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The Status Symbol of Being ‘Busy’ Comes at a Cost to Our Wellbeing

22 January 2019 - Dr Carol Newall

I was called in by my Head of Learning and Teaching to discuss my ‘workload’ recently. My first thought was “oh no, they will add more to my workload as they’ve discovered that I’ve been working under my contracted hours”.  I prepared myself for being loaded up with more work and additional responsibilities.

Here was his opening line in this meeting: “Carol, we need to reduce your workload as you’re well over by 160hrs. You’re currently doing 60% teaching when you should only be sitting at 40%.”

How did this happen?

Well, I wasn’t prepared for that. I was one of only three people in my department well over my workload requirements. How did I come to the catastrophic conclusion that I was under my workload?

It was because this year, more than any previous years, I did not experience chronic stress at work. I had made some significant changes this year in part because of burn-out last year. I re-committed to engaging in work that was meaningful, easy to benchmark at specific timepoints (i.e., reducing the chances of chronic stress), and consistent with my values as an academic.

This didn’t mean that there weren’t periods of moderate stress. There were interims when I would work around the clock, especially during exam marking and grant/ethics deadlines, but I also allowed myself more restful cycles when things were ticking along and I would decline less important work. I even started to enjoy parenting my without the guilt of not working.

Unfortunately, there was still one very disordered thinking that coloured 2018.

If I am not stressed and time-poor then I am not being productive.

I had assumed that because I was not as tired and stressed as other people, I was not working to my capacity. Dr Anna Akbari recently called it the Culture of Busyness, where we associate being ‘busy’ and chronically stressed as an indication of productivity and success.  Recent business research from Harvard suggests that being time-poor and possessing a lack of leisure time is now perceived as a status symbol because it suggests that the person is in high demand.

If being a workaholic is a Western status symbol, then it is unsurprising that 46% of Australians consider our workplace mentally unhealthy.  Being time-poor or feeling overwhelmed is often how people describe being chronically stressed. And being chronically stressed predicts higher rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and mental health disorders.

It’s important that being chronically and excessively stress doesn’t become a way of life to benchmark our achievements and productivity. In fact, all the evidence points to the opposite: excessive and chronic stress can impair our ability to concentrate, solve problems, and remember things. In short, it makes us less productive.

On the other hand, moderate stress is a part of life and can help us complete important tasks. In fact, when stress is related to meaningful outcomes, it can increase organisational resilience against future stressors.

 For example, in the work context, being able to tolerate a short period of stress when putting together a pitch for a client can create resilience if it helps the company secure a lucrative client and everybody is rewarded for their efforts (i.e., a meaningful outcome). On the other hand, stress that is uncontrollable and meaningless such as workplace bullying or unreasonably high workloads can increase mental health problems for the individual and is costly to the workplace.

My top tips to stay healthy in the workplace

To that end, after having personally experienced first-hand workplace stress and having drawn from evidence-based strategies to manage that stress, here are my top three tips:

  • Thinking errors: be mindful of unreasonable beliefs and thoughts, especially the incorrect connection between chronic stress and productivity (i.e., If I’m not stressed, I’m not working hard enough).

  • Meaningful work: Look over your to-do list and consider whether any of your targets/deadlines involve projects that are meaningful to you. Otherwise, it may be time to have a meeting with your supervisor to discuss being challenged in your role.

  • Be proactive about chronic stress: chronic stress should not be a way of life. Visit your GP to discuss your wellbeing or even chat to your supervisor. It may be time to make some reasonable adjustments for your health at work.

I’m lucky that I had a great supervisor who was transparent about my workload and supportive of my wellbeing. That surprising meeting about my workload also made me more mindful of (not) participating in a culture of busyness and showed me that it’s possible to have a very productive year without being chronically stressed and tired.

Dr Carol Newall
Dr Carol Newall

Dr Carol Newall is a clinical psychologist in Sydney, Australia. She works in private practice, workplace mental health training, and is part of the Education team at the Black Dog Institute.

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