Inside the “Cult of Busy” — a special report for

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Work addiction, like gadget addiction, is a real problem.  But you don’t have to be an addict to suffer the consequences of overwork. American workers are struggling to find balance in a world full of new demands — always on technology, a proliferation of messaging apps, dual-income households struggling to pay the bills.  And yet, there are other reasons for the “cult of busy” that many observers have identified — some of them self-inflicted. asked me to take a look at this issue recently.  You can read the full article over at their site, or read an excerpt below.  Podcast listeners might know that we also took on this issue in our So, Bob podcast last week.

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  • “There’s this sense that if we are going to be good at our work, we need to be incredibly crazed and burned out. That it’s a badge of honor,” says Brigid Schulte, author of the book Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. “That if you are going to take vacation or sleep, that’s wimpy. “I distinctly remember baking Valentine’s cupcakes at 2 in the morning and didn’t even think about it,” she said. “(I failed to ask) Do I really have to do that or do I feel like I have to do that? … Am I doing this out of guilt? Am I doing this for the bad mommy police?” At rock bottom, Schulte says she was overweight, suffered from stress-related eczema and found herself “always yelling at the kids I was supposedly baking the cupcakes for.”
  • Hard work has been among the most American of values since before the American Revolution. Legend holds that “Don’t Work, Don’t Eat” was a fundamental rule in Captain John Smith’s Jamestown settlement. The idea holds such power in the American psyche that studies show we are not only impressed by busyness, we assume busy people are rich – and people who live leisurely lives are poor. Italians, perhaps not surprisingly, see things just the opposite.
  • Always-on communication tools mean many workers never really get to leave the office at the end of the day. There’s email, text, Facebook messages, Instagram posts, Slack channels – every day seems to bring yet another doorway into our brains that demands attention and picks away at our ability to rest and regain balance. On the other hand, workers now frequently shop for personal items – clothes, gifts – from their desks. They spend hours on Facebook. They pay bills and watch webcams of their dogs at daycare. While work has invaded the home, personal life has invaded work, too. Plenty of firms have work-life balance programs, but technology has forever blurred the line between work and “life.”
  • At the same time, while gadgets mean we can be endlessly busy – who hasn’t received a 1 a.m. email? – busy is not the same thing as productive. A schedule full of meetings, or an outbox full of emails, doesn’t necessarily mean a worker is performing his or her best. There’s also the problem of busyness “theater”: Some workers purposefully schedule emails to go out all hours of the night so they look like they are hard at work. Boston University professor Erin Reid showed in this study that many bosses can’t tell the difference between someone who works 80 hours a week and someone who is pretending.
  • The Cult of Busy isn’t just a workplace problem. Five years ago, a flurry of books with titles like The Overscheduled Child and Stressed Out Kids started to appear, suggesting parents were too busy packing their kids’ lives with events on every day of the week. There was pushback against the theory, too, but clearly, busyness is a theme in modern American life.
  • People who are really engaged in their work – intrinsically motivated to the point of obsession – do not suffer in the way people do when they are overworked for extrinsic reasons, or work-addicted to avoid problems in their personal life,” says Charlotte Blank, chief behavioral officer at Maritz (which supports this website).
  • Some people enjoy binge working, followed by extended breaks. Computer programmers talk about “flow,” for example, getting into a mental space where they are cranking out code so effectively they lose track of time. Think NBA player getting “in the zone.” Forcing someone in the flow to leave at 3 p.m. would be a bad idea. It might make sense for that coder’s boss to occasionally “force” the worker to take a few four-day weekends as compensation. On the other hand, another worker might be sitting late at the office merely avoiding some other life situation and could use a nudge to go home. “What we find is that those kind of unhappy workaholics we think of, people who are obsessed with their jobs but actually don’t love them, those folks really are at higher risk,” said Nancy Rothbard, a Wharton School management professor, on Adam Grant’s “Work-Life” podcast recently. “People who do feel compulsion and some guilt when they’re not working but who also absolutely love their jobs … who are engaged in it, who are passionate about it, who find meaning in their jobs … for those folks who have both those kind of workaholic tendencies but also love their jobs, they’re buffered from the negative risk of workaholics.”



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About Bob Sullivan 1637 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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