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Are you “busy”, or productive?

The answer – and its impact on your health – may surprise you.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

The adrenaline was pumping through my veins, and I became hyper-aware of any sound or movement around me.

First, I looked around yet again to see if anyone was coming.  Then, I positioned my hand to click quickly into a new tab if I needed to.  

Finally… as I was feeling a fleeting moment of safety… I did it. I opened a new web tab and typed in the URL for my favorite gossip blog while at work.

You see, I was at work… but I wasn’t busy.

This was actually a good problem to have because it was a result of my finishing all of my assignments, and my projects were in good working order. I had cleared my work plate, and I had done it well.  I had even offered help to others and got started a new creative project, just for the fun of it.

But in that moment at my computer, I was trying to compete with something that many of us face: an epidemic of “busy” employees and managers. 

Since my career started many moons ago, I quickly became well-aware of the difference between ‘busy’ and what was actually productive. 

I’m sure you can think of at least three “busy but not productive” colleagues off the top of your head right now (or maybe it’s you?  Please don’t tell me that it’s you).

You know the type:  They’ll frequently groan about their workload but not actually seek relief. They exaggerate how much work they’ve really done. They also probably refuse help because, well, if they got help, then they couldn’t yammer on about how busy they are.

Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

The problem is that most pockets of working culture still place an unspoken value on employees presenting themselves as exasperated, stretched-thin, and overworked.  For what purpose, I don’t know – because as research suggests, these “busy” employees may actually be showing how little control they exercise over their jobs and how ineffective they actually are in their performance, especially as managers. 

In short, many employees work hard to sell their busy-induced exhaustion as a positive – and frequently, managers misguidedly reward it in the short-term.

But is busy-ness actually helping anything or anyone?

The answer is a resounding ‘no.’  Keeping up these types of busy appearances feeds into a cycle of burnout, a dip in productivity/outputs, and feeling more like a sad-face emoji instead of the incredible formation of stardust that you actually are.  

With this in mind, it’s no wonder that the World Health Organization has officially categorized burnout as a syndrome and acknowledged how our health is being impacted for the worse in the workplace.

There’s good news, though. 

Not only is giving up the “busy” charade better for your mental health, but it actually makes you a happier and more productive (and therefore profitable) employee. You win, and so does your employer.

So, what can employees and their impressively busy managers do to help?

Instead of being “busy”…  As with most things, the work is going to start with you and your approach.  Instead of following some hilarious tactics to make yourself look busy, just get up and take a walk if you’ve got some downtime.  Go outside and call a friend for a few minutes.  Take a longer-than-usual lunch with a work pal. While at your desk, start some research on a creative project that excites you or look into some cool training. 

Basically, take the energy that you would use to try and look busy, and be happy instead – and chuck the guilt aside. 

Be the rising tide that lifts the workplace boats. Start the conversation with colleagues about the benefits of working happier instead of harder – and start throwing around some ideas of what you all can do to contribute to that environment.  You may find that your co-workers are relieved that someone is willing to bring up the subject, and you may get some support for enacting positive change.

Hunt for happier pastures.  Despite your best efforts to create positive change, an air of “busy as a positive” may still dominate your workplace – and be a threat to your health.  It’s no wonder that people who feel burnt out are 2.6 times more likely to be actively looking for another job than non-burnt counterparts.  You may need to become one of those 2.6 and find a new gig that prioritizes happiness and productivity over always trying to look crazed. 

Because once you’ve found that sweet spot between happy and productive, “busy” need not apply.

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