One Twitter Exec’s Search For A Burnout Cure

As the leader of Twitter's non-US operations, Bruce Daisley went in search of a cure for employee burnout. In the following interview with Chief Executive, he shares the secrets he learned along the way.

Fast-growing tech companies are famous for pushing employees to their limits in exchange for generous pay and Google-sized perks. Industry CEOs set the tone at the top, with Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey reportedly working 20-hour days; Elon Musk bragging about his 120-hour work weeks, which have included sleeping on the shop floor; and Marissa Mayer claiming that her success at Google was owed to 130-hour work weeks.

But at least one industry veteran now firmly believes that what might have seemed like a necessary evil for productivity is actually just a symptom of burnout culture that can ultimately cost a company millions. Bruce Daisley, who has held senior positions at Google and Facebook and, mostly recently was Twitter’s vice president EMEA (the highest ranking executive outside the U.S.), saw firsthand the damage overwork can do to a company’s soul.

“We were working people incredibly hard in [Twitter’s] London office,” Daisley recalls, “and one of the hardest things you can see is when people quit with no job to go to because effectively they’re saying, ‘I’d rather take on the risk of financial insecurity than [deal with] the day to day stresses of this job.’ That was a wake-up call for me.”

Daisley decided to investigate how this problem could be fixed by creating a podcast and inviting scientists and experts to be guests on the show. His learnings will be published in the forthcoming book, Eat Sleep Work Repeat: 30 Hacks For Bringing Joy To Your Job (HarperOne, 2020).

Daisley, who left Twitter in January to help nonprofits combat climate change, sat down with Chief Executive to talk about burnout, productivity and why CEOs need to set better examples.

So, really, how can CEOs balance the need for performance, shareholder return and fast growth with a culture that respects the lives of employees?

It’s a really fair question. I mean, the challenge is that some people believe that there’s a trade off, that somehow we can either have good results or we can have a good workplace culture. I just don’t believe that they exist in opposition to each other. So quite often people will say to me, ‘I hear what you say about the human brain being finite and how we can’t work an infinite number of hours every week, but we’re a startup and we need to work all those hours.’ And to me, that’s like trying to renegotiate the laws of gravity. The idea that somehow, just because we’ve got a more pressing need, somehow we can tell ourselves that these laws do not apply.

Does that just get worse when a company hits a low point, like when Twitter’s stock price fell in 2015 and 40 percent of the team ended up leaving?

Yeah, those things definitely related, but I think what you often find when businesses are having a hard time is that everyone thinks, ‘Maybe I need to work harder. Maybe this is on me, that I need to sort of redouble my efforts.’ And you can witness that in what Elon Musk shared about working 120 hours a week or Marissa Mayer saying that the secret of her success at Google was working 130 hours a week. Often it’s the lie we tell ourselves—that the success of this organization is down to the immense hours that we’re working—and we neglect the harm that it’s doing to us.

There was a study out of the University of Michigan that looked at the impact of long hours doctor interns were working and the aging of their DNA. These trainee doctors were working 80, 90, 100 hours a week. When they looked at them versus the cohort of people their same age, they were aging four times faster than the [control group]. Sometimes, short-term consequences of working longer are invisible. We can’t associate a heart attack at 60 with someone working hard at 27. Because the cause and effect are separated by that period of time, it often puts us in a position where we’re concealing immensely bad practices.

And to some extent we’ve made the mistake of believing that it’s not an advantage for some firms [to moderate hours]. I was really taken with Slack—their value is, you should do a good day’s work and go home. And I think they recognize that when people do a good day’s work and go home, the day’s work they do is better.

So when you realized at Twitter a few years ago that the culture was burning people out, how did you shift that and rebuild morale?

It started when I went to Amazon and I was searching for, like, a cookbook, or something that was instructional, something reductive and simple that would tell me what to do because my team looked exhausted. But I couldn’t find anything like that, obviously, because no one’s as simplistic as me.

So I started the podcast to ask experts for specific actions. I was at the end of my tether, witnessing a lot of people leaving and I felt powerless. It’s like when you’ve arranged a wonderful party and then all the guests start leaving at nine o’clock and you’re just grasping at straws to understand, what can I do?

And then I discovered the secret formula, which was that the cleverest people in the world won’t necessarily talk to you if you just say, “Will you talk to me?” But I found that if I said to people, “I’m doing a podcast, will you talk to me?” there was obviously something in it for them. So I found myself chatting to academics across the U.S., in France, in Germany and U.K.

[I remember] the day I discovered that open plan offices were a catastrophe for productivity and for happiness—it was just an epiphany. Like, where had I been hiding? But we’ve sort of systematized this with a false economy that because we can make open plan offices look a bit more desirable and they’re considerably cheaper, we’ve ended up with, the world’s gone to open plan. And once I discovered that there was no shortage of science on what a disaster that was, it was this awakening moment where I just thought, wow, it’s no wonder so many people are finding work so dissatisfying, so exhausting, so overwhelming because this is a feature of the way we’ve designed work. So that was a real revelation to me. So then it was okay, so what can we do with team culture?

Let me tell you another one. I had had an old boss of mine—you know, old bosses and and ex-partners, they stay with us far longer than they realize—and this old boss had said, “The business is having a tough time, so don’t be seen laughing.” That really stayed with me. But when I had that realization about open-plan offices, I decided to investigate the science of laughter at work. And [it turns out] there’s no accident that firefighters laugh more or that combat soldiers laugh more. Not just because it’s good at resetting our resilience and regrounding us, but when we’re in tough times, there’s no better thing than to have some comic relief. And I thought, wow, with the instruction manual that we give people about their jobs, it’s no wonder work ends up haunting us.

