Steven Pinker says now is the best time to be alive - and in many ways he’s not wrong. But the counterbalance to increased wealth, health, and opportunities is that many of us feel increasingly stressed, under pressure to constantly achieve, and lacking in time to relax and enjoy the important things in life. Our lives are rushing past us and we often don’t know how to slow the pace - how to step off the hamster wheel.
And even if we do, we’re then bombarded with instructions about how to relax “properly”. Our smartphones remind us to exercise; adverts points us towards recipes for clean eating, and the latest “must do” for our holistic health; and celebrities tell us about their new meditation techniques. And if we fail to achieve these goals, it puts greater strain on our minds and bodies. The pressure to relax in the ‘correct’ way has become stressful in itself.
Mahabis believe in relaxing the way you want to. Rediscovering what it’s like to do exactly what you like, and feeling good about it. Step back. Feet up. Breathe out. Take time for you, and do it your way.
Mahabis wants you to feel you have the freedom, and time to switch off. We believe it’s good for individuals because it improves people’s health and wellbeing. It allows us to pause, reflect and unwind, and ensures that we have quality moments of peace and calm in our lives which can otherwise feel hectic and rushed. We can destress and recharge. And it’s good for businesses too.
By embracing the need for people to have time out, and embedding it within company culture, there are less risks of employee burnout - and less stress related absences. Moreover, this can improve workplace morale and even increase productivity. And there are positive effects for society as well, because when people have time for themselves it can help reconnect families and communities. It enables us to spend more quality time with those we care about, and those we would like to see more of.
Whatsmore, if as a society we embrace a cultural shift away from people boasting about how flat out they are, to celebrating taking time to switch off, we could see untold individual benefits. We can end the guilt around taking time for ourselves - we can destress, refocus on the important things in life, and recognise the value in making time for relaxation and reflection.
So all of us - individuals, employers, communities - need to recognise that in order to have uptime, people must also be able to enjoy it’s opposite. At Mahabis we call it downtime - and we want everyone to feel they have the licence not just to enjoy it, but to own it.
The hectic pace of modern life - longer working hours, the growing intrusion of technology and keeping up with the latest trends - have all contributed to people....
The hectic pace of modern life - longer working hours, the growing intrusion of technology and keeping up with the latest trends - have all contributed to people having less time to unwind. But it’s not just about the quantity of downtime being squeezed, the full speed pace of modern life has also impacted the quality.
Research shows that people need 7 non work hours in order to feel like they have the balance they need to be happy - but on average we only have 4 hours and 14 minutes. And this lack of balance is making us stressed and unhappy. 85% of adults in the UK say that they are regularly stressed - and work is widely considered the top cause. And even when we do get non-work time, the demands and pressure we feel to use it “properly” frequently means we don’t really relax. At Mahabis we believe that chilling out should never be competitive! So step back from this new rat race, and give yourself permission to just put your feet up.
At Mahabis we believe in taking time out - daily - to do what *you* want to do. We call it downtime - and the point is that this is your time - to switch off and get back to your true self - and no-one should tell you what to do with it. Let go of any demands or advice, and spend time your way. You’ll feel better for it both physically and mentally. Whether you choose to unwind with a negroni and a novel, a boxset and your favourite pyjamas, a stroll in the park with your headphones in, or even do nothing - if that's what you want - it’s about creating the time and space to relax, your way.
And once you’ve seen the light, share it! Behavioural science tells us that many of the pressures we feel are societal ones: we feel constrained by certain norms, and tied to certain value systems. We judge our behaviour according to whether or not it coheres with everyone else’s, and feel guilty if we judge ourselves to have come up short in that comparison. Well, how about if we turn this on it’s head? If you and I embrace downtime - if we celebrate it, value it, and encourage others to too - we can create a positive social movement that resets a balance that has been skewed against us for too long.
We believe in this so much, that we’re urging everyone to pledge to set aside time for themselves - at least once a day. And once you’ve felt the benefits of downtime, share the manifesto with the three people in your life who you feel most need it most!
Linked to the pressure we feel to use all of our time “productively”, the seemingly inevitable expansion of social media in our lives is causing further stress. A medium which on the face of it purports to be about keeping us connected, and facilitating our every desire, is increasingly having the perverse effect of making us feel inadequate and insecure. Indeed, there is a wealth of academic research which suggests that it’s having a detrimental impact on our mental health too.
It’s not just that we are led to compare how many fewer Instagram followers or likes we have to others, or that we’re bombarded by constant updates on the seemingly endless fun and achievement that everyone else is having, it’s also that the “always on” nature of social media means that we never really switch off and focus on the present. That’s why as well as taking time - at least once a day - for downtime, we are calling on people to be mindful about their use of social media and give themselves permission to switch off. The average Brit checks their phone 28 times a day (and many of us will do it a lot more than that), but very often we’re not really conscious that we’re doing it - and seldom ask whether we need to. Instead it’s become a habit, a tic. We check absentmindedly, or because we’re bored, anxious, looking for entertainment.
