For many of us ‘busy’ is an automatic response when we’re asked how work is. There’s an unspoken corporate consensus that if you’re not ‘up against it’ something’s up.
Sometimes, of course, it works in an organisation or employee’s favour. “Up to a certain point, pressure can be a positive motivator,” explains Sarah Rozenthuler, a chartered psychologist who has consulted for BP and the World Bank.
“People who develop coping strategies have been found to perform better and end their working day feeling more energised.”
But it’s a double-edged sword. Eventually, busy culture can cause real damage in and out of the workplace. Rozenthuler continues: “Working too much and resting too little dehumanises us. We contract, withdraw and start to shut down. A vicious cycle follows.
“Our lack of ability to perform or engage with co-workers stories our fear of a workless future so we double down and work even harder. At the root of all this is fear.
“We’re not good enough. We’ll be rejected or made redundant. Our quality of life and relationships suffer.”
In other words, you’re burned out. Officially recognised by the World Health Organisation as an ‘occupational issue’ in 2019, burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It’s said to lead to everything from sleep and diet problems to serious diseases and mental health issues.
And it’s on the up, courtesy of COVID-19. Online searches for terms such as ‘signs of burnout’ have been 24% higher this year than they were in 2019.
Caroline Walsh, vice president and research director at Gartner, says: “There has always been a perception that employees are less productive working remotely, but the pandemic has proven this to be wrong. In fact, remote employees have been attending one extra meeting a day during the pandemic and are busier than ever before.”
Habit, compulsion or obsession?
For some, it’s about status and self-worth. For others, it’s the ultimate cover-up when things get too much. Meanwhile, for those in client-focused roles with billable hours at the core, being ultraresponsive is natural.
For most of us though, increased remote working has halted the traditional indicators that it’s time to switch off – the commute, that pre-booked gym class or even happy hour.
Plus, with the second lockdown heightening job security worries, more staff will be overworking; making themselves available out-of-hours in order to prove their worth.
Walsh continues: “Employees working remotely are half as likely to receive positive feedback as on-site staff, and twice as likely to receive corrective feedback.
Managers rank productivity and performance of staff as two of their top concerns during the pandemic. This is putting employees under pressure to be ‘always on’ and appearing busy.”
Instead, we actually need to recharge to do our best work says Lynda Shaw, a neuroscientist, business psychologist and change specialist.
“Having a poor work/ life balance and not giving our mind and body time to recoup is not sustainable and shouldn’t be presented as if it’s positive or admirable.
“Just because you can do more, it doesn’t mean you have to fill every moment ‘doing’.”
So, experts say busy isn’t always best. Data backs them up. But many workers still fail to see the light. Could HR teams shift the culture from busy to productive and bridge the gap between what the workforce knows and does?
‘Sip you own champagne’
“Conversations need to happen across businesses about the importance of avoiding busy culture,” says Laura Welsh, head of HR at LHH, a US-based HR consultancy.
“Crucially here, it’s important for the HR team to lead by example – lead the conversation and ensure rest and holiday time are prioritised.
“To do this you have to ‘sip your own champagne’ and work as a team to ensure nonworking time is protected, holidays are taken and availability expectations are managed setting clear contact hours or holding open sessions at specific times, for example.”
Welsh advises that the HR team should remind everyone of the benefits of maintaining a healthy work/life balance and taking regular breaks.
She adds: “HR also needs to ensure there’s a robust mental health support structure in place within the organisation, such as training mental health first aiders who can spot anyone at risk of falling victim to busy culture.”
Early intervention is even more critical for homeworkers. Recent research by corporate health and wellbeing provider Helix Resilience revealed 83% of employees felt their mental health deteriorated during the first lockdown and 32% felt their employer wasn’t doing enough to support their wellbeing.
Meanwhile, more than half (51%) of employees surveyed said they were less productive during lockdown and 33% of these said it was due to feeling depressed or unmotivated, while 29% said it was due to feeling isolated.
“It’s impossible for employees to maintain performance levels under these conditions, so managers need to look at how they can provide support.
