The Widening Weekend

Michael Metzger

You’re likely to be less happy tomorrow.

Most Americans feel better from Friday evening through Sunday afternoon. Labor Day widens the weekend but only delays workweek depression. The solution is seeing the factors producing a sense of well-being or what the Bible calls shalom. They are present on the weekend but usually absent at work. It’s why the weekend is widening.

A recent study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology explores why people are happier on weekends. Researchers looked at the psychology behind the weekend mood boost. They used pagers with 74 adults, ages 18 to 62, who worked at least 30 hours a week. Over three weeks, participants were randomly paged three times a day and rated on their activity and how they felt when beeped. They also said how close they felt to others present and whether they felt competent and autonomous.

It turns out that men and women alike feel better—emotionally and physically—from Friday evening through Sunday afternoon, regardless of their age, education, salary, marital status or how many hours they work, the study says. “Why weekends are better are the two factors of autonomy and relatedness,” says co-author Richard Ryan, a psychologist at the University of Rochester, New York. “There’s more connection with other people and more self-direction. Wherever you don’t have autonomy or don’t feel relatedness, your well-being will be lower.”1 Not surprisingly, a lower sense of connection and self-direction is more likely to be felt at work, writes Ryan.

Self-direction is creativity. Relatedness is connection. Competency is having the skills to succeed. These three are key to satisfying psychological needs, says Ryan Howell, an assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University. In the Journal of Happiness Studies, Howell reports that even short-term stressful or unpleasant work produces a greater sense of well-being in the long run if it includes some autonomy and connectedness. “When you clean the house, it may not make you happy in the moment, but it may make you satisfied, and that will make the weekend better,” Howell says.

These findings indicate how far our modern notions about work have drifted from a biblical definition. In Genesis, shalom is 24/7/365. Work is supposed to include a sense of autonomy, relatedness and competency. Some of our greatest joys and relatedness ought to be found during our workweek. The end of the workweek, the seventh day, was designed for enjoyment and celebration. That’s what Sabbath originally meant. The word actually means “cease” more than “rest” as understood today. “It does not refer to remedying exhaustion after a tiring week of work,” writes Allen Ross, a Hebrew scholar, “it describes the enjoyment of accomplishment, the celebration of completion.”

Enjoyment and celebration are ideas being overrun by institutions formed after the English Industrial Revolution. The process began innocently enough, writes Witold Rybczynski in Waiting for the Weekend. According to Rybczynski, the first five-day workweek was instituted by a New England spinning mill in labor union attempts to accommodate Jewish workers who took Saturday instead of Sunday as their Sabbath.2 But enjoyment of the Sabbath would soon become escape from work.

In the early 1800s, work changed family and cottage to firm and corporation. Factory workers found wage work to be dangerous and humiliating. They applied the word job to describe their labors, expressing disgust. The old English word “job” originally meant “criminal or demeaning activity” (some still refer to a robbery as a “bank job”). The weekend was widening as workers reveled in diversions that allowed them to experience connection and self-direction.

Further widening came with the advent of “scientific management” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the Bible, humans are not managed. We only manage assets, appetites, and animals. Studies show that managing people removes their sense of self-direction, relatedness, and competency. Henry Ford was one of the first to apply principles of “scientific management.” In Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, Matthew Crawford recounts how Ford workers simply walked out when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line in 1913. Managing people didn’t work. “The new system provoked natural revulsion,” Crawford writes. At the close of 1913, Ford estimated they’d have to replenish the factory ranks with 100 workers. In fact, it was necessary to hire 963 as Ford workers’ sense of well-being withered.

Ford’s solution wasn’t to improve work but to widen the weekend. In 1926, Henry Ford began closing his factories on Saturdays, thinking this would help spur the economy and encourage workers. It didn’t cure workweek depression. Instead, as scientific management soaked shalom out of work, the two-day weekend was institutionalized nationwide by 1940. People are always attracted to shalom and long for a sense of well-being. If they can’t find it during the workweek, they’ll look for it on the weekend.

Returning well-being to the workweek can be done. When Dennis Bakke co-founded AES, a worldwide power supplier, he threw out 19th century ideas that mankind could be manipulated.3 Instead, Bakke began with a simple assumption—“that people are thinking, creative, responsible individuals.”4 AES grew to over 40,000 employees but never managed it’s people. Workers instead experienced self-direction, relatedness, and competency. They were happy to work there.