That’s why we’re calling on you to sign up to a switch off day - and do it with pride! Yes, it may mean having to grapple with the fear of missing out on something, but in a way that’s the whole point: the more of us that pledge to switch off, the more we will be able to change the cultural mindset that says you have to always be “on” - so that it becomes the people who are still tied to their screens who we feel are missing out.
Across the country people are feeling the pressure to work harder and longer, but counterintuitively this isn’t actually in our employers interests...
Across the country people are feeling the pressure to work harder and longer, but counterintuitively this isn’t actually in our employers interests. A culture is developing where rather than being valued for being good at your job, people are esteemed for being wedded to their job above all else. But while staying tied to our desks or attached to our laptops may on the surface seem like a good idea for business productivity, reducing the amount of time we dedicate to switching off has a detrimental long-term impact.
Stress is one of the leading causes of mental ill-health, which itself is the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK - costing an average of £1,035 per employee per year. On top of that, a recent study showed that demanding longer work hours actually decreases rather than increases the number of actual hours people work. In order to have a more productive workforce, something needs to change.
At Mahabis we believe that great work comes from happy people - and people are happy when they can enjoy the balance between work time and downtime that we all need. That’s why we’re calling on businesses to commit to improving employees work life balance, by offering flexible working wherever possible. For some businesses this might mean operating a four day week, at others it might mean offering a “work from home Wednesday”. All businesses are different, and we’re not presuming to know exactly what’s best, but what we do know is that flexibility means happier workers - so we should all embrace it as much as possible.
And this isn’t just about being “nice”, anecdotal evidence tells us that the provision of flexible working conditions or the ability to work a four day week means employees are not only happier, they work harder. Indeed a recent report by HSBC stated that 89 per cent of employees at major UK businesses agreed that flexible working was more likely to increase productivity than financial incentives. US technology company Automattic has fully embraced flexible working, allowing its 700-strong staff to work remotely and covering costs of a hot beverage they want to work in the local coffee shop.
But the business case for flexible working is not just about productivity. There is also considerable research which shows that happier employees are more creative, more satisfied with their jobs, less sick - and less likely to leave. Given this, it’s in many ways surprising that there are any businesses left who are not choosing to offer it!
And as well as individual companies taking the initiative, in France they’ve introduced a new national law: ‘the right to disconnect’. This legislation gives employees the legal right to avoid work email outside of working hours, with companies over a certain size having to set out the hours when staff are not supposed to send or answer emails. Companies in the UK can take action now voluntarily, and set a positive example for others to follow.
At Mahabis we operate a flexible working policy, and we’re always exploring increasingly flexible ways to work. For example, we actively promote remote working, working from home, and generally encourage people to take time off to switch off - whether that’s to pursue personal hobbies or to go travelling. Presenteeism is good for nothing and nobody. And by making sure employees can enjoy downtime, we believe businesses will be helping to improve their performance at work during uptime.
It’s hard to overstate the benefits. We all agree we’ve never worked in a happier office. Our experience is that people work harder, are more committed to the company, and are less sick and stressed. On top of that, we’ve found that providing as much freedom as we can - especially flexible working - engenders a culture of personal responsibility, and respect amongst colleagues. Taking this approach sends the clear message that we trust our employees to structure their working time in a way that suits them - rather than enforcing a strict 9 to 5 which serves no real purpose. The benefits are so great that once people have experienced or witnessed it they never turn back. Indeed a number who have worked with us in the past have gone on to introduce a four day week in their own businesses.
We’re not saying we’ve got it completely right, and we recognise not every business can copy our exact approach, but one thing that all businesses can do - which would be beneficial to both them and their employees - is to commit to facilitate flexible working and offering more freedom. We want to create an alliance of businesses that do so - to set a new norm in the way that campaigns such as the living wage or fairtrade have done before us. And we urge any and all businesses to join us.
It’s not just business who can contribute to driving change. As a society we have developed the attitude that being busy is a sign of success....
It’s not just business who can contribute to driving change. As a society we have developed the attitude that being busy is a sign of success, meaning that downtime is often sacrificed. It wasn’t always like this, the 19th century economist Thorstein Veblen argued that the ultimate symbol of success was leisure and the freedom not to work. And in 1930 Keynes famously predicted that the working week in “progressive countries” would be drastically cut - to 15 hours a week - with people rightly choosing to have more leisure time as their material needs were satisfied. He thought that living standards would inevitably rise, and that people would make the choice to take time to enjoy the good things in life.
Technology was supposed to help with this - and give us a better work-life balance - but arguably it’s made it worse. In recent decades, being busy and showing others just how busy you are has become a point of pride - even a bragging exercise - and there’s now more ways of letting people know just how busy you are, whether it’s checking in on Facebook, posting pictures of your latest baking efforts on Instagram or tweeting about your new gym routine. This in itself has become a burden, constantly reminding your friends and family what you’re up to. And as we set these expectations of ourselves about what we do - and what we tell others we’re doing - these expectations keep on getting bigger.
