Inside the science of happier work by Bruce Daisley

Since the advent of email on our mobile devices work has gradually crept into more of our lives. One piece of research said the working day had increased by 27% up from 7.5 hours to 9.5 hours as we find ourselves adding email to every waking moment of travel and lunch.

The challenge is that once you check and reply to email more appears. Based on the increased volume of electronic work you’d be delighted if productivity and pay had gone up. Paradoxically in the last 10 years productivity – the amount of stuff our work produces – hasn’t changed. As the increase in working hours from people being on their phones wouldn’t be captured by the statistics if people are working more it should be captured in higher productivity. But productivity in the UK is flat since 2007. It’s marginally up in the US. In America The last decade has the slowest rate of growth in 60 years.

Productivity hasn’t increased despite a revolution in computers smart phones and email. As I say, maybe the opposite has happened. Work seems to have made us more anxious and we’re working longer to achieve the same.

 Emma Seppala is a Science Director at Stanford University:

We buy into this idea that in order to perform we need to be stressed that you can’t have success without stress we buy into that idea that we have to tap into that fight or flight response, that stress response in order to get motivated, to get through a deadline to push push push. But the truth is that what you’re doing in that process is you are burning out your body, your physiology but also your cognitive skills – memory and attention. For example do you come home at 5, 6pm at night from work and feel exhausted and burned out. Most people do. 

Emma's work has demonstrated that half of all people in work feel exhausted. So why is that? Why are we so knackered? If you asked most people in offices what was getting in the way of getting more done the answers would be rather predictable – email, meetings and office distraction.

Such is the nature of work now that there are an increasing number of people wondering if we urgently need to change it.

Cal Newport is an enviously productive associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University. At 35 not only is his tenured position is unusually early but he has managed to combine the output needed to achieve it with writing 5 books. Want to know the secret of his success. Try emailing him. His email triages between different methods of contacting him. Like a choose your own adventure experience, many of these lead to you not emailing him and you going back to leading your life. When you do get through you get told he might take two weeks to reply. Cal has written a brilliant reimagining of our jobs called Deep Work. He explained to me what he thinks we’re going through:

Well I mean it is true first of all that the modern work environment is actively hostile to Deep Work. I do want to add the caveat that I think this is going to be in the long term a sort of footnote in the evolution of knowledge work. In other words I think the way that we’re approaching knowledge work now we’re now we’re going to look back at maybe 15 years from now and say that was disastrously unproductive.

This is a topic that the economist Tim Harford explored in a Financial Times feature last month. Citing the economic historian Paul David he said “we had yet to see the full economic benefits [of the computer age] because we had yet to work out how to reshape our economy to take advantage of them”. Harford said that later research by economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Lorin Hitt backed up the idea he says “they found that companies that had merely invested in computers in the 1990s had seen few benefits, but those that had also reorganised — decentralising, outsourcing and customising their products — had seen productivity soar.”

This represents the challenge for work. People are more stressed than ever, and if you accept that people are working longer then they are actually producing less for each hour worked.

In addition there’s a complication. Over the next 10 years automation is coming. Not in a general AI sense. There’s unlikely to be something that can do your whole job in your lifetime but parts of your job might be taken. What parts can be taken. The routine parts. One of professions that machine learning might impact is the job of lawyers. A lot of lawyers work is pattern recognition. Noticing something in a document which has been successful or unsuccessful previously. Turns out computers are better at that than people.

The work that will endure is creative work. We need to find a way in the midst of the aforementioned stress to increase our creativity.

Look, the critical thing about automation is that no one really knows the impact on one work. Matthew Taylor this year delivered his Good Work report to the Prime Minister giving the outlook on the world of work. It’s pretty clear he’s an optimist:

There is a kind of technological determinism that says ‘well the future of work is simply going to be whatever is left when the robots and automation, AIs have taken the rest of it and I don’t think that’s true. I think there’s a lot – to be honest – a lot of bilge talked about the way in which automation is going to impact jobs. I think we are at the very early stages of understanding this and I give you one really telling statistic: it looks as though analysis of the effect of more retail sales going online has been to create jobs. So yes there are fewer people now working in shops. But the number of people working in warehouses and delivering things, the increase in that number of people is much bigger than the decline of people working in retail. Now that just that one fact should give us pause for thought when we read statistics saying we know 40 percent of jobs are going to be destroyed by automation. 

So whether AI is a threat or not we know that the most valued work is going to be that that requires serious brain power. It all comes down to the brain. How do the rising stresses of modern life impact on our ability to be creative?

One of the things that’s clear to me is that the understanding of work culture needs to be better grounded in an understanding of neuroscience. Work is a practice of the brain. We need to be thinking of how we can get more from the brain. Dan Cable is a professor at London Business School. His forthcoming book ‘Alive at Work – the Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do’ is remarkable exploration into the mind and work. Here’s Dan.

There is a part of our brain dedicated to injecting cortisol into us when we experience a shock that is threatening. And so the feeling that people report: that sort of jumpy anxious fearful state comes along with not only some drugs that get jetted in our bloodstream but also some tendencies of how we should respond. And we don’t get to control those tendencies. When organisations create that that means that the fear is coming from within the group. The action that our body wants to take when that fear hits from within the group. The threat comes from those around us. What we want to do is conform. We want to fit in. We want to hide our uniqueness. So unfortunately that used to be good for Henry Ford. That’s not so good for organisations that want people to be innovative and creative. Fortunately we have a different part of our brain that uses a different drug. It’s not as strong as the fear system and that’s something that’s really powerful. Fear has to be quicker. The Seeking System takes longer. But the Seeking System uses dopamine and what it’s interested in doing is causing us to explore and play. So when we’re not afraid there’s something in us that urges us to think about new ways to get resources.

