Busier than thou syndrome
WHEN I was a student in the 1980s, the future seemed so peachy. The conventional wisdom was that my generation would be the first not to work more than 40 hours a week. Indeed, we’d be only doing half of that – if we were unlucky. In the 21st century, computers would do all our work for us, freeing us up for the kind of bountiful leisure time denied to our parents and grandparents.
It turns out that computers became our masters. We became slaves to the machines. And, for a variety of reasons, we’re working longer hours than ever.
Overwhelmed author Brigid Schulte cites stats that reveal today’s working parents in the prime of their lives in the United States work about an additional month per year, as tabulated by hours, then their toiling parents at the same age.
I want to hug Ms Schulte – an award-winning journalist for The Washington Post
– for highlighting the most pernicious disorder of our era.
Overwhelmed: Work, Love And Play When No One Has The Time
is a fastidiously researched – yet jargon-free – study of how top-down policies and societal pressures have shredded our leisure time into useless bits of time fragments, dehumanizing us and damaging the health of countless millions.
Part pop-psychology book, part self-help guide, she’s on the side of the “scattered, fragmented, exhausted” soul who chooses not to be a workaholic, and seeks a more satisfying work-life balance.
The author talks to sociologists and scientists around the globe to illustrate how serious and widespread the situation is. Among many surveys, she a cites one of workers with families in which 90% report moderate to high levels of “role overload”, or trying to do too many things at once.
The depressing picture sprawls across socioeconomic boundaries. While poorer parents are overwhelmed trying to cobble together several part-time jobs to make the rent, affluent families are working insane hours, with a knock-on effect on their children’s mental health.
One of the most shocking statements in the book is: “The US is the only advanced economy that doesn’t guarantee workers paid time off,” Schulte notes. “Nearly one-quarter of all American workers get no paid vacation.” Although this is an America-centric observation, it contains an important point. “Presenteeism” is today’s virtue.
By the way, this from Nickipedia, the biochemical analogue computer inside my skull that only forgets the important stuff. I like to remind people of the very first country in the world to introduce paid leave as a legal requirement for all employers. The country no longer exists, but is was the Soviet Union. Dubbed the “Evil Empire” by that uber-capitalist US president, the late Ronald Reagan, in my book – and Schulte’s – there’s also something evil about any society in which children don’t see enough of their parents because they’re always working.
Which brings us to Scandinavia, a region that gets high marks from Schulte for its government-mandated family-friendly policies. Indeed, it’s no surprise that the Nordic countries always top global-happiness surveys. A sound work-life balance – guaranteed by the state – surely has something to do with that. It certainly can’t be the weather.
One of the most thought-provoking parts of this book is the section on the aforementioned “presenteeism”, in which Schulte chides employers for believing that there is a direct correlation between time spent at one’s desk and productivity yield.
This is a fallacy. Voluminous research has proved that most people can only do eight to nine hours of quality work a day. After those productive hours, the company is paying the worker for “recreational browsing” or fantasising about the relationship between the boss and a medieval torture device.
It not all the fault of our stone-hearted employers, though. The relatively well-off have to take some responsibility for venerating overwork and our perennial “busy, busy” state. It’s a non-virture Schulte calls “busier than thou”.
So, what is the answer? Schulte makes it simple. It’s up to you to decide if you want – or sufficiently value – “busier than thou” bragging rights. There are only 24 hours in a day, 16, if you include enough sleep – and sufficient sleep is a major prerequisite of sound physical and mental health. Prioritise what is important to you.
As obvious as the solution might be, the lead-up to this conclusion is well worth reading through and ruminating over. It’s a reality-check for the busy professional, and a highly readable one.
A crucial message here, and especially close to home for time-crunched Malaysians, is that pure free time – uninterrupted, soul-restoring intervals of meaningful duration, when one can totally relax and marvel at the miracle of life – is much more precious than most realise.
Another is that one of our favourite (but now well-aged) buzzwords, “multitasking”, is grossly overvalued. One of the studies the author cites in her book has found that every one-minute digital interruption – a tweet, an SMS message, an e-mail – requires 10-20 minutes to return our focus to the task that it interrupted.
Our brains are not hard-wired to multitask. But they are highly amenable to being awed by life’s myriad wonders or play with our children or shooting the breeze with cherished friends (not office frenemies) ... provided we make the time.
Schulte has delivered a life-affirming and wonderful book that, unfortunately, won’t be read by the very people who most need to heed its wisdom.