You also said recently that the images of perks that one sees in those “Best Places to Work” stories are just putting a pretty face on sometimes very unhealthy cultures, and that it’s all about marketing? 

Yeah, someone described that to me as “the smoothie delusion.” Often, we hear about the perks and benefits at our friend’s job or we hear about how at this place you’re allowed to bring your dog to work or they’ve got a slide at this place or you’re going to have a free massage and we can’t help but being distracted by shiny objects. But one of the greatest tragedies is the state of modern work often leaves a lot of people feeling lonely in their workplace. There was one stat I saw that 42% of people don’t have a single friend at work. I always feel that whatever we can do to return some of the humanity to our jobs seems to be one of the best things that we could chat about doing.

Quite often, especially when you’ve worked at a technology company, people will say to you, what do you think the future of work is? Because they’re convinced that you’re going to give them the name of an app or you’re going to give them, you know, a productivity hack that involves five o’clock starts and some sort of protein-rich diet. For me, the secret if we’re going to improve work is trying to understand how we can bring back some of the humanity that we’ve thrown out in the last few years.

Some people might say that what you’re talking about is almost incompatible with capitalism.

Yeah, it’s interesting isn’t it? There is a woman called Zeynep Ton, [Professor of the Practice, Operations Management] at the Massachusetts Institute of technology, and she’s done some really interesting work in the retail sector. What she discovered was the companies who set about giving their workers a better workplace experience as a priority rather than a “nice to have” are considerably more profitable, their stock grows more strongly over the long term, they have smaller costs associated with hiring new workers. And Walmart approached her. To a large extent, these totemic organizations like Walmart sometimes shape our thinking. We hear that Walmart drives labor costs down and see laborers as really easily substitutable—but Walmart came to her because they were struggling with high employee turnover, they were suffering higher costs than their competitive set in terms of bringing new workers in and training them. I think that’s instructive because when a company that’s so consistently been about return and generating money recognize that actually it’s a competitive advantage to have happy workers, then you quickly realize this isn’t inconsistent with capitalism—it’s just an evolved form of capitalism.

Some CEOs, even when they’ve tried to create cultures that respect lives outside the office, don’t always observe that themselves. What would your advice be to get some of that balance?

Actually, the reason why a lot of this stuff is starting to get onto the agenda is because CEOs are suffering more extremes than ever before. CEOs are saying, I feel overwhelmed, I feel exhausted, I feel like I can’t cope. So that’s drawing attention to it. Over the past 15 years, the average working day has gone up by two hours a day. CEOs are experiencing that as much as anyone. The one thing I often get from CEOs is that they will often say, it was only when I was on vacation that I started getting ideas coming to me. That is an example of just how the cognitive patterns in our brain work. The Hollywood writer, Aaron Sorkin, realized he was having all his best ideas for great dialogue not when he was frowning into his laptop screen, but when he was in the shower. So he had a shower installed in the corner of his office and he has six to eight showers a day. I love that. It’s when we give our brains the opportunity to sort of exhale and to sort of release the tension that we’re holding in our diaphragm, that’s when we realize what our brains are capable of.

And what of the Elon Musks who brag about working a hundred-plus hours a week?

Here’s something really fascinating: about 12 months ago, Elon Musk gave an interview to 60 Minutes and he was talking about his work and he said that he sleeps under his desk three days a week and he works 120 hours a week—but he had tears in his eyes when he was describing it. It was like a Brittany Spears moment. All of us should be looking at that going, ‘Wow, this is a guy having a breakdown.’ I can’t help but be awed by what he’s achieved, but I do wish people like him in his position would try and be a role model for better working.

You advocate shutting off your phone and unplugging. But it’s kind of ironic, isn’t it, that you helped build two of the most addictive distractions in social media?

Yeah. But if you met any of my friends, any of my family, they’ll tell you I adore my phone, I’m addicted to my phone. My point is largely that we should be a little bit more intentional about how we use our devices. So as much as I adore my phone, I’m a massive advocate of staying off email at the weekend because my feeling is that while we’re using the same tool for our social and our professional parts of ourselves, the more we recognize that gating access points to our job seems to be in service of our thinking with regards to our job being fresher and more imaginative, the more we can curtail those things. So absolutely, I recognize the irony, but I do feel that we show the benefits from limiting our exposure to the professional side of ourselves.

So could you ever have imagined that the, uh, back when you first started at Twitter that, um, that the president of the United States would announce major global policy on your platform?

You know, the fascinating thing is that it’s just sort of a demonstration of how these tools change the world, whether it’s Narendra Modi in India or Donald Trump in the U.S. or  Boris Johnson in the U.K., or even Gretha Thunberg. The reason why Gretha has built this extraordinary voice for herself is because she’s just a wonderful user of the tools available. She’s able to use Twitter to present herself as a person with a smile, as a person who wryly responds to the way that she’s perceived in the world. I just find her such an inspiration, but it’s just a good reminder that the politicians, the communicators, the people who will help you find our future, whether we agree with them or disagree with them, they’re going to be the people who use the new social tools and the new apps, the new infrastructure that’s being created around us.