When writer Rahaf Harfoush’s hair started falling out, she realized her burnout and emotional exhaustion had reached scary levels. She was past the point of feeling tired and overworked — her health was actually starting to suffer, a clear symptom of burnout. Logically, Harfoush knew she needed to slow down. But she couldn’t seem to do it and didn’t know why. Even at her lowest, she felt guilty she wasn’t working harder.

So Harfoush went on a quest to figure out how she and millions of others across the globe had been taught to work themselves to exhaustion, thereby damaging their creativity, productivity and quality of life. She wrote a book, Hustle and Float, on what she learned and, in the process, gained hope — there are ways for creatives to thrive in the workplace and for employers to support them. We just have to think outside the box.

Modern work models weren’t designed for the modern worker

Harfoush defines a significant portion of the modern workforce “productive creatives.” These aren’t artists, per se, but “anyone doing knowledge work or creative thinking, like problem solving, thinking on your feet, finding solutions and learning things.” Productive creatives include everyone from accountants to HR professionals to nurses and lawyers.

Flexible, creative problem solving is at the core of much modern work. So, according to Harfoush, the idea that a 40-hour, 9 to 5 workweek will maximize productivity for everyone is too rigid a concept. And this framework, widely popularized at the beginning of the 20th century by Henry Ford for auto workers, wasn’t designed for most modern workers anyway. “You cannot measure productivity for a creative person the same way you would measure the way someone is making a product on an assembly line. So much of the creative process is intangible and invisible,” Harfoush argues.

In fact, Harfoush believes creative workers have the capacity for even fewer hours of productive work than a 40-hour work week would imply — “after you spend six hours on a challenging mental task, your brain is basically done for the day.”

The downsides of overwork (and emotionally exhausted workers)

There’s plenty of evidence to support Harfoush’s idea that overwork is counterproductive. Studies show that, beyond 40 hours of weekly work, the return on hours worked starts to diminish. In essence, workers accomplish less per hour during overtime — and the further workers push beyond 40 hours, the more pronounced this diminished capacity gets. Additionally, the resulting emotional exhaustion from extended overtime can affect workers’ output for long after; it can take weeks for a team to return to regular productivity.

And when we talk about productivity and work hours, we can’t ignore the current climate. Under normal conditions, many people feel more productive when they can work from home. But adjusting to full-time working from home while balancing taking care of children or other family members during a pandemic and significant civil unrest is extremely stressful, and polls suggest that people living in the U.S. are the unhappiest they’ve been in 50 years.

Harfoush points out that deeply ingrained cultural notions — that if we simply work hard enough, we’ll be successful — encourages people to use productivity and busyness as coping mechanisms. “It’s a time of economic uncertainty, and if you don’t have a job, you’ve been throwing yourself into trying to find one,” Harfoush says. “If you do have a job, you’re throwing yourself into demonstrating your value.” She worries that, without meaning to, workers are setting norms their employers may expect in the future.

Our creative energy is not separate from the rest of our lives. So as energy is depleted by personal concerns and the state of the world, and we experience more and more emotional exhaustion, work and creativity will suffer. “We cannot expect ourselves — and companies cannot expect us — to be working at the same level of performance as before,” Harfoush emphasizes.

Combating emotional exhaustion: Are the systems that have gotten us here still working?

Harfoush advocates for addressing today’s challenges with a heavy dose of reality — sugarcoating the past or present won’t help us move ahead. As we try to adjust to new work circumstances, she says, “let’s not forget that inflexible work cultures that encouraged overwork pre-COVID were already problematic and failing people.”

One of the first steps that both workers and employers can take is to reassess how they’ve been doing things. Here Harfoush sees a silver lining: as work is upended and businesses slow their race forward, an opportunity to look at whether internal systems are serving employees emerges. Harfoush suggests taking advantage of the situation by asking “are the systems and policies that have gotten us this far still serving us? Or do we need new approaches?”

As Harfoush sees it, these reassessments and conversations need to start at the top. Company leadership should address processing trauma, workers’ anxiety and reassessing goals to show workers it’s ok to discuss these topics. And, if needed, leaders should reevaluate metrics and make appropriate adaptations to the company’s new economic — and personal — reality.

What employers can do now: Open conversations about flexibility

Some companies, Harfoush notes, have already taken bold moves to protect their workers’ energy and creativity and prevent emotional exhaustion. In France, the “right to disconnect” law sets clear boundaries against emails outside of business hours. And in 2011, Volkswagen in Germany went so far as to turn off email servers during most non-working hours. Other firms have experimented with shorter workdays or workweeks; when Microsoft Japan tested a four day workweek in August 2019, productivity reportedly increased by 40%.

More measured approaches can serve to protect creativity as well. For example, many productive creatives need blocks of undistracted time to work on projects, something that can be difficult in companies with a meeting-heavy culture. One solution could be limiting meetings to certain days, or certain times of day. 

Regardless of the challenge, a conversation with your team about individuals’ needs can accomplish a lot. As Harfoush says, “I’ve worked with many companies and never met a manager who said ‘I’m totally uninterested in making things better.’” 

A post-COVID world: “We’ve already been impacted by this”

In a post-COVID world, Harfoush emphasises we’ll need to first address that the workforce has been impacted by what can feel like a total upheaval of life. “A toll has already been taken on our emotional and physical wellbeing,” she explains, “which are directly tied to our creativity.” Harfoush believes that employers can support employees by creating the space to have actual, meaningful conversations.

Listening to employees and taking strides to accommodate their needs is key for companies looking to thrive in the newly emerging world of work, says Harfoush. While maximizing efficiency in business and management is undoubtedly important, so too is how we think about those concepts. In Harfoush’s mind, the competitive advantage lies in fostering innovative thinkers: “That’s what’s going to make or break the next era of successful companies.”