The world is currently beset by the so-called “productivity paradox”: despite all the excitement about technology and innovation, falling productivity rates persist in reducing the world’s long-term potential growth. So why isn’t the 4th industrial revolution and all the ground-breaking technology that comes with it like Artificial Intelligence and genetic engineering, translating into higher productivity? It still could, but to date most innovation (mobile phones, internet, apps and so on) enhances our leisure time rather than our business efficiency. In doing so, it may perversely exercise a counter-productive effect: our “always-on culture” and our addiction to the digital distract us and raise our stress levels, which in turn negatively impact our productivity.
Wellbeing and productivity
This is where the link with wellbeing becomes obvious as one critical pathway to higher productivity. Ample academic research demonstrates that businesses that care about the wellbeing of their employees (i.e. put in place policies and programmes to promote it) see individual productivity increasing by up to 12 per cent. The research shows that the state of being “well” improves cognitive processes and attention, allows us to focus longer, and helps us to be more positive and enthusiastic, all pointing to higher productivity. The latter point about positivity and greater enthusiasm suggests that the state of wellbeing also entails less absenteeism and less presenteeism (employees still coming to work while being physically or psychologically unwell, and therefore being unproductive). Healthier people are more productive employees: it’s as simple as that!
Keep it simple
When something as basic and gentle as taking a lunchtime stroll has been proven to immediately buoy our mood and ability to handle stress at work, and hence to improve productivity, it’s hard to fathom why something so obvious is encouraged by so few companies. Apple is one of them. Before he died, Steve Job designed Apple’s new headquarters in Cupertino with the specific objective that any employee could go for a stroll whenever she or he feels like it. Tim Cook, who succeeded Job in 2011, observed that the many trees planted in the circle of the new campus would give employees the impression of “doing their work in a national park”, adding: and “When I really need to think about something I’m struggling with, I get out in nature. We can do that now! It won’t feel like Silicon Valley at all.” No one would dare accuse Apple of living in cloud cuckoo land. The design of its headquarters is premised on the conviction that allowing people to walk would enhance their productivity. This is not a gimmick – it works. The causation, although not yet rigorously proven, is there. But for one “Apple”, there are zillions of companies that continue to praise hard work in a confined space where employees don’t have the leisure to stroll. In theory, yes: working hard by being stuck at a desk should lead to greater productivity, but only in theory. Research shows that the opposite is true. Most often, working too hard and not exercising enough forces people to spend excess hours trying to catch up on work and proves in the end to be counterproductive. At the extreme end, a recent study links overwork to a myriad of psychiatric disorders, suggesting that working too hard and not finding the time to engage in physical activities is not only bad for wellbeing, but also for productivity.