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Why ‘busy’ is the new ‘stupid’: the problem with workaholics

The issue of presenteeism is a prevalent problem, with many employees struggling to separate their professional from their personal life, particularly in a homeworking setting. How can L&D professionals help people to recognise that being busy isn’t always a good thing?

16th Jun 2020
Author of BE USEFUL
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The conceptual image or collage about many of crumpled papers on the desk of stressed male workplace
iStock/master1305

In a recent podcast, Simon Sinek posed the question: why do we define success in terms of productivity? This is an important point to consider, especially in a time of crisis. There have been plenty of articles showing us how to be ‘super productive’ during the lockdown – working remotely and in isolation – but without stopping to ask why this matters. Why do we think that by being more productive, we will be more successful?

Like any form of addiction – alcohol, drugs, whatever – being addicted to work is equally destructive; it’s damaging to the individual themselves as well as to those around them. 

One of the first pieces of advice I received as a new manager myself many decades ago was: don’t mistake motion for action. This was a warning about ‘busy fools’ – those people who are always rushing about but achieving little of value. Unfortunately today we still believe that ‘busyness’ is a badge of status to be worn with pride – everyone likes to think they’re busy, and that by being busy, they are in some way, more successful than people who are not busy.

A quick history lesson

This approach to work has a long history. Sophocles said: “without labour nothing prospers”. The philosophy of work as its own reward came with Calvinism and the Protestant work ethic. It gained momentum through the industrial revolution and increasing automation – and then became ubiquitous in the 20th century with artificial intelligence, robotics and mass production. The higher your productivity, the greater your success.

The problem with productivity and ‘busyness’ is the mistaken belief that anything is achievable if only you work hard enough. The trouble is, when you’re not successful – when you don’t achieve your goals – the assumption is that you simply didn’t work hard enough and must try harder. So you work longer hours, take on more tasks, become overloaded and overworked, all of which leads to more stress, ill health and poorer quality of life. It’s a vicious cycle that’s all too familiar – and comes directly from the association of productivity with success.

Workaholics and busy fools

Today, people ‘humblebrag’ about being workaholics: they can’t switch off, send emails at all hours, take phone calls during family meals, they’re always working. Like any form of addiction – alcohol, drugs, whatever – being addicted to work is equally destructive; it’s damaging to the individual themselves as well as to those around them. It’s also contagious. When the boss works long hours, and is sending emails night and day, it sets the example for their people, so it becomes the norm, the culture. It is the set of behaviours to which their people conform.  

“Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life”.
– Confucius

In his excellent book The Craftsman, Richard Sennett, professor of sociology at LSE, talks about the value of work. Through the history of craftsmanship, Sennett explores how the process is as important (if not more so) than the product. The craftsman who loves the process, and invests in the quality of their work, will produce more satisfying and rewarding products.

Henry Royce, engineer and co-founder of Rolls Royce, said he wanted to build vehicles of the very highest standard; his stated aim was to produce the Steinway of motorcars. Of course, today we are much more likely to call Steinway the Rolls Royce of pianos, than the other way around – such was the success of his ambition. Even now, in a world of automation and mass production, a single Rolls Royce takes 800 hours to build compared with 18 hours for a Toyota. You’re not just paying for the badge – you’re buying 800 hours of craftsmanship.

“All wise work is mainly threefold in character. It is: honest, useful and cheerful”.
– John Ruskin

How can L&D make a difference?

Some practical suggestions for L&D professionals:

  • Get clarity: Zig Ziglar put it like this, “people often complain about lack of time, when lack of direction is the real problem”. When you hear people say there aren’t enough hours in the day (they’re overloaded or overwhelmed) talk with them about clarity: clarity of purpose and clarity of focus. Help your people to prioritise more effectively and have clear direction.
     
  • Reward and recognition: people do their best work when they feel valued and appreciated. Help them by setting high quality standards and by creating an environment with appropriate rewards and recognition when the standards are met or exceeded.
     
  • Work smarter, not harder: this is rather a cliché but it is important. Abraham Lincoln said: “if I have eight hours to chop down a tree I’ll spend five hours sharpening the axe”. Chopping the tree is hard work, sharpening the axe is smart work. Help people to identify the smart tasks that reduce the hard work.
     
  • Create ‘not-to-do lists’: work with your people to help identify activities they need to stop, or reduce, in order to focus on what matters. This doesn’t need to be done every day, but can be reviewed and revised in the same way you would with performance reviews. Help them learn how to say NO – politely and with confidence.
     
  • Less is more: focus on being okay with doing less and doing it well, rather than doing more and rushing it. Help people to take pride in doing good work, whether it’s products or services (or both) – aim for five-star reviews rather than volume of tasks completed.
     
  • Plan for downtime: most people understand the need for breaks. We all need holidays and time for rest and recuperation; you can’t do your best work if your battery is low. Help your people to proactively plan downtime to switch off and recharge. Every. Single. Day.

“The road to happiness lies in an organised diminution of work”.
– Bertrand Russell

As L&D professionals we are in the ideal position to take a two-pronged approach: top-down and bottom-up. Through our work with the leadership function we can challenge definitions of productivity as success and we can promote the values of quality work in our learning design and programme development. By delivering learning interventions to our frontline people we can role model those behaviours and instill pride in the quality of work we do.

Interested in this topic? Read Time management training: five ways to get people to really change their habits.

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