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Posted by Mark Tuckwood 11 July 2017 Innovation Consultancy

In an age where many people work longer hours than ever, frequently bring work home from the office and are under constant pressure to perform, it is little wonder that leisure is often pushed to one side. But what if by neglecting leisure time we are in fact hindering our potential and generating a negative relationship with work?


In order to get to where you want to be in your career, many feel that working long hours in the form of early starts, late nights and frequent overtime is necessary to prove commitment and ability.

This need to prove oneself is widespread across many international business cultures, and has not gone unnoticed by industry commentators. Back in 2014 British newspaper The Guardian argued that 'work and leisure used to be separate. Now it's just 24/7 anxiety.’ Suggesting that there is ‘a grisly new order, a working day that is never done’ and that ‘40% of us are neglecting other parts of our lives because of work demands,’ it is clear that there is an imbalance between work and leisure time.

The OECD Better Life Index argued that even though compared to international standards ‘the share of employees working 50 hours or more per week is not very large in the OECD,’ many still neglect leisure time. In Japan, the Financial Times reports, the culture of overwork is long entrenched, and has recently hit headlines after the suicide of a young graduate trainee following her gruelling workload.  


With so many business cultures internationally embracing the logic of overwork, is this approach justified? A recent study into the balance between work and leisure has found that there is no reason for people to prioritise work over leisure to such an extent, and in fact has argued that we need to foster a healthier relationship with leisure activities.

The study, featured in Harvard Business Review, has argued that while many of us resist taking time off for leisure activities until the necessary work is done in the belief that ‘work comes first, leisure comes second,’ this intuition may not be correct. In order to explore the notion of ‘leisure first’, O’Brien’s study ran a series of split group experiments that asked some group members to do strenuous mental work first, with leisure activities as their reward, and another group to do the same in reverse order.

The study found that:

‘while participants thought activity order would matter a great deal — participants in the “play first” condition predicted significantly lower enjoyment ratings than participants in the “play after” condition — in reality, order didn’t matter at all. Actual enjoyment ratings were equally high in both conditions.’

If this the case, why do so many of us reject the notion of ‘leisure first’? O’Brien argues that ‘the answer has to do with our ideas about distraction,’ suggesting that many of us perceive we will be unable to fully enjoy the leisure experience due to thoughts and stresses about the upcoming work. Yet with his experiments finding that the order in which leisure and work activities are undertaken have little or no bearing on how much leisure is enjoyed, ‘[his] findings suggest we may be over-worrying and over-working for future rewards that could be just as pleasurable in the present.’


With evidence suggesting that leisure and work can be undertaken in any order, it is worth considering that there are benefits to taking leisure time first. Research has found that taking time off can actually improve productivity in the work place, with Forbes suggesting that among these benefits are ‘higher productivity, stronger workplace morale, greater employee retention, and significant health benefits.’ has likewise suggested that work performance is often dependent on recreational activities, and managers looking to boost staff productivity should recognise the value of such enjoyable pursuits. This can be done by allowing, and actively encouraging, team members to take their entitled holiday days, but also by bringing recreation into the workplace in order to provide good well-being and a healthy work-life balance.  

While the need to work and work hard is highly unlikely to disappear, much conceived wisdom about the undertaking of work to the detriment of leisure activities is little more than hearsay. Better understanding the value of work-life balance, and the impact this can have on both your working and personal life, goes a long way towards beginning to deconstruct the myths of all work and no play.  

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