So we’ve ended up with a situation where high volumes of shallow work like email have become all pervasive. They are demonstrably not increasing productivity. The productivity paradox in the last decade has seen worker productivity rise at the slowest rate in 60 years in the US. It hasn’t gone up at all in the last decade in the UK. In real terms productivity has declined. So ask yourself… do you feel like you’re doing less?

 Now I know the worst thing you can tell your mate who’s going crazy in an argument is to calm down but if you at work right now is the person going barmy and getting stressed. And you just needed to take a step back. Ok. I’m gonna say it. We all need to calm down.

So let’s start with the brain and think about actively changing work. Here’s Jason Fried – he’s the founder of Basecamp. He’s an advocate for changing work:

It’s funny isn’t it how you have a lot of innovative companies and companies are always talking about disruption. Yet they’re terrified to shatter the basics of how they work.

Jason’s company, Basecamp, have experimented with lots of different methods of working but he’s particularly got the commute in his sights.

Seeing somebody at a desk typing away or walking by their screen doesn’t mean that they’re working all they’re doing is sitting at a desk typing away at a screen. The output of work is what you can judge. If someone’s capable of doing that remotely then they should be allowed to do it remotely. If they’re incapable of it that’s a different story. If they’re capable of it allowing them to work remotely makes a lot of sense. It’s fundamentally about respect as well.

In Fried’s questioning of the commute he has a number of enlighted allies. Rory Sutherland is widely regarded as the greatest thinker in the advertising world. As we heard in episode 13 he outlined pretty clearly where we’ve got to.

If we’re not changing our working behaviour at all in response to technology what was the point of inventing the internet?

Because as it stands today people are feeling overwhelmed by the advent of technology giving us more to do. If you wanted someone to make 100 deliveries in a day they aren’t helped in that by having to answer the average number of emails we get a day – 130. For some reason we’ve mistaken email for the job, rather than an addition to the job. The worst part of this is it’s putting us a state of panic. Waiting for another email to come in – trying to deal with the ones we’ve received.

Here’s James Doty is a professor of neuro surgery at Stanford University:

We’re the same person who was on the savannah in Africa and the mechanisms that allowed us to thrive and survive in that environment unfortunately often are deleterious to our thriving and well-being in the present environment and for many people that sympathetic nervous system is always engaged at a low level and what people don’t understand is that their thoughts effect this mechanism that when you’re anxious when you’re fearful when you’re concerned your sympathetic nervous system gets stimulated. And for many people there is the constant chronic low level release of a variety of these hormones associated with the typical stress response and the chronicity of this has a very serious effect on your health as well as your judgment and your ability to discern and your ability to be productive and your ability to be creative.

Professor Sandy Pentland’s work was so pioneering on the almost kinetic nature of idea creation that he styled it social physics. His conclusions in episode 16 were that creativity was very strongly linked to workplace chat and conversations. If you’ve ever felt yourself anxiously pecking through emails hoping no one interrupts you. If you’ve put headphones on to escape people remind yourself that the way that work has evolved has been a time when productivity hasn’t gone up. We’re doing more to achieve less.

Here’s Cal Newport again:

When we’re first trying to understand these new technologies and these new industries we tend to gravitate towards things that are easy and convenient. It’s too intimidating to try to tackle everything that’s new about this new segment of the economy at first and then over time we get more sophisticated. That’s what’s happened with the Industrial Revolution. I think that’s exactly what’s going to happen with knowledge work. The very easiest thing we could do with the advent of front office computer networks, so email and Slack and the ability to move information around real easily. The very easiest reaction to that was just ‘let’s plug everyone in to this hyperactive hive mind, let’s give everyone an email address that’s attached to their name, let’s give everyone a Slack channel and just rock and roll’. Just have people rock and roll as the day unfolds we’ll kind of figure things out with this unstructured conversation.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing interviews with Cal Newport, Emma Seppala, Jason Fried, Angela Duckworth, Matthew Taylor, Dan Cable, James Doty, Chris Barez Brown, Deborah Rippol, Biz Stone and Dan Pink. Each week I’ll be sharing the findings. Each week for every episode you’ll find the full transcript of the discussion at I’m also going back and add the scripts for the previous episodes.

I’ll be adding a new resource too. A New Work Manifesto that lays out what work needs to look like. A simple 8 point plan for how we can reinvent work. It will have it’s own website. For each change it has a clear set of proof points to share with your boss or your team.

We can make work better.

To help launch the New Work Manifesto I’m hosting an event. You’ll remember Sue Todd from episode 1 and 4. Sue used to run the culture consultancy Wonder. Myself and Sue have curated an event on 2nd November in London. Speakers include Dan Cable, Oliver Scott Jones, Sue, Andre Spicer, Claire Beale. We’ve avoided anyone on the PR route trying to say they’re doing a good job, we’ve brought together the best speakers around. You can buy tickets at

I'll be documenting all of this on Eat Sleep Work Repeat. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Acast.

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Bruce Daisley is the EMEA Vice President of Twitter and best-selling author of The Joy of Work. He joined the company in 2012 having previously run YouTube UK at Google. He has also worked at Emap/Bauer and Capital Radio.

Bruce runs the Apple #1 Business Chart-topping podcast Eat Sleep Work Repeat on work culture. Bruce's book The Joy of Work has been a smash hit, it was the Sunday Times number 1 business bestseller in spring 2019, the Financial Times made it Book of the Month.