Text: Beatrice Widmark,
When asking friends how they are doing, a common answer I receive is: “good, but busy”. The days when lounging around and doing as little as possible were admirable are over, and now we instead strive to be busy, occupied and slammed. Why is this and how does it impact our work life and wellbeing?
We live in a “busyness culture”. In an article in Harvard Business Review the writer points out that leisure and free time is not prestigious in today's society, working hard is.1 Being occupied with work is a sign of our importance, value, or self-worth in our fast-paced society. “I’m busy” is another way of saying “I’m important”. But not only that, it also signals having good character. In a study by psychologist Jared Celniker it was found that people across the United States, France, and South Korea, consider those who exert high effort to be “morally admirable”, regardless of their output.2 Perhaps this explains why two of the top excuses to cancel a date in the UK are deadlines at work and an emergency at work.3 Being busy is standard, socially acceptable and even perceived as morally honorable. No wonder people choose to get out of a date with that text message.
It’s so rooted in our culture nowadays, the belief that many hours put on a project means better results and happier clients.
When asking organizations, they would probably agree that work-life balance is important and that “we don’t assume that our employees will work overtime”. Yet many companies reward hard working employees more. It’s so rooted in our culture nowadays, the belief that many hours put on a project means better results and happier clients.
This is quite fascinating considering what science says, and has been saying for a long time. Lots of research shows how working long hours have a negative impact on both people’s performance and well-being. Making time for downtime will help people stay more productive and also feel a higher wellbeing over the long term. Research on mindfulness and meditation has for instance time and again shown to improve our ability to stay focused and ignore distractions. Researchers from Harvard Medical School (2011) found that practicing meditation changed key brain areas involved in learning, memory capacity and stress regulation. 4 Even brief naps has been shown to help improve cognitive performance and make people feel more alert. 5
Another benefit of having more free time is that it makes us happier. In a study from 2019 on working adults in 79 countries found that people with more free time were happier, healthier, and even more productive than people who worked long days and earned more money.6 As happy people tend to be more productive at work, this truly is a win-win scenario for businesses and employees.7
As an employer, you have great power to impact people’s wellbeing.
The busy culture has a grip on our work life but we also see examples of companies going in an opposite direction. The other week, the Swedish accessories brand Sandqvist announced that they will start offering a four-day workweek of 30 hours for its employees, with retained salary. The CEO said that it is to improve employees' work-life balance, quality of life, provide personal development but also to be a thought leader and front-runner when it comes to building a successful, sustainable, and responsible company.
Even if you as an organization can’t offer a four day work week in the foreseeable future, there are things you can do to shift the culture and make your employees more productive and happier. As an employer, you have great power to impact people’s wellbeing.
Some actionable tips:
1) Reward the output, not just activity
2) Facilitate “deep work” (i.e. focused work) for your employees. For instance, don’t throw lots of small, shallow tasks on your employees and don’t invite people to meetings that they aren’t needed be in
3) Be a role model as a leader by taking time off too. 8
1 Waltz, A. (2023). Beware a Culture of Busyness. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2023/03/beware-a-culture-of-busyness
2 Celniker, J. B., Gregory, A., Koo, H. J., Piff, P. K., Ditto, P. H., & Shariff, A. F. (2023). The moralization of effort. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 152(1), 60–79. doi: 10.1037/xge0001259
3 Lumley, S. (2023). Top 20 excuses Brits use to cancel a date - including not feeling well. Express, 1 februari.https://www.express.co.uk/life-style/life/1729101/top-20-excuses-cancel-dating-feeling-unwell
4 Hölzel, B.K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S.M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S.W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Res. 191(1), 36-43. doi: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006
5 Rock, D., Siegel, J., Poelmans, A.Y., & Payne, J. (2012) The Healthy Mind Platter. Neuro Leadership Journal. http://bitly.ws/AU5U
6 Whillans, A., & Macchia, L. (2019). Leisure beliefs and the subjective well-being of nations. The journal of Positive Psychology. 16(2), 1-9. doi: 10.1080/17439760.2019.1689413
7 Oswald, A. J., Proto, E., & Sgroi, D. (2015). Happiness and productivity. Journal of Labor Economics, 33 (4), 789-822. doi: 10.1086/681096
8 Waltz, A. (2023). Beware a Culture of Busyness. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2023/03/beware-a-culture-of-busyness