The Brewing Backlash Against Busyness

Modern-day 'work-creep' is alive and well, but change is afoot
By Justina Reichel
Justina Reichel
Justina Reichel
July 22, 2015 Updated: July 25, 2015

You awake on a regular Tuesday morning, check the time, and realize you’ve overslept.

You were up late answering work emails in preparation for an important client meeting, which weighs heavily on your mind as you scramble to get the kids up, fed, and out the door to school.

Traffic is heavier than usual, making you later than you already are. Anxiety builds as you picture the look on your boss’s face when you arrive late for the most important meeting of the year. Then you remember: your daughter’s first dance recital is tonight! But you may have to work late due to the meeting, and you promised your elderly dad you’d drop by on your way home…

If this sounds familiar, you belong to the ranks of today’s busy people who are under pressure to “do it all.” It’s a way of living that has come under increased scrutiny, with some questioning how sustainable our 24/7 culture of “busyness” really is.

The modern-day reality of incessant busyness has come about for several reasons: more working mothers, single parent families, and dual-earner families, and emerging trends such as having to care for elderly parents. Globalization, technology, an aging population, and high unemployment have only served to exacerbate the situation.

You need disengagement, you need vacations, you need to unplug.
— Sociology professor Scott Schieman

Add to that unprecedented long working hours (statistics show that close to two-thirds of Canadians are working more than 45 hours a week—50 percent more than two decades ago) and the “work-creep” that 24/7 technology offers.

But there are faint rumblings of a “busy backlash” as people struggle to maintain some semblance of balance in their lives. “Mindfulness” training and free yoga classes are offered at some offices, books tackling work-life balance abound, and some cafes and restaurants now feature “Wi-Fi free zones” and ban cellphones. New “slow” movements are popping up constantly—slow food, slow cities, slow education, etc.

University of Toronto sociology professor Scott Schieman has spent his career studying work, stress, and health, and says he is sensing a “deeper shift” in society, where people are questioning the status quo and taking a hard look at how to bring back a sense of balance and satisfaction to their lives.

“There’s going to be an increasing awareness of how we’ve organized work and non-work life, how that potentially harms people’s health, well-being, or even their sense of ‘this isn’t what I had signed up for’ satisfaction questions,” says Schieman, who also holds a Canada Research Chair in the social contexts of health.

The Busyness/Self-Worth Connection

For some, such as those working multiple minimum wage jobs just to make ends meet, the busyness is unavoidable. But for those who tend to fall in the middle class, says Schieman, there’s a more insidious side to being perpetually busy: it is addictive, and it makes us feel important.

“There’s a part of you that loves the busyness, because it makes you feel like you’re alive and that you matter, as opposed to, ‘I’m bored, I have nothing to do,'” he says.

According to Dr. David Posen, author of “Is Work Killing You?” the combination of new technology and downsizing in the 2008 recession led to a societal link between busyness and “bragging rights.” Being busy at a time when so many others weren’t meant being successful; it became a source of self-esteem.

The busier I was, the more important I felt.
— Author and speaker Christine Carter

This link between busyness and personal worth is what author and speaker Christine Carter describes as a “big lie” in today’s work culture. Carter wrote a book on her experience finding healthier boundaries and leaving the busy life behind.

“I wore my exhaustion like a trophy, as a sign of my strength and a mark of my character,” she wrote in a recent blog post. “The busier I was, the more important I felt. I was committed to pressing on, despite clear signs that I was headed for a fall.”

Brigid Schulte, author of “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time,” notes that in addition to the cultural “badge of honour” and the “ideal worker” syndrome, our busyness is also due to a lack of support from employers—not enough companies provide maternity leave or vacation benefits and have a tendency to encourage overwork.

Another big factor, Schulte says, is competition among parents, overscheduled kids, and the ever-higher parenting standards that come partly from guilt over working so much and partly from the rise of “helicopter parenting” and “attachment parenting” styles. It’s interesting to note that working moms spend more time with their kids today than stay-at-home moms did in the 1960s.

Writer Tim Kreider, scholar Brene Brown, and pastor Tullian Tchividjian have criticized excessive busyness as a socially acceptable opiate—a distraction from deeper questions and uncomfortable feelings (emptiness, mortality, shame, etc) or relationship problems. They suggest that people fear slowing down because it would force them to face and come to terms with the difficult parts of life.