“During periods of disruption, employees’ desire to be recognised for good work increases by 30% so the first thing managers can do is start looking for opportunities to accentuate the positive,” urges Caroline Walsh at Gartner.
“The second thing is to start measuring performance by outcomes, not activities. This pressure to constantly appear busy is extremely damaging to employees’ mental health and wellbeing.
“Managers should make staff feel comfortable in being honest about how they’re feeling, taking time out when they need it and working flexibility to manage their own performance.”
Lynsey Whitmarsh, chief experience officer and director of strategy at learning and development company Hemsley Fraser, agrees, and champions energy management over time management.
“This means determining the end goal and working backwards, focusing only on activities that will help to meet the main objective or objectives,” she explains.
“By focusing on energy management, employee mindset can be altered, so that when asked ‘how’s work?’ busy is not the default response.
“It will allow them to have a clearer view of the goals of the organisation and how their individual contribution will aid this mission.
“It should also help them to work more efficiently at a time when productivity is sorely needed. The focus changes from completing as much work as possible to completing the right tasks at the right time without the need to work extended hours.”
Here, management needs to lead by example too, says Emma Richardson, director of Worksphere, an HR service at Lewis Silkin LLP: “Being busy starts at the top with leaders who want to appear important and productive.
“This is potentially toxic, creating a competitive mindset that infects the organisational structure, seeping into the psyche of more junior staff who mimic the behaviours.
“It takes not only energy and discipline to switch off at the end of the day, but organisational permission too. If you don’t check your emails at 9pm you
won’t see that your manager has asked you to ‘just review this document and send back to me’.
“You shouldn’t be looking at the email and your boss shouldn’t be asking.”
Kindness on the clock
In businesses where work is necessarily tracked by the hour, as in finance or law, busy culture may raise some further questions.
Claire Hammond, HR director at professional services firm Blick Rothenberg advises: “Being able to track hours through timesheet recording provides a helpful opportunity for business leaders to monitor working hours, but it’s essential this is accompanied by clear communication about the expectations from the top.
“The key is for leadership to avoid rewarding those that contribute to this phenomenon. People should be recognised for working efficiently rather than for presenteeism.”
Hammond says that people need to look at what targets are realistic as opposed to what they need to achieve. Utilisation targets, i.e. the amount of an employee’s available time that should be used for productive, billable work, will not work for everybody.
She continues: “Setting a utilisation target for a trainee, for example, could create unnecessary stress for them as they’d have little control over the work they’re allocated and may be tempted to build out a timesheet.
“At the other end of the scale, a partner focused on billable hours may be less willing to delegate and may spend less time focusing on other areas of their role.”
Hammond also emphasises the importance of recognising the challenges people face outside work, particularly in relation to looking after others: “These people may unintentionally contribute to busy culture because they only have a finite number of hours in the day to work.”
Also conscious of work/life balance and billable hours, Lewis Silkin introduced a ‘Kindness Code’ during lockdown. A tangible signal that taking time out is essential and expected, employees are encouraged to record time for being kind to themselves and others – taking a walk, reading a book or spending time with family, for example.
“We also ask people to be open about their availability outside of core working hours and to respect those parameters,” adds Richardson.
“For example, the bedtime routine for a young family may mean an urgent client email
cannot be reviewed until after 8pm. We should also trust our teams to exercise their judgment about what really is and is not urgent.”
Busy culture isn’t the sole contributor to the big burnout boost, of course. From poor sleep
patterns and a lack of mental health services to increasingly geographically dispersed support networks, there are plenty of other factors and few safety nets for spotting early warning signs of burnout.
Indeed, for some, lockdown may for have provided time to prioritise what’s important, but for others – particularly working parents – juggling home-schooling and work may have been a difficult and painful experience.
“The challenge going forward is for us all to preserve time for rest, quiet contemplation and sleep,” concludes Richardson.
“For a busy person, that might mean better planning, including building into their schedule time for planned spontaneity and/or doing nothing...”