2 min read

The third peak and the cautionary tale of workplace flexibility

Flexibility has led to great outcomes for employees. But we need to tread carefully as work creeps closer to bedtime.
The third peak and the cautionary tale of workplace flexibility
Photo by Johannes Plenio / Unsplash

Sustain issue #58 (Get Sustain in your inbox next Thursday)

The Third Peak. It’s a term I’ve heard more and more in the last few months.

It refers to the third peak of activity many knowledge workers have late. After a peak before and after lunch, a third productivity peak happens as late as 10 p.m. In fact, in a new study of Microsoft employees, 30% experienced this third peak.

The are some pros to this model. It speaks to the benefits of a flexible work schedule. For example, parents can be outside of school in the afternoon to pick up their child and then spend precious early evening time over dinner and family activities. In a once-normal office workday, just about none of this was possible.

95% of employees want the ability to set their schedule, according to research from Future Forum. It makes perfect sense.

But there’s a critical caution in this: An ever-expanding workday and impacts on our sleep.

The never-ending workday

The workday has expanded by 46 minutes since the start of the pandemic, additional Microsoft research found. And time spent working after hours has grown by 28% in that same time period.

It’s well and good if there’s increased flexibility in the workday to make space for caregiving and activities that promote well-being. But more often than not, this increased flexibility really means more work at strange hours.

It’s also created implicit norms that can be difficult to navigate. If those more senior than you send messages and emails after your workday, it creates, at the very least, the urge to check those messaging apps no matter how many times the culture reinforces it’s not required. That keeps the workday alive in your brain even if it should be tucked away for the night. Speaking of which…

Diminished sleep

We inherently know that more and higher quality sleep leads to better outcomes across the board. But life gets complicated and that’s not always a reality. Some of these impacts are uncontrollable, but things like the third peak of productivity should be managed very intentionally.

Research, unsurprisingly, shows that working deep into the evening is associated with fewer hours of quality sleep. The stressors of work can trigger the same instinctual response as being chased by a bear. So being engaged with something that creates a fight or flight response so close to bed is going to wreak havoc.

Fewer hours and poorer quality of sleep set off a domino effect. You’ll be less engaged during the day and produce a poorer quality of work. That vicious cycle will continue until you burn out.

There are extraordinary benefits in flexibility to design work around your life. But it’s imperative you place your long-term wellness front and center. It’s better for you and better for your company.


Ready to downsize your relationship with work and quit burnout?

Hi, I'm Grant Gurewitz. I'm on a mission to eliminate burnout at work. I've been in tech for 10 years (ex-Zillow, current: Qualtrics) and suffered deep burnout and came back from it even though I never found a playbook for doing so. So, I'm writing it myself.

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