What Zebrafish Can Teach Us About Healthy Workspaces

4 min read

IBM Cloud Garage and a sustainable pace of work

A core part of the IBM Cloud Garage practices is a “sustainable pace.” A sustainable pace is good (paradoxically) for productivity and for quality, and it also has physical and mental health benefits. October 10 is World Mental Health Day, so this is an excellent time to talk about the benefits that Garage clients see from working at a sustainable pace.

People feel better if they mix time at work with time away from work, and they also work better. There’s an old programmer saying that the best debugging tool is a good night’s sleep. Many of us have worked out the solution to a thorny problem in the shower, and going for a walk is a well-demonstrated aid to creative thinking.

Working hours and productivity

It has long been known that working longer hours does not necessarily lead to greater productivity. During the height of the industrial revolution, factory owners aimed to maximize the utilization of valuable factories by having them run for as many hours as possible. The working week was 6 days, and working days could be as long as 16 hours. Standard working hours were gradually reduced in response to social pressure, but even by 1900, the average American factory working day was still between 12 and 14 hours (and 100-hour weeks were not uncommon). In 1926, the Ford Motor Company was one of the first businesses to adopt a 5-day week and an 8-hour day. Surprisingly, the effect of shortening the working day was that workers produced more cars. Even though Ford had also raised employee wages, Ford’s profits surged.

A hundred years later, it is still the case that working more does not lead to greater productivity. Among the 30 most productive countries in the world, there is very little correlation between productivity ranking, average work week, and amount of paid vacation.


One of the reasons long working hours are bad for productivity is that they’re bad for workers. Long hours have both physical health consequences and mental health ones. A study of UK government employeesfound that those who worked over 11 hours a day were almost 2.5 times more likely to have a major depressive episode than those who worked 8-hour days.

Image Credit: Bob Jenkins, flickr

Image Credit: Bob Jenkins, flickr

The impact of this stress and depression can be damaging. It turns out that zebrafish behave very much like humans—or at least, depressed zebrafish behave like depressed humans. Similar factors trigger depression in both zebrafish and people, and the remedies are similar for both. Fish get depressed if they don’t have enough stimulation in their environment or if they spend time in threatening surroundings. Depressed fish, when exposed to something novel, like a new tank, will lurk in the bottom of the tank; the control fish will swim around near the top of the tank and energetically explore their new surroundings. Severely depressed fish, a bit like severely depressed people, become withdrawn and lose interest in toys and food. For those in the technology industry, the analogy is becoming less collaborative and losing interest in new technologies and new problems.

DevOps and the cloud

While it’s probably too much of a stretch to say “the cloud creates good mental health,” the cloud has enabled positive changes in how we release and distribute software—and those changes have mental health benefits. Many years ago, I worked on products that were distributed on CD, and a release was a really big deal. We’d only do feature release once a year or even once every other year. For a feature to be included in a release, it had to make the deadline. Missing the deadline meant waiting a year or two for the next release, so the deadline was a big deal. After working for months on something new, not being allowed onto the release train was heart-breaking for a team, so teams would pull out all the stops to make sure they got over the line. Management would bring in pizza (pizza helps everything), and we’d work evenings and weekends to get that feature to the required quality level for shipping. By the time the deadline arrived, we’d be exhausted. We’d be given several days off (mostly spent sleeping!), and then we’d have a longer period of taking it easy to recover. Since every peak of effort was followed by a trough, the overall effort was similar to what it would have been if we’d worked more steadily. What’s worse, the long hours meant we were less effective and less creative.

Work differently with the Garage

In the Garage, we can work differently. We release often enough that we’re really good at it and it’s not stressful. On some of our projects, we deploy to production 20 times a day. We do design thinking to make sure we’re building something that someone actually wants, and we get feedback from users as often as possible to make sure we’re on the right track. The steady release cadence means we can be more productive and stay curious and innovative—like the healthy zebrafish. The rapid feedback from users means we know what we’re writing is meaningful and having a positive impact on someone.

A healthy workplace doesn’t guarantee everyone in it will be healthy—we’re all human, and we all have other things going on outside of work—but it’s a good start. You can request a 4-hour consultation to hear more about some projects where the Garage has delivered amazing results at a sustainable pace.

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