Busyness in the workplace and the stealing of leisure time

A century ago, social status was accompanied by ‘an abundance of leisure’. The wealthy and upwardly mobile demonstrated their wealth by how little they did, and how much others did for them.

We’ve now flipped those expectations completely so that social status now comes from a narrative around ‘busyness without leisure’. To the point, that busyness has become a status symbol. When someone asks how work is going, the first response we often get is ‘Things are really busy at the moment, there is so much going on’.

We also seem to get some kind of internal reward from others seeing as hardworking and the ‘look how busy and important I am’ mental narratives that come with additional responsibilities in an organisation.

Longer hours are seen as a core characteristic of the socially privileged and those who have ‘made it’.

For those of us who do not produce ‘things’, but rather ‘ideas’, busyness has become a signal of our knowledge value.

The logic in this is that the busier we make ourselves out to be, the scarcer our knowledge resource must be, and so is, therefore, of greater value than another who isn’t as busy.

But, the longer-term effect of this working longer hours, to increase the perceived value of our knowledge, is that we spend more, and more time at work or ‘doing’ work.

Because these knowledge workers conduct the majority of their work with the tools of technology, they end up being constantly connected to these tools, often worried about not being available when needed or missing out on that ‘one big opportunity’.

Research conducted in this area clearly demonstrates that this type of Always On, Always Available behaviour is stressful and exhausting. It can also reduce both quality and quantity of sleep, thereby not allowing enough cognitive or physical recovery time overnight. This means next-day productivity levels are low and distraction levels are high.

This can result in more work pressure over time. It can also lead to longer-term stress, anxiety and perceived burnout. 

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