Why We Need the Weekend

Callie Enlow — In the Balance

Here’s a quick quiz—give yourself a point for each one of these you’ve experienced: responding to an urgent work email on Friday or Saturday night; saving administrative tasks to tackle on a weekend; spending your Saturdays ferrying your kid(s) to playdates, recitals, meets, or matches; being called in to your workplace last-minute on your day off.

I’ll bet you scored a three, at least. And you aren’t alone. A 2014 study found that nearly a third of American workers logged hours on the weekend, and many more are informally engaging in work activities and domestic duties during their free time. Sadly, it seems most Americans have forgotten that years ago protestors risked their lives securing legally protected time off—the same folk we celebrate on Labor Day. Now those protections seem more precarious than ever, with smartphones pinging during Sunday dinner, just-in-time shift schedule shenanigans, and the nonstop, anxiety-inducing hustle of freelancers in the gig economy.

Author Katrina Onstad has had enough of all that. Her new book The Weekend Effect: The Life Changing Benefits of Taking Time Off and Challenging the Cult of Overwork makes a persuasive case for why we need quality time away from work, how we developed the concept of the weekend, and re-learning the luxuries of leisure time—for the good of ourselves and society at large. Not only does she dig into scientific findings on the matter, she braves a daytime rave and an adult coloring book circle, searching for the benefits of free time in all its weird, life-is-a-rich-tapestry forms.

I ripped through the book flying to and from a quick vacation, and yes, set up the interview from my hotel room, but hey—even for Onstad, this leisure time thing is a work in progress.

Did you have a particular reader in mind when you started researching and writing the book?

I think I was probably writing it for myself first and foremost, which may be a terrible thing to admit. But I was just noticing so many busy families with two careers and this feeling of ‘what happened? How did my life get like this?’ From there I found commonality in all kinds of groups where I hadn’t expected it. From gig-economy millennials to high-powered corporate lawyers and CEOs, many people are experiencing erosion of leisure and free time. And we’re all kind of scratching our heads about how to maintain a quality of life in this crazy work-first moment.

Many gig-economy workers have a lot of flexibility in their working hours during the week, but they also have to put in work time during evenings and weekends. Is that a good tradeoff? Or is there something necessary or magical about having those two days off back to back?

It is really complicated. We do live in this incredible moment where many of us in white-collar jobs are lucky enough to be liberated from the constraints of traditional office culture. The flip side of that is the work drifts into every other crevice—the nights or weekends or when the baby is sleeping or whatever—the 48 solid hours [off] is very hard to attain for many people. So, do I think they have to have that? No, I absolutely don’t and in a way it’s sort of pointless to mourn the Saturday-Sunday weekend, I don’t think that we’re ever going to get back to that… At the same time, I do believe the substance of the weekend or the concept of the weekend can be important, especially if we have a societal reckoning about the fact that people need time off and they need quality time off.

It’s not ideal that some people are going to have their weekends on a Tuesday and half on a Saturday and half on the next Wednesday—48 hours in a row is fantastic just in terms of rejuvenation of body and mind. But if you can’t get it, you can still find the benefits of leisure within a couple of hours if you’re really paying attention to what you’re doing with your free time.

How did we get to this Saturday-Sunday weekend in America and what was labor’s role in locking this down as the status quo, for a few decades at least? 

Obviously, the ancient scaffolding of the weekend is around the Sabbath, there’s Judeo-Christian and Islamic underpinnings to that idea: some point in the week where we are not slaves, where we experience some kind of freedom from work, where we congregate for prayer. I really love the poetry of that idea. Then that became the basis of the shorter hours movement, which was the first issue that organized labor in the States and Canada rallied around. … There was about a century of activism, people protesting, often bloodily. People died at some of these protests to tame the workday, which had become just bananas after the Industrial Revolution. It was really because of the organized labor movement that we ended up with this 40-hour workweek. That was the beginning.

Obviously that idea has eroded in the past 20 or 30 years. What do you think are the biggest thieves of our leisure time and weekends?

There are a bunch of forces working against us having a good weekend. We’re in long-term economic precarity, and when you have an economy that’s fragile, people want to look like and be good workers. Expectations around what makes a good worker are really high. So we have people obligated to perform availability or be available 24/7. If you’re anxious that you’re going to be replaced, you’re probably not going to turn off your phone on the weekend.

