When thinking slow living, Italian style, I always get the impression people from abroad idealizes it a bit too much: if it’s certainly true that we do have proper lunch breaks and value the essentiality of having several, short pause caffé during the day, there are myths in need to be debunked.
For instance, not all shops close between midday and four in the afternoon: it can happen in smaller centers, but city businesses are more likely to have shorter breaks, or to do “orario continuato.” The same often happens in popular tourist locations during high season. There is more: working in an office in Italy is not that different from working in an office in the US. Our lunch breaks are of 45 to 60 minutes, the difference is we do like to use them to eat somewhere else than our desks. Although I shouldn’t use “we” as I’m one of the few Italians who happily bypasses lunch breaks to finish work earlier in the afternoon…
My point is, Italians work as hard as your average American or Brit: actually, right now, most Italians would be perfectly happy with more working hours than what they have, believe me.
It’s the attitude that’s different: most of us try not to let work define what we are. A recent research published in the Harvard Business Review found out that Americans and Italians do have an extremely different approach to their lifestyles.
In the US “being busy”, i.e. having a lot of work to do, is perceived as a synonym of success and status. Italians, on the other hand, associate both with being talented enough to strike a balance between professional satisfaction and a pleasant life of leisure. In other words, Americans see free time as a con, Italians as a pro. Mind, Americans are not the only ones overworking their way to retirement: the British seem to do the exact same. As cited by The Local's author Jean Moncrief, the UK Chartered Management Institute (CMI) recently published a research showing the majority of UK managers works an extra 29 days a year through the use of their mobile phones and tablets, cancelling out the 25 yearly days of leave they’re legally granted.
I must admit that this trend has been taking up in Italy, too: I personally tend to work very often at weekends and having lunch at my desk, and many friends in various career paths have been doing the same for quite some time now. Yet, if we do it, it’s because we try to get free earlier in the afternoon and, say, sneak in an extra long aperitivo with friends, or because working on a Saturday, especially for those who are self employed like me, means we can have more flexibility during the week to fit in extra curricular activities like, well, going to the theatre, to a music class, or whatever makes us unwind better. So, even if Italy’s been getting a bit more work-obsessed in recent years, it’s still very much convinced that your job doesn’t make you the person you are and that leisure is as important to be happy and satisfied as a career is.
The important point here is that, apparently, science now backs up this fully mediterranean approach to existence and, lo and behold, it even says that forgetting once and for all about doing overtime may, in fact, make you more productive.
Some Italians businessmen, like fashion tycoon Brunello Cucinelli, fully bought into this new, science approved trend: he forbids his employees to work past 17.30 and to check work emails while not in the office. France has also recently approved a law in support of employees’ right to disconnect from work when not at work. So, is the Italian way the right way? Possibly yes. Read on if you want to learn why.
Work less, enjoy more, perform better?
As early as 2013, The Economist discussed the inversely proportional relationship between the number of hours worked and output: basically, the more hours one worked, the least was produced each hour. Of course, not everyone agreed, but within a year some more research was put out for the world to churn over and, guess, what: the same results were achieved. And we’re not talking easy-breezy blog post writing research, we’re talking Stanford University level stuff, where author John Pencavel highlighted how reducing working hours could enhance productivity.
I don’t want to bother you with economics history, but just to make things clear, Pencavel hasn’t been the first to deduct this pretty awesome reality. If you think about it, it does make sense: when we’re at work, we perform best when our brain is most active and refreshed. The more we work, the more, naturally, our brain gets tired, making it more difficult to accomplish tasks. This is when we Italians go for our lunch break.
No, it really is. Apparently, the most a human brain can perform without a decreased level of attention is four hours: we sit at our desk at 9 am and we go for lunch at 1 pm. Four hours. This means taking that hour to have lunch, relaxing with your colleagues or your family over a nice plate of spaghetti or a toasted sandwich and a slice of crostata allows to rest your brain cells enough to troop through the rest of the day and perform better.
So, should we follow the Italian way and enjoy those longer lunches?
Italians or not, we all know that taking breaks while working helps improving performance: a well rested brain - or body - is more likely to function to its max. So, well… I don’t think researchers have found out nothing new. If anything they give a scientific substratum to something each and every one of us has been experiencing since embarking in a profession or even starting college.
What, I believe, makes “the Italian way” a bit better than the rest is the idea that work should not define the person and that time spent with family, friends or even on one’s own, doing something cherished, counts just as much as having a successful professional career. From that point of view, Italians - and Mediterraneans in general - do have something to teach indeed. For decades, this very attitude has been associated with laziness, but nothing is further from the truth. Work ethics are big in the Mediterranean world: nothing in life is achieved without working hard. But working hard should not by synonym with forgetting about the many, little pleasures of life, like having a coffee break with a colleague, trying that new cake the restaurant near the office serves of Wednesdays, going home to your kids without having to check work emails every 30 minutes.
Work is essential, but life is more than the office: let’s get away from that desk tomorrow, when lunch time comes. We may even manage to finish work earlier than usual with a fuller stomach and a bigger smile on our face.