How do you promote sustained performance at work?

Align the needs of your organization with the needs of your employees

A few consequences of continually increasing digitization are (excessive) work-related pressure and a lack of physical exercise. However, digitization also has positive effects in addition to these negative consequences. For example, digitization has proven to be essential for cost control in organizations. As a result, there appears to be a disconnect between the needs of organizations and those of employees. How can the interests of both the employees and the organization be aligned with one another?

Digitization of work

We use digital systems that are becoming increasingly smart and taking over tasks we used to carry out ourselves. Cost control is an important reason for digitization. The private sector is under pressure from shareholders to increase profits. Cost control is essential in the public sector because an aging population means more expenditure and less income. The prospects are not very favorable: a tempered economy and an aging population that is growing. Coupled this with minimal investments in innovation in the past decade and we can expect a new wave of economizing.

For employees, the digitization of work means they have to perform better. We already see the consequences in practise: a lack of physical exercise, a high level of work-related stress and longer hours behind the computer. Working independently of time and location is a solution for promoting cost control in the organization, as well as improving the performance of every employee. As it happens, a large part of time spent commuting is converted into working time, which leads to more working hours per week.

It is highly likely that pressure to perform better will increase even more in future. Is work-life balance possible if pressure of work increases further? And how can we shape this? How can this be combined with the need of many employees to look after children and parents at the same time as a result of the growing aging population?

A new way of working is needed!
This new way of working needs to facilitate more creativity, higher productivity and sufficient leisure time. This way, the needs of organizations can be aligned with the needs of employees.

Responding to management interests

Health is important to the management of organizations to the extent that it demonstrably contributes more to the balance of income and expenditure in the organization than alternative investments (such as robotization) do. Management therefore makes budgetted sums of money available for complaints handling every year (which decrease annually). However, more financial support is required for bigger initiatives.

If it is known what management finds important, the following question arises: how can we improve the performance of employees further in a way that they still have enough free time to fulfil their personal ambitions? The precondition is that employees need to maintain this permanently until their retirement.

When it comes to performance, insights can be gleaned from top-class sports. An athlete will have to improve over several years to perform well at the Olympic Games. A little better every day. Injuries are part of the process of continual improvement. The extent of recovery determines how much training stress leads to improvement. That makes recovery the primary factor for improving the performance of top athletes. Recovery is also a solution for enabling employees to improve their performance permanently.

Recovery breaks for highly skilled workers

It is obvious what recovery entails for a top athlete: namely, inactivity after intense training. It is more complex for highly skilled workers who primarily carry out seated work that requires concentration. For a top athlete, sitting or lying down after intensive training provides the variation during recovery. A highly skilled worker also needs variation: from sitting to moving or standing, from focusing on the project to focusing on something else. When someone is allowed to manage their recovery break as they wish, the effect (heightened concentration) is optimal and performance at work improves demonstrably. Besides, that specific combination of physical exercise and mental activity produces permanent results, because the harmful effects on health are minimized in the long term. Three minutes of exercise every hour is enough to achieve the desired effects in terms of performance and health.

Two studies in particular illustrate to managers the relevance of recovery breaks during work in terms of improving performance at work. In a series of experiments, Oppezzo and Schwartz from Stanford University studied the creativity of the test subjects. They asked the test subjects to sit, walk, or alternate between sitting and walking. The number of new ideas the test subjects conceived subsequently varied according to the activity regime (Figure 1). Creativity was lowest when test subjects remained seated, creativity was highest when they walked continuously, or alternated between walking and sitting. Walking for three minutes every hour increases creativity.

In a startling study, Danziger and his colleagues investigated which factors are of importance when judges make decisions about the early release of prisoners. The severity of the offence, the type of offence, the solicitor and the prison all had an influence. However, there was one factor that had an influence and which was not affected by the other factors: fatigue. The judges released 65% of the prisoners at the start of the day, that reduced to 0% after over two hours. It was 65% again after a recovery break and the percentage then dropped rapidly. A second recovery break again led to 65% early releases, followed by a rapid decline. The explanation was that the judges were unable to make well-considered decisions due to their fatigue. They subconsciously decided not to consider the possible consequences and to leave the situation as it was: no early release. Recovery breaks are therefore crucial when decisions with serious consequences need to be taken.

Sustained performance with aids and techniques

In addition to recovery, top-class sports also provides another insight into improving performance: the use of performance-enhancing aids and techniques. Top-class athletes use the best resources and techniques to perform better. For example, research has shown that employees work faster on a laptop if they use a laptop stand, external mouse and external keyboard (IJmker, 2016). In addition, “techniques” such as touch typing and the use of hotkeys clearly improve performance. The following applies to both the slotting in of recovery breaks as well as the use of aids and techniques: employees need to be very clear about what they have to do and modify their behavior to experience positive benefits.

Strangely enough, digitization is necessary to reach employees and to reduce the effects of digitization. Everyone can be reached via software irrespective of time and place. Traditional guidance given at the office no longer suffices, because it is difficult to organize employees and because capacity within organizations is inadequate due to cost control. New behavior also requires triggers to break through automatisms. An example: when using a sit-stand desk, it is necessary to remind employees via software to keep using it after the first 3 months.


Employees are under increasing pressure, both at work and in their private lives. The solution to meeting the needs of organizations and employees is to promote a way of working that leads to greater creativity, higher productivity, and safeguarding of leisure time. Important pillars in that way of working are the slotting in of active recovery breaks after every hour of work, the use of performance-enhancing aids and the learning of basic digital skills. To persuade management to invest in this, it is essential to exploit their cost control and innovation strategy. An effect of this is that employees remain deployable until they retire.

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