Under Bakke’s leadership, AES had no shift superintendents or foreman in any plants, no HR department, and no safety department, although AES had one of the best safety records in the industry. AES had no more than two layers of supervision between Bakke’s office and any entry-level position all around the world. It had no salary grades and no job descriptions written, by design. Bakke reported “there was no employee handbooks to tell you that when your mother or dad or grandmother dies you can have four days off, but if they live in Stockholm you get five days off, and so on and so forth.” This, by the way, sounds very similar to the way most of us live on the weekends.

America’s economic prospects are dim if the workweek continues to compete against an ever-widening weekend. Consider France and its 35-hour workweek competing against its very wide weekend. The solution is stitching the factors producing a sense of well-being into the fabric of our modern-day firms. This won’t be easy, but a company could start by questioning the wisdom of scientific management. It’s the antithesis of shalom. As long as companies manage their workers, those workers will be happier on weekends and simply hold their nose during the workweek.

2 Witold Rybczynski, Waiting for the Weekend (New York, NY: Viking, 1991)
3 “A Reluctant Capitalist”
4 “Values Don’t Work in Business,” Max L. Stackhouse, Dennis P. McCann, and Shirley J. Roels, with Preston N. Williams, ed., On Moral Business: Classical and Contemporary Resources for Ethics in Economic Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), pp. 713-717.


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  1. Mike,

    Was wondering what things separate the concepts thinking and creative? Was in the middle of a defining the “perfect employee” exercise at work and I offered this as something to consider. When challenged on the two being the same, I didn’t have much to go on except open to new thoughts and views versus originating them.

    Reading the book DRiVE. Would be interested in your thoughts on Type I and X.Author reviews the 4 “T’s. I believe it ties in well with many of the concepts you review and remind us about.


  2. Troy:

    Well, cheers for trying something at work! Daniel Pink’s book on right brain thinking might help you differentiate – right brain for innovation and creativity; left brain is more for analysis. Its usually best to conduct a drawing exercise that gets people into their right brain – rather than introduce the two hemispheres as “concepts.” That’s a left brain approach. As for “Drive,” yes – it’s a good book. My biggest take-away is that we long for a better motivation, or drive. Pink calls it “purpose,” which certainly squares with scripture.

  3. Mike,

    Sorry to be a naysayer here, but I find this post to be flawed in several respects:

    – Contrary to psychological analysis, it appears to me that Genesis 3:17-19 clarifies the real reason why work is hard and distasteful – it is God’s curse as a result of the original sin of Adam.

    – Similarly, as a member of Adam’s lineage, we humans are endowed with negative motives that cause us to dislike work – we’re selfish (we want to do what we want rather than submit to authority); we’re greedy (we want more money for less effort); we’re lazy (we’d rather stay in bed longer and play more than exert ourselves); and we seek comfort (we want less stress and more free time).

    – Attributing dissatisfaction at work in large part to a lack of creativity and connection is simplistic and inaccurate – many work places provide for connection and relationships, and many workers are happy within a more rigid framework rather than having the duty and responsibility of making decisions. God has made people different, and not everyone is the leader.

    – “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” – even if the assertion is correct that the Bible does not describe people as being “managed,” it doesn’t mean they aren’t – simply that, in the context of an agrarian culture, it may not have been one of the topics covered in the Bible.

    – In fact, the assertion that people aren’t managed in the Bible is faulty, if not outright in error, as illustrated quickly with just a few examples: the parable of the shrewd manager (granted, we don’t know all the details of what he managed); Moses’ appointment of bureaucracy to manage disputes among the people; governments and armies frequently mentioned having leaders over various size groups. Management is fundamental to any large organization, and it’s clearly implicit, if not explicit, in much of the Bible.

    – The example of AES is also flawed…in such a system, where only the results are managed, you cultivate an atmosphere that can be inequitable, overbearing, wasteful of resources, selfish, and lacking integrity. All of those things ARE negative attributes for which there Biblical mandates to do the opposite – to treat each other as well as or better than myself; to be respectful of others; to be a good steward of resources; to serve others rather than my own interests; to do all I do with honesty. If “managing” people promotes those good virtues explicitly commanded in scripture but not doing so cultivates the opposite, I question which is the more Biblical system.

    Finally, I would refer your readers to this post:

    and the article it links for a call to the Biblical understanding of vocation, realizing that the problem is not with our jobs but in our hearts, and that true shalom can only be realized as we submit our hearts to the Prince of Shalom.

