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Do Nothing during the Holidays

The data on stress at work are stunning.* Well over half of the people who work report feeling significant stress from work, and 41% of them report that feeling tension and being stressed out at work are typical. Over half also think that stress makes them less productive than they might otherwise be, and over half have also made big career choices – changing jobs, foregoing a promotion – because of stress.

People miss work about 6 days a year because of injuries and illness – but each of them miss a median of 25 days from stress-related disorders. These are striking statistics. Also, in one major, multi-employer study, high stress led to healthcare costs that were 46% higher than they were for people who had less stress (Goetzel et al., 1996).

How much does all this stress cost? In the U. S. alone, estimates exceed $300 billion a year, from lost work, people changing jogs, reduced productivity, and healthcare-related costs.

Although all of this is extremely bad news, things may even be getting worse: the average, combined work week for dual-earner couples has risen from 81 hours in 1977 to 91 hours in 2002. How much has this figure increased in the last decade? Also, if we consider the potentially multiplicative effects of two full-time employees, neither of whom is likely to get as much at-home support from their partner as they both continue to work more, and it seems clear that work-related stress issues are likely to be increasing.

A simple antidote, especially over the holidays: Do Nothing!

CareerBuilder (2009) reports data that almost a third of the Moms who work would prefer to spend more time with their children and would be happy to take a pay cut to be able to do that, and over 30% of working Dads would quit their jobs if their partners could provide enough financial support for the family. So there is plenty of motivation out there to work less – even as it seems that people are working more and encountering more and more stress.

What do I really mean by Do Nothing? This is a question I am often asked, especially since my book has this title and many people either have a hard time doing nothing (e.g., Type As) or are simply skeptical that it’s possible.

When I write about Doing Nothing at work, I do not mean that you should sit on a couch and watch TV all day or play golf rather than going to work. Instead, it’s a message for leaders who consistently do more than they need to do, who can’t seem to resist interfering with their team members’ work, and who would do much better if they spent their time leading rather than working on a task.

Too many leaders also take too few vacations and, even when they do take a break, they can’t let go of their cell phones or their laptops to constantly check on how the work is proceeding.

The holidays are a perfect time for leaders to stay away from work altogether, to share time with their family and friends, and to let some of that work stress that can so easily accumulate slip away. When employees see their leaders taking a break with their families, it’s easier for them to take a break, too. This is good for everyone.

Also, it turns out that, for leaders, there is an extra, unexpected benefit from Doing Nothing – even for Type A leaders. When we Do Nothing, our unconscious minds keep working, even as we pay attention to other things. Our minds almost never rest, even when we sleep. By putting work and all of its demands aside for a few days, it’s amazing, but tough problems often seem more tractable, and solutions seem more obvious. Sometimes we just need to let our minds work; obsessing too much about complex problems can actually be remarkably ineffective. (These insights come from research by Ap Dijksterhuis, a Dutch psychologist, and my colleague at Kellogg, Loran Nordgren.)

So relax, kick back, let your brain work on its own – it won’t stop – and come back to work, after the holidays, refreshed and less stressed. It will be good for your health and for your family. It might even make you more productive.

* These data come from the Psychological Healthy Workplace Program of the American Psychological Association, at

CareerBuilder Inc. (2009) Fewer working fathers are willing to be stay at home dads.
Dijksterhuis &. Nordgren (2006). A theory of unconscious thought. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 95-109

Goetzel, Anderson, Whitmer, Ozminkowski, Dunn, Wasermann, and the Health Enhancement Research Organization Research Committee. (1998). Journal of Occupational health and Environmental Medicine, 40, 843-854.



3 thoughts on “Do Nothing during the Holidays

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Do Nothing by J. Keith Murnighan

“Do Nothing! will stand out as among the most imaginative, fun, and useful leadership books ever published. Murnighan uses rigorous research to provide detailed advice that will help leaders do their jobs better, develop more adept and committed followers, and to suffer from less stress and overwork. Even though most business books present new wine in old bottles, Do Nothing! is the rare book that provides a refreshing perspective and tangible advice that isn’t available anyplace else.”

Robert I. Sutton, Author of THE NO ASSHOLE RULE: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't

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