight hours work, play, and rest may seem like a thing of the past, let’s hope it becomes a goal of our future.

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