“One of the most universal numbing strategies is what I call crazy-busy,” writes Brown. “We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.” We stay busy, she says, to deal with our “fear-based shame of being ordinary.”

In one telling experiment revealing people’s fear of introspection, 64 percent of men and 15 percent of women preferred to self-administer mild electric shocks rather than sit alone in silence.

The Busyness Fallout

So why should we slow down? And what are the consequences of not doing so? Given the well-documented ravages of stress, it means everything from spiritual emptiness and physical/emotional burnout to death.

In his anti-busy blog post “Busy is a Sickness” (which currently has 261,000 “likes” on Facebook), speaker and author Scott Dannemiller quotes Dr. Suzanne Koven, an internist at the Massachusetts General Hospital: “In the past few years, I’ve observed an epidemic of sorts: patient after patient suffering from the same condition. The symptoms of this condition include fatigue, irritability, insomnia, anxiety, headaches, heartburn, bowel disturbances, back pain, and weight gain. There are no blood tests or X-rays diagnostic of this condition, and yet it’s easy to recognize. The condition is excessive busyness.”

As “slowness” guru Carl Honore writes, our obsession with saving time and doing things faster also leads to an “age of rage”—road rage, air rage, shopping rage, relationship rage, office rage, vacation rage—the list goes on.

One of the most universal numbing strategies is what I call crazy-busy.
— Scholar Brene Brown

But less tangible than physical and societal symptoms is the loss of a deeper humanity—of quiet time to reflect, enjoy life, nurture and develop our inner self. As the Leisure Studies Department at the University of Iowa notes, true leisure is “that place in which we realize our humanity.”

Socrates warned, “Beware the barrenness of a busy life,” and it’s true that even the ancients knew that being overly busy was to be avoided. This was borne out in a recent Epoch Times article titled “A day in the life of a Manchurian emperor.”

Celebrated emperor Kangxi was unyielding about getting eight hours of sleep, two hours of prayer and meditation, and designated downtime for reading, culture and self-improvement every day. These activities were believed to make the emperor truly effective, wise, and retain perspective to make the best possible decisions. Multi-tasking and over-scheduling would create mistakes or bad judgement, something the ruler of a vast empire could not afford to make.

Winds of Change

But a revolution against busyness is slowly growing. There are calls for doing things differently, and some improvements are taking place.

Media maven Arianna Huffington recently released a bestselling book that describes how the two traditional metrics of success—money and power—have led to an epidemic of burnout, illness, and deterioration of relationships, family life, and, ironically, careers. She proposes a new way of measuring success based on the latest research on the transformative effects of meditation, mindfulness, unplugging, and giving back.

The new definition of success, she says, should be the proven “pillars” of happiness and fulfillment: well-being, wisdom, wonder, and giving.

Some cutting-edge companies have already started to heed the call, realizing that it’s more profitable to have healthy, happy employees than tightly-wound exhausted ones. Google offers its employees courses such as “Search Inside Yourself” and “Neural Self-Hacking,” which include instruction on mindfulness meditation and recognizing and accepting inner thoughts and feelings rather than repressing them.

There is going to be an increasing awareness of how we’ve organized work and non-work life.
— Sociology professor Scott Schieman

Others, like Volkswagen, have turned off email capabilities after hours so employees aren’t tempted to work off-shift, and instead devote quality time to their families and themselves.

Organizations such as the U.K.-based Stress Management Society and the Society for the Declaration of Time have been set up to study the busyness epidemic, and how to bring more balance into life. San Francisco’s Long Now Foundation has a mission to “provide a counterpoint to today’s accelerating culture and help make long-term thinking more common.” The foundation is currently constructing a clock powered by seasonal temperature changes. It ticks once a year, chimes once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium.

Schieman says that the anti-busy revolution needs awareness both by individuals and employers to push it forward—by realizing that down-time and boundaries are healthy—both for the financial and emotional bottom line.

“There is this notion of being able to slow down and scale back so that at a minimum you’re able to get back things that you need, like some time for meditation, or some time even for just taking a walk going to the gym,” he says.

“People are craving some of that disengagement. You need disengagement, you need vacations, you need to unplug.”

Justina Reichel
Justina Reichel