Escaping the Cult of Busy: You Don’t Have to Sacrifice Your Well-Being to Be Successful

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“Thirty hours of working and still going strong,” the young copywriter typed and then went back to work. Within hours, she would lapse into a coma and die soon after.

That final tweet rang out loudly to those who study workplace trends. Working all hours of the night has become a point of pride for many, but the consequences of such practices may be more severe than we realize.

“There’s this sense that if we are going to be good at our work, we need to be incredibly crazed and burned out,” says Brigid Schulte, author of the book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.

Americans work longer hours than their European counterparts, and that trend seems to be getting worse. The idea of “hard work” holds such power in the American psyche that studies show we are not simply impressed by busyness — we actually assume busy people are rich  and people who live leisurely lives are poor.

This assumption is not only untrue, but it has also created the “Cult of Busy” that actively endangers both personal health and organizational well-being.

Being Busy vs. Being Productive

Overworking ourselves poses a real, personal risk. One study found those who work more than 55 hours per week have a 13 percent greater risk of  heart attack and a 33 percent greater risk of stroke than those who work under 35-40 hours a week.

From an organizational perspective, new technology has provided us with in-your-hand, on-demand communication gadgets which mean workers are always connected to the office. However, being busy is not the same thing as being productive. In fact, Stanford professor John Pencavel found productivity drops after a person works 50 hours in one week. Pencavel also noted the existence of a “productivity cliff” after 55 hours, meaning a person gets virtually nothing done for every extra hour they work beyond 55.

Part of the problem is that the nature of the workplace has changed rapidly, but our conventions haven’t yet caught up.

“Jobs have become complicated, and technology is a part of that. We haven’t figured out how to manage that well,” Schulte says. “It’s very difficult figuring out how much is enough when you are a knowledge worker and there isn’t a whistle that goes off at the end of the day.”

Overwork doesn’t necessarily get rewarded, either. A study published by the University of London found an inverse relationship between work intensity and career advancement. Meanwhile, research by EY found workers who take more vacations actually get more raises and bonuses on average.

What Now?

Leaders in behavioral science — the study of unconscious decision-making — have recently turned their attention to these challenges. The science and applications of the principles of employee engagement, incentive and motivation, and rewards and recognition may offer more efficient, effective, sustainable, and profitable ways forward for the modern workforce.

For example, igniting purpose and meaning to drive motivation among workers may be far more effective than using traditional monetary rewards or social punishments.

“People who are really engaged in their work — intrinsically motivated to the point of obsession — do not suffer in the way people do when they are overworked for extrinsic reasons or work-addicted to avoid problems in their personal life,” says Charlotte Blank, chief behavioral officer at Maritz.

Flexibility is key, and each industry must accommodate the preferences of its particular workforce. In some industries, employees enjoy binge working, followed by extended breaks. For example, computer programmers often talk about “flow,” the mental space in which they are cranking out code so effectively they lose track of time. Forcing someone in the flow to leave at 3 p.m. would be a bad idea, but allowing them to never stop would be worse. What is needed is balance.

Shorter, more focused workdays also show promise. A New Zealand company slimmed down its work week to four days and found that productivity didn’t slip. Work from home options can also increase productivity in the right context.

Culture matters as well. Most workplaces have a clear culture that either respects nights, weekends, and vacations, or doesn’t. Cultural change, if required, has to come from management. It’s not enough for bosses to resist the urge to start email chains on the weekend; they must also instruct workers not to do it.

Perhaps the real problem is the folly of imposing Henry Ford-era notions about work on an economy where such ideas no longer have the same value. Employees’ tasks vary wildly, as do workers’ motivations and company goals. Smart management sees each worker and each job as unique and handles each situation with care, understanding that being endlessly busy is neither a worthy goal nor a point of cult-like pride.

Jeff Kreisler is editor-in-chief of Bob Sullivan is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times best-seller Gotcha Capitalism. 

By Jeff Kreisler and Bob Sullivan