A favourite podcaster, Tim Harford, tells the story of Stalin’s calendar-reshaping experiment and explores what it can teach us about time off, and why the holidays matter so very much.

Killing the weekend

In 1929, Stalin implemented a five-day continuous work week in factories, government offices, and commercial enterprises, but not collective farms. One of the five days was randomly assigned to each worker as their day of rest, without regard to the rest days assigned to their family members or friends; as Harford puts it: Stalin killed the weekend.

The continuous five day week made things more equal and gave many workers more rest days; valuable machines and factory floors were in use all year round. The problem, however, becomes obvious if you think about real people’s lives. If everyone rests on different days, how can a sports team meet to play a match or a choir get together to sing?

Science is very clear about the wellbeing benefits of taking a break, but many of us struggle to find or make the time to do so. Time off is important for our mental and physical wellbeing. We talk about ensuring we have some ‘me’ time, but we may under-estimate the importance of ‘we’ time.

Scheduling for less stress

Stalin’s experiment in redesigning the working week made it difficult for people to socialise, to join clubs, or engage in community activities, sometimes even to see their own partners. It’s noticeable that our 24/7 economy means that low-income workers all over the Western world are coping with scheduling that’s similarly antisocial.

Digital nomads also feel the effects of antisocial scheduling. We can work wherever there is wi-fi and choose our hours. In fact, where we work is often more important than when we work, but it often means our schedules are out of step with everyone else’s. Yes, we can pick our hours but it can be hard to find someone free at the same time to socialise with.

What does science tell us about taking a break? Should we try to coordinate with everyone else? There’s not much research in this area but Swedish psychologist Terry Hartig found that use of anti-depressant medications fell during the short Swedish summer holiday season. Hartig’s interpretation was that when everybody’s on holiday together there is a buffer against stress. We get a lot of social connection, we hang out with people we care about, and just feel less depressed.

Social animals

An initiative by the Danish government, after WWII, aimed at including women in the workplace cut the working week so that Danes would get more time off; importantly it was when everyone else had free time off. There was more opportunity to be social and Denmark seems to be a happier nation, indeed, historically, they’re often at the top of the World Happiness report ranking in part because of their social practices.

There are individual differences around happiness and how we plan and spend our time but undoubtedly social connection is important to humans. Studies in positive psychology suggest that being social is good for our happiness. The more you spend time with others, especially with people you care about, the happier and more satisfied with your life you tend to be.

What happened with Stalin’s workweek experiment? Problems with the system became overwhelming, and in 1931, a day of rest common to all was introduced, then in summer 1947 the seven day week, including Sunday, was reinstated.

Happiness and productivity

Research for Oxford University in conjunction with BT found that that workers are 13% more productive when happy. The researchers found that happy workers do not work more hours than their discontented colleagues – they are simply more productive within their time at work.

The business case is clear – employee wellbeing drives productivity as well as recruitment and retention of talent which, in turn, has measurable impact on a company’s overall financial performance. Happiness is a strong driver of performance in tasks that require human interaction and where social and emotional skills play a large role in how productive someone is.

The wellbeing of workers is something to which companies are going to start paying more attention as we are realising that it matters for their bottom line. There is a competitive advantage in building a happy, healthy workforce.

Listen to Tim Harford on Apple Podcasts: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/cautionary-tales-with-tim-harford/id1484511465?i=1000639117365

Michael Moran

Michael is CEO and Founder of 10Eighty. He is passionate about helping people maximise their potential and believes everyone should have job satisfaction and a successful career. He helps organisations design jobs and career paths that maximise employee engagement. As an avid reader/commentator on the world of work and sport, he regularly draws parallels between the two. You could describe Michael as a budding author with “The Guide to Everlasting Employability” already under his belt, and technophile who’s created 2 career management apps to help people manage their careers.


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