At Mahabis we want to see this change. It’s not that we’re anti technology - far from it! We recognise that in appropriate doses technology has a great power to connect us, educate and entertain us, and it liberates us to work from any location. But there are also undeniably negative aspects to its pervasiveness that we would do well to acknowledge.
Society can help create a cultural shift away from people boasting about how flat out they are, to celebrating taking time to switch off. Instead of rushing to squeeze in that extra activity at the weekend, why not use that time to reset before the week ahead. And rather than people feeling guilty about taking this moment for downtime, wouldn’t it be great if society as a whole saw the value in making time for relaxation and reflection.
This isn’t an entirely new idea, and in 2008 the French Government commissioned Nobel prize-winning academics Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen to look at how the relentless search for a rise in GDP sometimes trampled over a government's other goals, such as sustainability and work-life balance. There was also an intention to measure the ratio of working hours to leisure time, and whether men and women are treated fairly in the workplace and home, but this ambition was never fully realised.
The concept reached British shores too, with the government committing to take more things into account when developing policy than simply how much money it might generate. The intention was to look at the potential impact of policy on the quality of our culture or the strength of our relationships. As a first step this resulted in the collection of annual statistics assessing the population’s wellbeing - but the agenda stalled there.
At Mahabis we think it’s time to reawaken the movement. At the moment, the way wellbeing is measured by the Government is fairly superficial - with only four questions:
- - How satisfied are you with your life?
- - To what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?
- - How happy did you feel yesterday?
- - How anxious did you feel yesterday?
While this is valuable, there are lots of other things that need to be tracked - and we believe that work life balance is a prime candidate because it is absolutely central to wellbeing. A better balance means more time for relationships, more time for community, and more time for yourself. So that’s why we’re conducting an audit into work-life balance - to be published later this year - and why we’re calling on the Government to do more to track it, and step up efforts to improve it. This would signal a real commitment to improving the nation’s quality of life, and not just the quantity of the country’s economic generation.
Moreover, taking action to improve work life balance may actually lead to a more positive economic outcome. There is widespread evidence that suggests a relentless 9 to 5 can inhibit creativity and suppress inspiration. The rituals we’ve become accustomed to, are not necessarily the most productive, or even natural for society or individuals. At mahabis, the undeniable benefits we’ve witnessed in operating a flexible working culture makes us optimistic that by introducing similar measures nationwide, we could help solve the longstanding “productivity puzzle”. That’s why we’re also calling on the Government to do a proper assessment of the benefits of flexible working. Such an assessment would look into the impact of practices such as 4 day weeks and greater employee autonomy - for employee health and happiness, for sickness absence rates, and also for the impact on productivity, growth, and profits.
But clearly it’s not just up to government. We, as individuals, have a responsibility to end the current stigma associated with ‘taking time out’ for ourselves. It’s not lazy, selfish, or a luxury. Downtime is a necessity. We can bring about a change in attitude and a shift in culture - and help create a society that actively encourages individuals to reclaim time and space from a world that is constantly trying to steal it from us.
The truth is that we’ve become accustomed to keeping up with the impossible demands of modern life, rather than taking a step back from them. So instead of competing, consuming and racing to keep up, we ought to encourage ourselves and others to pause, unplug, and switch off once in a while.
One standout illustration of the pressure not to take time off is the poor uptake of paternity leave in the UK. There is no doubt that a culture exists where men feel they can’t afford to stay away from work too long, through fear of missing out on a promotion or being frowned upon by colleagues. It’s hardly surprising that this stigma exists when you consider that shared parental leave - which entitles parents to share up to 50 weeks between them - was only introduced in the UK in 2015. But it’s clear that more needs to be done when you consider that more than 3 years later only 2% of eligible adults take advantage of the initiative each year (compared to 28% in Sweden). Changing attitudes clearly takes time, but we can all help to build momentum by taking - and supporting those that take - parental leave. Indeed, a recent study into the low take up of shared parental leave showed that when people were asked whether they would take SPL if most of their friends and colleagues did, 57% said yes. Clearly there’s no silver bullet, but at Mahabis we’re calling on government to do more to promote shared parental leave, including urging businesses to publicise and promote their parental leave policies. On top of this we’re also calling on businesses to volunteer to publish the percentage of eligible employees who take their full entitlement to shared parental leave. This is not about naming and shaming - quite the opposite - it’s an opportunity for businesses to demonstrate how progressive and positive their workplace culture is. But it doesn’t stop there - in order to end current stigma and make a real difference every one of us also needs to support those people who take it up.
And that principle arguably applies to all forms of cultural change. Individual action is where it starts - you are where it starts.
By doing something ourselves - living and demonstrating what we believe in - and then sharing this with others and supporting them when they do it too - we can end stigma, and set new norms. We can be the positive social movement that ensures we all have time to enjoy the important things in life - join us.