In focus

‘I’m drowning over here!’: How the cult of busyness took over the world of work

Streams of Slack messages, blocked-out calendars and an endless feedback loop of emails: why have we all become so obsessed with showing just how busy we are at work, asks Katie Rosseinsky?

Monday 18 March 2024 06:00 GMT
Hectic: the prevailing mood for many workers is one of constant, overwhelming busyness
Hectic: the prevailing mood for many workers is one of constant, overwhelming busyness (Getty/iStock)

How’s your week been?” should be a pretty innocuous question. Ask it in an office, though, and you’ll probably be bombarded with variations on the same theme. “A bit hectic!” “I don’t know where the days have gone!” “It’s just been flat-out.” Essentially, your colleague wants you to know that they are very, very busy. And even if they’re exaggerating a little for the benefit of everyone else gathered in the shared kitchen, there’s probably some truth to their moans – because busyness has become the main tenet of office culture.

We fire off (then “circle back” on) countless emails. We scramble to respond to chat messages on Slack or Teams at hyper-speed so no one thinks we’re slacking off. We sit in on unnecessary meetings, because (we’re told) it’s good to be seen to be there. And we shuffle colour-coordinated blocks around on the latest piece of project management software, to document our busyness. All of this, of course, eats into the time left to do the tasks that have been so endlessly discussed: in 2016, a study found that “knowledge workers” (people who think about stuff for a living, essentially) spent as little as 39 per cent of their working day doing their actual job, with the remaining three-fifths of their day absorbed by meetings, emails and updates. No wonder many stay late or arrive early in order to stay afloat.

The modern workplace forces us to be constantly on the go – but at what cost to the work we do, and to our wellbeing? In his new book Slow Productivity, writer and computer science professor Cal Newport sums up busywork tasks like these as a form of “pseudo-productivity”. Sending flurries of emails, shooting off Slack replies and scheduling endless meetings are easy, very visible ways to look like you’re a super-efficient model employee, he suggests, but doing so inevitably ends up dragging your attention away from the more difficult tasks that require proper concentration.

Bernie Sanders argues for 32-hour workweek, citing that Americans now work more hours than "any other wealthy nation."

Spending time and energy on these “pseudo-productive” activities might make your colleagues think you are hyper-organised, but in reality, Newport argues, you’re simply prioritising “more concrete tasks that can be more easily checked off a to-do list”. It’s a shallow form of efficiency, the opposite of the “deep”, focused work mindset that’s required to complete more complex or creative projects. Essentially, “you are tricking yourself and others into thinking you are more productive than you are”, says Emily Austen, host of The Busi-Ness Podcast. “Often, we are doing unproductive jobs in order to avoid doing the thing we are most anxious about,” she adds – and to get that dopamine hit that comes when you get to scribble out an entry on your list.

Newport also has a theory about how employers came to value busyness so highly. In industries like farming and manufacturing, the author suggests, it is easier to tangibly measure productivity: you can simply look at your output – how many crops you’re harvesting or cars you’re making. To get more efficient, you can think about how to minimise the time and energy required to achieve those results. But when “knowledge work” became increasingly common, from the mid 20th century onwards, these straightforward ideas about productivity no longer applied. Workers were juggling many projects at once, and their output was much harder to track.

In the absence of an obvious metric, Newport argues, bosses began “using visible activity as a crude proxy for actual productivity”, ultimately encouraging employees to prioritise this performative busywork. This got even worse, the author notes, when computers became a fixture of office life: they led, he says, “to more and more of the average [worker’s] day being dedicated to talking about work, as fast and frantically as possible, through incessant electronic messaging”.

Status symbol: being busy can make us feel in demand
Status symbol: being busy can make us feel in demand (Getty/iStock)

But there are other factors at play when it comes to unpicking why we’re so obsessed with busyness right now. During the pandemic, when remote working became the norm, the easiest way for bosses to keep tabs on their employees was through a bombardment of digital messages, and the habit seems to have stuck, despite the fact that “email, chat and notifications make it hard to disconnect and focus on deep work”, as Dr Alexandra Dobra-Kiel, innovation and strategy director at Behave Consultancy, puts it. The subsequent return to the office, she adds, has been “accompanied by an upsurge in unnecessary face-to-face meetings”, which are organised under the pretext of better communication and often “give the illusion of heightened productivity without necessarily translating into tangible outcomes”.

