Busyness Harms the Bottom Line

Busyness at work is not a measure of success. However, it can reflect the health, wellbeing and overall performance of individuals and the organisation.

Everyone says they are busy. It is a relative term. But it can be used in the workplace as a badge of honour, regardless of the output. Phrases like “crazy busy” or “crazy schedule” can become part of the rhetoric of those on the treadmill in the workplace.

Busyness also implies less time, increased stressors and burnout as well as a potential reduction in productivity and performance. In countries like the USA, France, South Korea and unfortunately Australia, busyness is seen as admirable. The long-term impact and damage of this approach becomes clearer as individuals continue to mindlessly overwork. One wonders why this approach continues when our data and the evidence from many research projects suggests this approach is destructive.

If you are part of an organisation where busyness is a marker of the “admired worker” it does not necessarily mean the employees will leave the organisation due to being overworked. However, what it does mean is that the organisation is generating employees who display increased disengagement and increased absenteeism. The World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2021 also suggested employees using this work mode will have increased risk of stroke, heart disease and ultimately death. Conversely, those organisations who decrease the working hours for employees can enhance output and productivity.

Is it time for leaders to consider what options they should consider altering the culture of busyness?

Leaders who think about outputs remove the need for their employees to create endless amounts of work based on what they the employees think matters. Change of thinking is required as currently one cannot be seen to be “idle” at work. In fact, we are so driven to avoid sitting with our own thoughts and reflections that a famous study (with a small sample of 18 males and 24 females), led by Timothy Wilson found that 67% of the men and 25% of the women chose to self-administer an electric shock rather that sit still with their own thoughts over a 5-to-15-minute period.
Are we that conditioned to filling the void by doing something?
Optimum have spent many years attempting to get employers and employees to slow down, think differently and use workplace interventions to support the changes required. Our risk profile data suggests that subtle changes to a work environment, thinking differently and offering a program of support bring about significant changes to overall risk profiles of employees.

Breaking the cycle of busyness also could mean:

  • Rewarding output, not just activity (e.g., billable hours).
  • Allocate time for more cognitively demanding tasks rather than filling the hours with less demanding tasks.
  • Remove multitasking as it has been shown to decrease productivity by 40%.
  • Force people off the clock. Some countries (France, Spain and Portugal) have passed laws allowing employees to disconnect from work after hours.
  • Getting the leaders/managers to model the desired behaviours. Managers need to take the time. Break the days into blocks of time not just have one slab. The world of work is changing, and leaders must accommodate these changes.

Build “slack” into your system. Systems with slack are seen to be more resilient, according to Seth Godin. Those systems without slack found the COVID-19 impact profound. Did it show us that we need more resources to be reallocated? Have margins big enough to weather the storm? Give employees greater autonomy and sense of control – particularly for those who could work from home? Our data showed the impact of COVID-19 on mental health for some was profound and destructive, whilst others flourished in the new environment.

Data did show changes to the workplace and workstyle can reap benefits.

Over the last few decades employees have been asked to work harder, meet tighter deadlines, cope with increased stress levels, look to constantly upskilling their own skills and cope with a digital workplace that can always contact them. The changes to the data and risk profiles reflect this workplace and the impact particularly on mental and physical health at all levels of the workplace.
Breaking the busyness cycle could have enormous benefits to organisations and individuals. We have the data to show the risk profiles of employees are enhanced if the workplace has a program of support, education and intervention in place.

The workplace of the future requires leading edge thinking. Things must change. We would be happy to work with you to support your organisation and employees to flourish in the new environment.


  • Seth Godin – This is marketing, 2018
  • Harvard Business Review – Mar/Apr 2023
  • Timothy Wilson et al – 2014

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