How Reading Fiction Can Make You More Productive at Work

Updated: Sep 1, 2021

Sharon Monzingo

Sounds a bit counterintuitive, doesn't it? Typically, reading fiction is viewed as an indulgence reserved for rare moments when we aren't doing something "important" or for those treasured vacation hours. Loads of research reveals this view of reading fiction is shortsighted, to say the least. Reading fiction improves our lives in every respect, including productivity at work. Here's how.

1. Reading Fiction Reduces Stress

A normal level of stress is not a bad thing. Without it, we wouldn't get much done. Too much stress, however, is a bad thing. When someone is overly stressed, their work productivity can suffer. The article, Stress and Productivity: What the Numbers Say, lists the results of being overly stressed:

  • Lack of energy

  • Lack of focus

  • Constant worry

  • Negative effects on personality

Consequences of each related to work productivity: Lack of energy causes no enthusiasm which results in low productivity; If focus is on causes of stress, it is not on work which results in diminished productivity; Constant worry stamps out creativity which results in lackluster job performance; and a worried, irritable worker does not get along well with coworkers, which results in poor teamwork and low productivity.

Most of us have either experienced these effects of stress ourselves or witnessed them in coworkers.

Sometimes, all it takes is a good vacation to make Jack not such a dull boy. Sadly, vacations aren't always an option.

A good alternative? Read a novel.

In article, Can Reading Make You Happier? writer Ceridwen Dovey explains, "...reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks."

While "becoming one with the universe" may come across as a little trippy, we can all relate to "getting out of our own head" - Transcending all the real world stress that's packed there. Less stewing over our own problems relieves stress significantly.

Conclusion: When stress is reduced, our focus and work productivity is increased.

2. Reading Fiction Improves Brain Function

When we read fiction, we not only escape our reality and all its stress, we gain brain power, particularly in language skills. One study featured in article, A novel look at how stories may change the brain by Carol Clark, shows that reading fiction actually "rewires" our brain (in a good way), and not just while we are reading. Researchers found that the effects of reading fiction, such as "heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language," continued well after the subject read the fiction. Sharpened communication skills reduce stress and frustration.

Conclusion: Workers with better receptivity for language are better communicators and therefore able to achieve higher levels of productivity in the workplace.

3. Reading Fiction Fosters Empathy

Just as children's role play prepares them for real life, reading fiction does the same for us. In article The Real-Life Benefits of Reading Fiction, Dr. Holly Parker explains that one possible reason reading fiction "fine-tunes our social awareness" is that "when we devote our mental energy to stepping into an imaginary person's inner world, we're essentially honing our ability to do the very same thing with actual people."

Conclusion: Workers with empathy and sharp social ability get along with coworkers, increasing productivity

4. Reading Fiction Prepares Readers for A Wide Range of Circumstances

Extending the role play idea, every imaginable human circumstance is presented in fiction, so the fiction reader is mentally equipped to face all types of dilemmas and social situations because they have already mentally role-played them. I taught the novel, The River, by Gary Paulson, to 8th grade English students for ten years. I told my students that the survival skills the main character uses in the novel might come in handy should they ever be caught in a similar circumstance. I meant it, and I know they took it to heart. I really feel as though I could employ some of the survival tactics described in the novel if necessary.

Conclusion: Workers with coping skills and confidence are able to get a lot more done in the workplace.

5. Reading Fiction Makes Us Happier

Having empathy for others means we focus less on ourselves and our own problems, which makes us happier. In article, The Surprising Power of Reading Fiction: 9 Ways it Makes Us Happier and More Creative, Courtney Seiter cites "a survey of 1500 adult readers in the UK found that 76% of them said reading improves their life and helps to make them feel good."

This is certainly true for me. While reading fiction, the plot and characters stay with me throughout my day. I become emotionally invested in both, so I look forward to uniting with them once again at the end of my work day. Having something to look forward to that captures my heart and imagination makes me happy - and that happiness spills over into my work.

Conclusion: A happy worker is a more productive worker.

6. Reading Fiction Improves Our Vocabulary

Fiction employs a much wider range of vocabulary than nonfiction does. It's the easiest most enjoyable way to expand our vocabulary. An explanation for this comes from the literary website, article, Reading Fiction Improves Vocabulary: "'s in fiction, rather than in expository non-fiction, that the fullest range of words in a language is to be found. Expository non-fiction often contains technical terms, but not most of the range of words in a language."

While reading non-fiction, I take the time to look up definitions of unfamiliar words. While reading fiction, definitions of unfamiliar words are organically made clear through context clues and repetition.

Conclusion: A wider, richer vocabulary increases our communication skills, which increases our productivity.

7. Reading Fiction Opens Our Minds to All Possibilities

In Harvard Business Review article, The Case for Reading Fiction, writer Christine Seifert says, "Research suggests that reading literary fiction is an effective way to enhance the brain's ability to keep an open mind while processing information, a necessary skill for effective decision-making." She backs this assertion by citing a 2013 study in which researchers studied "the need for cognitive closure, or the desire to 'reach a quick conclusion in decision-making and an aversion to ambiguity and confusion.'" The idea is that people who have a strong desire for "cognitive closure" base final decisions on a too-quickly drawn conclusion. This type of person "gravitate(s) toward smaller bits of information and fewer viewpoints." Further, Seifert cites results of a University of Toronto study in which "researchers discovered that individuals in their study who read short stories (as opposed to essays) demonstrated a lower need for cognitive closure." Fiction is a story unfolding, and as its readers, we have to be flexible and open about our conclusions as our insights change.

Conclusion: The nature of fiction produces open-mindedness in its readers and an open mind is a more productive mind.

In addition to the above, reading fiction also improves our memory, possibly adds to our lifespan, improves our Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and sleep, and encourages inclusivity. For further information on the benefits of reading fiction, check out the links below. And...Pick up a novel and start reaping the rewards!

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