Being busy as a badge of honor – perceptions of work and how it affects our mental health

In a previous blog post I talked about how we define success at work, and the impact this can have on our mental health. It’s a long and complex topic which could be debated for hours, but I think it’s super important to take a closer look at it and ask ourselves some hard questions.

The truth is, burnout and other mental health issues can be induced by toxic workplaces and other problems that stem from the employer, but sometimes we also bring it upon ourselves. That’s why today I want to take a closer look at the concept of being “busy as a badge of honor”, and what this does for our mental health.

We’ve all had that annoying friend or colleague, the one who’s always moaning “I’m sooo busy” and let’s face it, it’s really annoying. Who isn’t busy these days, right?

I’ve had colleagues who would use it as an excuse for not getting back to you, full on ignoring you, or not pulling their weight which is just infuriating. Particularly when I was working in agency, this is an environment where people are pretty much constantly overworked, so who isn’t busy? But even though it’s annoying, let’s take a closer look at what happens when people use it as way of making themselves important.

We’re currently in a time when being busy is the new normal. With mobile phones having invaded our lives (for better or worse), we’re always on and always available. This has created an expectation from certain employers that we be more responsive to work issues – at any time of day. It can also create a the false impression that in order to be successful, you have to be busy. Super busy! Always working, taking on tons of projects, and of course… letting everyone know how much you have going on. In fact, if you’re not busy something’s wrong… And that’s exactly where the problem lies.

Being “busy” deteriorates mental health

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that to some degree we are all busy and I’m not suggesting we suddenly drop everything. It’s normal – and healthy – to have an agenda full of work, friends and hobbies if that’s what you like.

But as mentioned, in the workplace I don’t believe it’s healthy to be either genuinely busy to the point where you’re overworked, or using “busy” as a way to make yourself important. Here’s when the behaviour starts to become detrimental:

  • When people start humble bragging about how many hours they’ve worked “Omg I’m so busy, I worked 50h last weeks it was crazy”. It can start to create the impression that working so much is a positive thing, and that others should start working as much to show that they too – are important.
  • When people start talking about how late they stayed in the office, to the point where it could become a competition. “Oh I stayed so late no one was left”. Once again it can start to create the impression that others should be doing this, or competing “on this level”. If people start to feel guilty for leaving on time, or questioning whether they should be working later – it’s not healthy.
  • When people start comparing their levels of “busy-ness” for example “Omg I had 500 emails in my inbox, isn’t that crazy” – “oh that’s nothing, I had 700” etc. etc. Once again, comparing can start to drive competition to see who is “most busy”, which can lead to people feeling proud or happy to have more work than others.

I understand it might be difficult to imagine how this can be toxic, but those of you who have experienced this before will hopefully know what I am talking about.

The real issue is when busyness starts to lead to being overworked and ultimately, to burnout. Burnout can happen for many different reasons, but work overload is certainly one of them. Having too much work for one person, working long hours to make sure you get as much done as you can, feeling as if you will never be on top of all the work you have… And constantly pushing yourself to do more.

For those who have experienced burnout, or even for those who have just felt seriously overworked, busy is not fun. That’s why we need to stop rewarding people for being “busy”, or encouraging those behaviours where busy is a badge of honour.

I once witnessed a manager give his direct reports a gift for having worked hard on a project AND for having worked all weekend. While the team had certainly put a lot of effort into the project, working on the weekend could and should have been avoided. But what message does it send when you give them a gift for their hard work, and mention to the rest of the company that they worked on the weekend? You got it – it’s making people question whether they too should be working weekends in order to prove their dedication…

Enough is enough! Luckily for us we are not in Japan and we still have the opportunity to turn this around and create healthier work cultures.

Rewarding people for work well done

Instead of rewarding busy, we should focus on rewarding people for work well done. How successful people are shouldn’t be determined by how much work they’ve done or how many hours they spent in the office.

Of course productivity matters, I’m not suggesting people start to take 4h for a task that once took 1h. But I’m asking us to have a healthy relationship with our work and really question why we are putting in so many hours.

What can you do as an individual?

  • Ask yourself what your vision of professional success is
  • If you find yourself regularly working long hours or feeling “busy” ask yourself why that is. Is it because you have too much work, or is it because you think it’s “the right thing to do”?
  • Look at your company culture and your teammates: does busy seem to be the currency? Could that be affecting your perception of what counts towards success?
  • What are your core values, when it comes to work? Most importantly, know yourself. Understand what matters to you professionally and what your boundaries are. Use that as your guiding force as opposed to following external images created by others.

What can you do as an employer?

  • Have strong company values that will override things like “busy”. If your company values are built on teamwork, openness, honesty, and if people truly live and breathe them, this should be a good foundation to push out any sort of superficial measure like “busy”. If people know what matters in the company and strive towards that, it gives them focus and helps them understand what behaviours are valued.
  • Encourage people to have a healthy work-life balance. Some companies have “no e-mail after hours” policies, summer hours, flexible hours, or encourage people to leave the office at 6pm. Any of these kinds of policies can help people to get away from their desks and put their work into perspective.
  • Reward people based on good work done, not based on amount of hours put in. Make sure people understand it’s quality over quantity.
  • Train your managers. Help them understand how to have conversations with their direct reports around workload and performance. Managers have a lot of responsibility when it comes to translating work culture and protecting people’s time. Make sure they know it’s quality over quantity and that they’re prepared to help those who may need some guidance when it comes to finding the right balance.

Ultimately, we all have a part to play and we’re all responsible for changing the perception of success in the workplace. If we start questioning the norm and changing conversations about “busy”, we can help to create healthier work environments. In addition, we can help shape the future and leave a more positive legacy for future generations.

What about you, what is your perception of “busy”? Is it a good or bad thing?

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