  4. Randall:

    A fundamental question that I have with your post is whether our calling is to be dictated by what IS or is to push forward to what OUGHT to be. There is no question that we live in a fallen world and that we are fallen people. But what environment calls us to be our best selves? What type of parenting? What type of management?

    Mike’s assumption is that loving another person means respecting his or her autonomy. Dallas Willard writes, “God has paid an awful price to arrange for human self-determination. He obviously places great value on it. It is, after all, the only way he can get the kind of personal beings he desires for his eternal purposes.”

    Parents often assume that they can “manage” their young children. But once they are larger and their self-determination is more fully developed this fallacious assumption is routinely tested. There are books that teach parents techniques used in state prisons to control prisoners. But it is not hard to imagine that something is lost in treating one’s children in this manner. Love demands something different both at home and at work.

    When agency is diminished within the workplace, the experience of work becomes to some extent dehumanizing and less than it ought to be. This I believe is Mike’s point. I was an early shareholder in AES and a close friend of Dennis Bakke. I saw his theories in action. There were clear company values and routine company-wide accountability, but agency at all levels was celebrated. Employees took ownership of the company’s success in ways that could never have been replicated via top-down command and control. Shalom in the family and in the workplace will require a different assessment of human nature and a different kind of leader in both. Willard summarizes the point in this manner: “What position is nobler than that of a spiritual father who claims no authority and yet is universally esteemed, whose word is given only as tender advice, but allowed to operate with the force of law.”

  5. John,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I think your fundamental question is valid, and in my view the answer is “both” because they are intertwined. If we are following a map to a desired destination, we are likely to go off course and encounter great difficulty if we plan our journey based on a starting point that is somewhere other than where we really are.

    I understood Mike’s initial post primarily to be a diagnosis of why people have what I call “Sunday night syndrome” – having experienced it myself! I interpreted it to say, in essence, that “this condition is the fault of organization and management and authority…if only we let people do what they want rather than what someone tells them to do, they will be happy and want to go to work.”

    I think this is an erroneous analysis of “what is” for the reasons I stated previously. If we base our premise of what ought to be on a faulty assessment of the present, we are likely to craft solutions to the wrong problem, create new problems, and perhaps exacerbate the issue. Stated another way, if a doctor prescribes treatment based on an incorrect diagnosis, he not only may harm the patient through unnecessary treatment but also will fail to address the real disease.

    I believe it’s inaccurate to stereotype and blame “management” as the primary driver of this issue. Placing the blame at the feet of organizations is easy – they’re visible, they have hierarchy, they compel behaviors, and of course they are regularly vilified by the media and the government. All of that management activity is, however, well within God-ordained authority structures – the Bible tells us to be subject to government, because it is there to promote good and restrain evil. It tells “servants” to be subject to masters. Being under authority is not wrong, nor is exercising authority.

    I said I’ve struggled with the same issues, and my job is one that is extremely creative, self-actualizing, and autonomous. And I hear the same from many others that are similarly situated. Therefore, based on the truth of scripture, my own experience, and anecdotal testimony of others, I suggest that the problem is not primarily one of management versus autonomy but rather (for both the manager and the employee) one of what false idols drive our hearts and behaviors. For managers, it may be power and money, but for employees it may actually be the same thing.

    I don’t believe my post argued for the extreme of “command and control” – compassionate, respectful management is critical, but that is not synonymous with absolute autonomy, unfettered creativity, and lack of structure. In fact, healthy management promotes healthy organizations that provide good jobs benefiting both individuals and society. The counter-productive solutions that arise from inaccurate assumptions of a self-actualizing utopia for workers actually dehumanize and hurt many more than they help: minimum wage requirements price unskilled workers out of markets; anti-competitive union-only requirements drive up employer costs and reduce the number of jobs; higher costs of mandated “feel-good” programs are borne by the poor disproportionately through higher prices and lesser quality goods. And before we condemn managers for rationale economic behavior as stewards of corporate resources, we should remember that we consumers drive this behavior through our daily purchasing choices.

    So returning to the original question, I again submit that we must have a more accurate assessment of the problem before we can craft a solution. I believe that the issue lies on both sides of the equation. The existence and exercise of authority is not the sole problem…rather, it’s the attitudes of the human beings that are in, and under, authority that together can lead to such issues.

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