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Is working less the secret to a more productive work day?

One of the frustrating things about visiting Italy is finding everything closed between 1 and 4 pm–the Italian ‘siesta’. But this midday break just might hold the secret to a happier more productive workforce.

After 4-5 hours of concentrated effort, the mind clouds and the body becomes sluggish. Pausa pranzo–the extended Italian lunch break, brings a wave-like pattern to the workday, giving employees an opportunity to recover from the morning’s toil and recharge both physically and mentally before tackling the afternoon’s work. 

  In Italy, pausa pranzo offers a natural break in the day, Rimini.

In Italy, pausa pranzo offers a natural break in the day, Rimini.

According to author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, four hours’ focus is the maximum most humans, can manage. Indeed, in his book: Rest, why you get more done when you work less, he suggests the average office worker can achieve as much work in four focused hours a day as in eight.

So, why don’t other parts of the world embrace the extended midday break? 

Simple, we’ve bought into the busyness culture, obsessed with overworking ourselves to gain social esteem, and wearing stress and busyness like badges of honour. 

According to a report published in Harvard Business Review, the busy person in America is perceived to have higher status than the one with free time. 

It has become so bad that when greeted with ‘How are you?’ the response is no longer ‘I’m well, thank you.’ Instead, the appropriate reply is ‘Busy!’ 

During the same study on Italian participants, researchers discovered the opposite: Italians regarded the person with a life of leisure as having a high-status. 

So, in Italy, when greeted with ‘Come va?‘ (How are you?) the appropriate response is something like, ‘Bene, grazie!‘ (Good, thanks!)––and the conversation drifts toward food. 

The proliferation of mobile devices has only fed the busyness culture. Holding employees firmly in the grasp of the 24/7 enterprise; they remain tethered to electronic leashes, physically leaving the office, but never leaving their work.  

A recent report from the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) found that the majority of UK managers spend 29 extra days a year working on handheld devices outside of office hours, effectively cancelling out their 25-days of annual leave. 

In contrast, Italian business owners like fashion tycoon Brunello Cucinelli, are banning staff from working after 5:30 pm and checking emails outside office hours.

Cucinelli’s ban re-enforces a wave-like pattern in the workday, forcing employees to leave their work at the office, and focus on the most important business of the day, the aperitivo. 

So, next time you find yourself wandering through deserted Italian streets, don’t be too quick to curse pausa pranzo. Perhaps the ninety-minute lunch break is a better motivator than the pool table or the desk massage. And just what we need to create a happier and more productive workforce.

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I help owners and leadership teams to grow exceptional businesses by coaching and implementing EOS, the Entrepreneurial Operating System®. EOS is a simple, complete, business management system that empowers leadership teams to run successful companies.

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