How do you deal with the “cult of busy”? That’s the term Erin Reid uses to describe today’s work-first culture in which ideal employees are expected to put their jobs first, work all the time and be constantly available to the boss.
In the June cover story of Harvard Business Review, "Managing the High-Intensity Workplace," Reid and coauthor Lakshmi Ramarajan describe how workers adapt to these demands. It's not a good look for anyone.
“Our research shows that being always available is actually dysfunctional for everyone at some level,” Reid, an assistant professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, told The Huffington Post.
Recall the recent portrayal of employees at Amazon, where work culture is so bruising that The New York Times reported workers were crying at their desks. In the company's warehouses, workers collapse from exhaustion.
It’s not just employees who suffer. When companies create a work-first culture, turnover is likely higher -- people quit, and the cost of replacing them is high.
Productivity also takes a hit, and you wind up with a “monolithic” group of workers who are not free to embrace their lives in all their totality, Reid and Ramarajan said.
Your company may even employ a truly diverse group of workers -- in terms of ethnicity and gender and race -- but you all wind up the same, obsessed with your job above all else.
Our research shows that being always available is actually dysfunctional for everyone at some level. Erin Reid, Questrom School of Business at Boston University
Reid focuses her research on how professionals in the white collar world cope with these demands. She and Ramarajan, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, have talked to hundreds of professionals in consulting, finance, architecture and teaching to get a sense for how they cope.
Still, while pressures are felt at every rung on the economic ladder, “the penalties are harsher and quicker” for lower-income workers, Reid told HuffPost. She recalled a recent New York Times feature detailing the life of a single mother who had to deal with something called "just-in-time" scheduling at Starbucks, in which workers didn't know what their schedule would be until the last minute. Such a system could, perhaps, only be dreamed up within a culture that always prioritizes work.
Here are three ways workers adapt to the demand to work all the time -- and some ideas for more functional strategies.
Just give in and work all the time. Be perfect, no problem, right?
Why it’s dysfunctional: People give up all other aspects of what it means to be human: deep involvement with family and friends, civic engagement, their physical well-being. This “leads to fragility in the long term,” writes Reid. You’ve placed all your eggs in one basket. When job loss or setbacks occur, you may be less equipped to psychologically handle it. Plus, working too much increases the likelihood of burnout, and life may get in the way of your plan -- you may get sick, a loved one may fall ill, the list goes on and on.
This is the "fake it" strategy for coping.
Technology makes it somewhat possible to pretend that you work all the time. Reid’s research at one consulting firm revealed that more than one-quarter of workers there had figured out how to fake an 80-hour week. One employee even went skiing for a week while pretending to be consistently working. A journalist faked an always-on presence while tending to family at a remote office. (Obviously, this strategy isn't available to hourly workers.)
Why it’s dysfunctional: You’re not living your truth. Again, workers pay a psychological price, the authors write: “Human beings have a need to express themselves and to be known by others.” If you’re not yourself, suppressing interests and activities and basically lying, you “may feel insecure and inauthentic -- not to mention disengaged.”
Not everyone can work all the time. Not everyone wants to lie and pretend they don’t have a life. These people are real about what they are actually able to do: They ask for flex time, they set limits. Reid and Ramarajan say that both male and female employees fall into this category, despite the fact that women are more often stereotyped as "revealers."
Why it’s dysfunctional: In workplaces where employees are expected to put work first, these workers get penalized. Reid offers an example of a consultant she talked to who asked for paternity leave and was told, “You have a choice to make. Are you going to be a professional or are you going to be just an average person in your field?”
So What Should You Do?
In their Harvard Business Review piece, Reid and Ramarajan offer managers some good advice for putting a stop to the cult of busy. But HuffPost asked, what can worker bees themselves do to break the cycle?
The answer is to band together and try to take some collective action with your colleagues "in a sophisticated way," said Ramarajan. "This is a collective problem and you can't expect to change it without allies."
So find colleagues or bosses who don't work weekends, who talk about their lives outside the office, and who don't schedule meetings at 5:00 p.m. You can also speak up when people are using "always-on" norms to judge each other, she said.
For example, if someone criticizes your coworker Bob because he's always leaving at 5:00, point out that Bob's wife is in the hospital and ask, "do we really need to judge him for leaving early?"
And, even if you are someone who's OK with working all the time, "be aware that you're risking cutting off parts of yourself," Reid cautioned. "That might be difficult for you."
Correction: An earlier version of this article misattributed a quote about the pressures on lower-income workers to Ramarajan. It is Reid who made the remark.