Are we promoting the Culture of Busyness?
Adam Waytz, in his book, The Power of Human: How Our Shared Humanity Can Help Us
Create a Better World recounts a tale about a man. He immigrated to US and soon enough
realised that “busy” meant “good” because whenever he asked people, “How are you
doing?” they more frequently than not responded, “Busy.”
Research reveals that our days are becoming increasingly busy and the reasons for this rise in “time poverty” (as coined by social scientist) are many and nuanced, but corporate cultures that value busyness are partially to blame. Put simply, busyness has developed into a status symbol irrespective of the stage of your professional life. Recently published studies indicate that across the United States, France, and South Korea, people consider those who show high effort “morally admirable,” irrespective of their output.
But when it comes to corporate life, evaluating employees based on their busyness is a poor way to identify creative and productive talent. Yet many firms reward and promote people who exhibit how “hard” they’re working. The impact on companies and their employees is significant.
Research has uncovered several reasons for obsession with busyness even in today’s world.
Why We Admire Busyness
Social psychology’s findings prove that the harder people work to attain something, the
more significance they give to the outcome terming it “effort justification,” a tendency that
arises even if a task is worthless. And the more challenging the effort is, the more
commitment people feel. New hires forced to work extensively, for instance, might coax
themselves to believe, If I work this hard, I must really want to be here. The problem is that
while we go on justifying our effort, we fail to notice fatigue creeping up on us.
Sometimes “busyness” becomes the culture of organizations. In other words it gets entrenched in day-to-day activities unless leaders can explicitly strategize to elude the temptation. When busyness is encouraged by organizations, employees rarely resist.
How to Course Correct
Approaches that can aid organizations manage the obsession with busyness.
Assess if your organization is creating deep work and not low-value work.
It is important for companies to enable deep work or sustained attention to cognitively demanding tasks. Unfortunately, many managers bombard employees with work related to entering data, nonessential meetings, filing expense reports, and so on, thereby interfering with their ability to do deep work. To truly overcome the busyness epidemic, organizations should perform audits of whether work is engaging employees or simply keeping them on the clock.
The more the brain is engaged, the less it can excel in the here and now.
Try this! Start by plotting the list of every activity with how cognitively demanding each task is, focus it requires and training needed to do the task on five-point scale. Ones that score low on these metrics can either be eliminated or replaced with something more efficient. Companies boosted their efficiency by introducing multiple actions like a no meetings policy, eliminate phone calls, and introducing effective methods of communication. Obvious to mention, feasibility check should be done through the lens of productivity and performance. One of the most interesting neuroscientific discoveries over 20 years proves - activity in the network of brain tangled in attention-demanding tasks ("task-positive network") tends to be adversely correlated with activity involved in thinking beyond the present ( "default network") because of its tendency to remain active—by default—even during moments of rest.
Get people off the clock.
Several organizations have successfully implemented compulsory paid time off policies beyond the statutory leaves. If organizations want their employees to truly thrive, they need to allow time for their minds to wander or rest.
Exemplify the right behaviour.
Companies that value well-being over busyness will resonate well with the thought that only if employees witness their bosses taking time off too, would they follow. Leaders can lead by examples by setting the norm of taking a pause. Mark Zuckerberg and Todd McKinnon set perfect examples. When leaders demonstrate that their own busyness is not a precondition for success—being careful of course not to just offload their work on subordinates when they do take a pause—employees are more likely to follow suit.
Build slack into the system.
Beyond the psychological factors, the major causes of busyness are restraints on time and
resources. As the serial entrepreneur, Seth Godin puts it, "Systems with slack are more
resilient." For many, these strategies might sound expensive if not out rightly wasteful.
Question one may ask is why hire someone to do the same job as another person? Slack is
essential during crisis and when there's a work overload and when you’re trying to keep
everyone’s day-to-day workload manageable. Adding up resources will be expensive, but
losing productive employees or loyal customers because of a burdensome, busy work
environment or unmanageable service calls will ultimately prove costly.
Quoting famed UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, "Never mistake activity for achievement." However, companies fall into that trap, despite considerable evidence that increased work doesn’t lead to increased productivity. However, the prevailing corporate culture continues to reward busyness most of the times and it can be tempting to go with the flow instead of challenging status quo. Research indicates that since the 1990s, employees have been working harder and under tighter deadlines and in more stressful conditions as they try to master additional skills to outpace robots who are supposedly gunning for their jobs not to mention, digital devices trapping them in a 24/7 workplace. This has taken a significant toll on both, mental and physical health. Businesses and leaders must stand up against the busyness epidemic so that we can begin to create not only more sustainable organizations but also more sustainable jobs.
A version of this article appeared in the March–April 2023 issue of Harvard Business Review