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'Work Hard, Play Hard'. What about 'Work Smarter, Play Better'?

It's time to re-consider the application of the 'Work Hard, Play Hard' mantra in the workplace, and instead think of potentially replacing it. Is 'Work Smarter, Play Better' a viable alternative?

What is ‘work hard, play hard’?

'Work Hard, Play Hard' is a well-known and often well followed dictum proposing a lifestyle or culture which embraces long hours of work alongside or followed by a social and leisure activities. Which combined, leaves individuals with very little time for personal reflection or rest.

The ‘work hard, play hard’ mantra dates back to the work of William Newnham in 1827, albeit in a slightly more exhaustive and protracted manner:

“Whatever is done, it should be habitually done with earnestness; in every pursuit, exertion should be employed; work hard and play hard; always recollecting that quiescence, the stillness of inactivity is destructive to the mental welfare, and approaches very nearly to the winter of the faculties, the torpor of a hibernating animal, the unprotected state of sleep, or the complete cessation of life.”

Yes, a bit of a mouthful!

The internet is inundated with articles, blogs and reasons to follow the ‘work hard, play hard’ mantra, with Elon Musk being one of the biggest proponents of the idea (who works 80-hour weeks).

Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GtaxU6DZvLs

Although dating back to the early 17th century, it is only very recently that research has provided evidence for the existence of the idea. Many previous incarnations of the ‘work hard, play hard’ mantra appear to be centred around the cliché and not based on empirical research. However, work by Lonnie Aarssen in 2015 provides empirical support for the ‘work hard, play hard’ lifestyle, wherein there is a correlation between a desire to work hard and an attraction to leisure.


The potential dangers of ‘work hard, play hard’:

Unfortunately, the paper doesn’t expose some of the dangers of the ‘work hard, play hard’ lifestyle also known as ‘performative workaholism'. So, what are some of the dangers to the lifestyle, and if so, is it as desirable as first thought? Here are the most cited negative effects of performative workaholism:

work hard, play hard (1)
work hard, play hard (1)

1. Burnout

Burnout is a state of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion caused by excessive or prolonged stress. Burnout works bi-directionally with work. The ‘work hard, play hard’ lifestyle can cause burnout, but burnout also has a negative effect on your work (which may in turn lead to the mindset that you need to continuously work to get back up to speed).

2. Risky levels of drinking

Research published in the British Medical Journal found that people who work more than 48 hours a week were more likely to drink at dangerous levels compared to those who work fewer hours. Interestingly, this result is consistent across the socioeconomic spectrum, meaning that dangerous levels of drinking remain across job type (bus driver vs corporate banker).

3. Sleep Deprivation

A fairly obvious consequence of the lifestyle. Individuals leave themselves with very little time for rest. The magnitude of sleep deprivation builds up over time and has consequential effects on a range of systems in the body. It can prevent the strengthening of the immune system, increase the likelihood of respiratory problems, body weight, blood pressure and hormone production as well as negavively affect one's mental health.

The lifestyle can, and has worked for a number of people, but there are clear dangers associated with it. If not well structured, a ‘work hard, play hard’ lifestyle has the potential to lead to a range of self-destructive not so desired outcomes. With this in mind, is it time for a rethink on the mantra? Why don’t we consider ‘Work Smarter, Play Better’?


Work Smarter

This means not compromising on levels of productivity and efficiency of processes but working at levels which reduce the likelihood of burnout. This has potential. Unofficial overtime is, and has been, on the rise for a number of years in many countries. In the US it is estimated that around 550 million workdays are lost each year due to work-related stress and burnout. However, with a well-thought out, structured and employee focused approach to a culture of ‘working smarter’, rather than working harder, there is potential to reduce this. Take Scandinavia for example, where employees work 312 hours less per year, than their American counterparts, but there is a culture of trust between employees and employers that productivity levels and quality of work will remain high. Another growing trend across many countries and idusties is working 4 days a week instead of 5 while maintainig the same productivity and enahancing performance.

Now, we are not suggesting that we can directly mirror the Scandinavian approach unilaterally. But it does provide valuable insight into how companies and employees alike can - ‘work smarter’.

What next for ‘Work Smarter’?

Managers and senior leaders may wish to try and build a culture which does not instil the ideals of ‘work hard, play hard’. Instead, employees should be encouraged to leave on time, or at least not stupidly late! And continuous overtime shouldn’t be considered part and parcel of a working life. Creating an employee friendly culture where employees can have an open dialogue with colleagues and managers about their work stresses and how they can reduce and overcome said stressors can only be a good thing for an organization. Without compromising on productivity and quality, while employees avoid burnout and are likely to become more engaged.

What about ‘Play Better’?

The ‘work hard, play hard’ mantra is commonly associated with a lifestyle of alcohol misuse, appearing constantly in literature looking at university students, all the way through to professionals. There is a plethora of articles, blogs and research denoting how to live better, and you as the reader should be freely available to choose what you do to ‘play better’, perhaps looking beyond the past times associated with ‘play harder’.

Joseph Garvey
Joseph Garvey

Joseph Garvey

Content Team

6 minute readPublished on August 19, 2019

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