[Then there’s] domestic life, chores. Often, for people who work all week, their weekends are just stuffed with the detritus of what they couldn’t do during the week—shopping and cleaning. And for parents there’s a lot of time suckage around child-rearing; we’re caught up in a moment of hyper-parenting and we fill our weekends with classes and enrichment programs and we don’t really factor in any downtime.

Another important piece is devices and technology, which is of course the key to that worker being available all the time. Now we really can be reached even on the weekend and the very concept of leaving your office behind when you leave the building doesn’t really exist anymore—our offices are with us all the time.

You argue that all this availability and long work hours aren’t necessary for, and sometimes can actually hinder, productivity. What is it about having downtime that could lead you to become more effective at your job?

We have this idea that longer hours make better workers, but in fact we have 100 years of research showing the opposite. Shorter hours actually make you a better worker and more productive. After about 40 hours, our productivity drops off, and after about 50 hours we start to introduce errors into the work. That’s something that employers really need to think about. It’s not often when we’re exhausted and overworked that we become creative and inspired.

I think there’s a business case for allowing people to have lives outside of work. Especially to have unoccupied time for the mind to wander and have those random epiphanies or have experiences in the world that make you a more interesting person—that sort of extend you into the community. All of those kinds of experiences, they stay with you and you bring them back to your workplace. They do make you a better employee, and a better person.

In The Weekend Effect, you mention a kind of anxiety that comes with free time. Do you have any theories about why it can seem so hard to just relax and not fill up our time with chores and work?

It is weird isn’t it, this free-time anxiety. There’s lot of theories around that, the one that I found really compelling is this North American Protestant work ethic that underscores the creation of the United States, and Canada to a different degree. We really do equate working with goodness, work is a virtue in the culture and so conversely, we’re very suspicious of not working. You can see that in the cable news world where the unemployed are so vilified; I think we’re really uncomfortable with the idea of working less.

We are at a really weird moment, a really unhealthy moment, where we look at leisure as a weakness. There’s a kind of currency around being really occupied and really busy. And there’s actually some research that we now equate status and success with being tired and overworked. … it’s proving you’re wanted, that you matter, that you’re indispensable.

While some CEOS are prioritizing free time for themselves and their employees now, there’s still a social pressure, especially on kids, to be scheduled up to the gills. What are your thoughts on where the next generation might be headed in terms of leisure?

There seems to be mixed messages for millennials and work. On one hand, I think that when surveyed they will often say quality of life is most important, in terms of what they look for in a workplace. And they don’t want to succumb to what their parents are beholden to and become workaholics. They are changing workplaces by demanding flexibility and remote working. And yet the other part of that is that they are the largest cohort of the gig economy, which is inherently unstable and often requires that kind of borderless time which is the natural enemy of the weekend.

Now that the oldest ones are beginning to have kids, they are really putting their feet down in the workplace and saying ‘we want to go home and be with our kids in a meaningful way.’ I think a generation or two generations ago, people were very nervous to do that. They didn’t understand the repercussions of being away from home so much.

It will be really interesting to watch, I hope it’s good.

The last half of your book explores several ways we could make our weekends more fulfilling once we step back from work and domestic obligations on the weekend—volunteering, socializing, experiencing nature and art. I wonder if you still practice these suggestions and how your own weekends have changed?

It’s such a work in progress. One thing I tried to be really conscious of with this book was to give everybody kind of a break, because I know that for me, I will hit a really good weekend and then I might hit a really bad one. So, I’m trying to just change my relationship to time overall rather than hit a checklist. I’ve been successful and unsuccessful.

The biggest change for me was that by doing difficult things, I actually had a better weekend. My instinct when tired and spent was to just kind of crawl onto the couch and do a Netflix binge. But [now] I’m saying ‘OK the research [about the benefits of community engagement] is right, don’t be such a loner weirdo in your basement. Go out there and engage with people that you love.’

It sounds really flakey to say it out loud but I did really feel like [researching and writing the book] kind of prompted an existential crisis for me. This is your life, if this weekend and the next weekend and the weekend after that are all spent at Costco, that’s kind of it. They’re not infinite, these weekends. But again, I’m constantly going against my own instinct to lock the doors and shutter the windows. I really have to force myself to make the most of the time that I have, and I’m always rewarded when I do. It’s never a bad idea.