The words ‘I’m busy’ have been crossing my lips, and my ears, far more often that I would like lately. ‘How are you?’ ‘Busy,’ I say. ‘Busy with work,’ a friend says when I ask the same question. When I travel to the City and meet up with friends, we’re eating dinner at seven or eight because they don’t get off work any earlier, and they’re in bed by ten, the better to get up early in the morning to rush off to work, or to cram in errands on the weekend.
Forty hour work weeks almost seem like a quaint anachronism for so many of us. It’s not just that many people are economically forced to work far more than forty hours, although of course that is an issue. For low-income people with multiple jobs, work hours can start to become all-consuming, and the end result may still not be enough money to survive on, leaving them constantly sinking a little deeper underwater. For those making more survivable and middle class incomes, though, there are growing expectations when it comes to work hours that have really damaging effects.
Most of the people I know who work in office environments of one form or another are expected to work far more than forty hours a week; it’s just a given. If you want to keep your job, let alone be considered for promotions, bonuses, and other benefits, you must be seen in the office early and staying late, ideally every day. Keeping your hours limited to the legal amount is frowned upon, as is taking vacation. It shows that you aren’t dedicated enough, that you’re letting your life interfere with your work.
Yet, numerous studies indicate that people tend to work at peak efficiency when they work for forty hours a week, or even less. The more people work, the slower and more prone to mistakes they become, and this can potentially be the cause of costly errors that are both expensive and time-consuming to fix. An employee who works forty hours or less, however, with adequate breaks including time for lunch, can be efficient, focused, and on-task throughout the work week, producing work of a higher quality, with fewer mistakes, that will better meet the company’s needs. That goes for managers as well as worker bees, for people at all levels of the work hierarchy.
In the United States as well as some other nations, though, excessive work has become the primary mode of doing things, and not just the expected and assumed mode, but also the fashionable one. The longer you work, the more busy and important you are, and clearly, the better an asset you are to your company. People compete to get the longest hours, making a point of complaining about how much they’re working so they can crow about how much they work without outright saying it. And people sicken and die, both in the United States and elsewhere, as they trap themselves in their offices instead of maintaining a healthy work-life balance; stock traders drop dead at their desks from stress, in part brought on by overwork along with the demands of their jobs.
The insistence on being busy at all costs, of course, forces everyone into a competitive arms race, a sort of mutually assured destruction of busyness where people have to work more and more to impress colleagues, thus pushing other people to up their hours in response. Productivity rates may drop and employees may be unhealthy and unhappy, with a much higher risk of exacerbating mental health conditions and developing issues like blood clots, but people can say they’re busy. And people start to believe that being busy means you have value and importance.
If you’re not busy, thus, you are somewhat suspect. People who ‘only’ work 40 hours a week or who have more flexible hours clearly aren’t contributing as much to society, because they’re not busy. Those who work part time or not at all are even less valuable to society. And it’s not just that they’re worth less socially, but also personally; the busy people want things arranged around them, and unconsciously say thoughtless things about their friends without realising the structures they’re reinforcing when they carelessly throw off an ‘I’m so busy…’
The busy people never have time to RSVP for an event. They never bring anything to parties, they show up late if at all, they refuse to commit to doing anything; they’re busy, and thus important, and thus, things need to revolve around their needs. They aren’t there when their friends need them, and often seem to be under the impression that social networking is sufficient for maintaining human connections, as though the occasional Facebook update or mass email is equivalent to an intimate dinner party.
At the same time, many of them are unhappy because they have few opportunities for socialisation, since they constantly alienate friends and sacrifice social time for more hours at work in order to impress both society and their bosses. The busyness eats away at them, but the performance of busyness, the cultural value of busyness, leaves their friends and colleagues who don’t work as much feeling all the more worthless, even more like failures. A deep disconnect thrives between the busy and everyone else, and it’s one that is very difficult to bridge because of the way work and workers are viewed.
What happens if busyness is no longer valued? If the culture of work is changed, and the focus is on worker health, true efficiency, and the value of workers as human beings rather than automatons?