Then there’s the bigger picture: a tumultuous job market might compel us to constantly perform busyness so that we appear indispensable, notes Lindsay Kohler, the lead behavioural scientist at employee engagement consultancy scarlettabbott. “We’re in a job climate now where the headlines are constantly about massive layoffs and how hard it is to find a new job,” she says. “So people think that if they can consistently project this air of being in demand and being always ‘on’, it might offer some level of protection [from redundancy].”

And, Kohler suggests, sometimes busyness can just make us feel important. “Being seen as busy at work can suggest that someone is in really high demand,” Kohler says. “It’s a nice ego boost: everyone needs me, I’m so busy, look at me.” We tend to view busy people as impressive: in 2016, participants in a US study assumed that someone walking around with a Bluetooth headset was more important than someone wearing headphones (you can tell the study comes from the pre-AirPod era, as now arguably the biggest marker of busyness is striding around looking like you’re talking to yourself). Plus, we’re also prone to “glorifying the hectic work schedules of financially successful individuals who sacrifice ample sleep”, notes Dobra-Kiel. Think of tech CEOs extolling the virtues of their extreme early starts, or TikTokers sharing videos of their “5 to 9” routines, crammed in before 9 to 5 jobs.

Once, a leisurely life was the ultimate status symbol, but now that has been flipped around: busyness has become a status symbol, says Austen. “The ‘more is more’ phenomenon has encouraged us to jam-pack our diaries and pick up a side hustle or hobby,” she says, noting that this focus on constantly doing has spilled over into our personal lives too (we all have that one friend who would love to see us but things are just so hectic right now, though they might have a brief opening in mid-July).

You end up with tired people who are focused on the wrong thing

Lindsay Kohler, lead behavioural scientist at scarlettabbott

When we start a job, it doesn’t take long for us to work out what sort of behaviour gets you to the top. “A large part of company culture is actually around what gets praised, what gets rewarded, and which type of people get promoted,” Kohler says. That means if the colleague who sits next to you has “a stacked calendar”, works “long in-person hours, regardless of the work they’re doing or the value it’s actually adding”, and is consistently praised, we’re likely to emulate them to get ahead. Ultimately, workers are often rewarded for being busy, rather than doing their work well. This, Kohler says, “takes away energy and resources that could be much better spent elsewhere”, ensuring that “you end up with tired people who are focused on the wrong thing”.

Disillusionment can set in, too. “Prioritising the appearance of busyness can result in a lack of fulfilment and satisfaction, overshadowing genuine accomplishment and purposeful work,” says Dobra-Kiel. These feelings of cynicism towards your work can be a major red flag for burnout.

Busyness clearly isn’t working, and Kohler reckons that the pseudo-productivity epidemic is “a canary in a coal mine moment”, and signals a “much bigger” problem with office culture: the fact that employees don’t believe their bosses trust them to get their work done. “Leaders need to figure out how they can improve trust, because if people don’t feel like management trust them to do their jobs in the manner that they see fit, then they may compensate by being ‘busy’ to ensure that they remain visible,” she says. “So you just end up in a place where you have a bunch of busy fools running around.”

Austen agrees. “If you’re constantly worried about how others perceive the work you are doing, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons,” she says. Trust is a big part of psychological safety at work, which can be summed up as an atmosphere where people feel like they can freely share feedback and ideas without reprisal: in a psychologically safe workplace, workers wouldn’t feel worried about “raising their hand to say, ‘Hey, I’m bored, I can probably work on these tasks that add more value,’” Kohler adds.

Ultimately, it seems, change needs to come from the top. “If leaders are out there rewarding performative busyness, being performative [workers] themselves, that’s what people are going to feel is necessary to keep their job, and right now, that’s top of the mind for a lot of people,” Kohler says. “And it just creates really toxic and exhausting behavioural loops that just don’t need to be there... Everyone would be better off if we just cut it out.”

‘Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout’ is out now

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