overworked businessman

Risky Busy-ness

Editor’s note: We talk a lot about work at PeopleScience. About engagement, incentives and motivation, rewards and recognition. We champion the science and applications of these principles because we believe they offer more efficient, effective, sustainable and, yes, profitable ways forward for the modern workforce than what we have now. It’s not just that we think these are “better” ways, we’re now learning just how “bad” – how counterproductive, unhealthy, dangerous – our old and current systems really are.

As a reset for why we’re doing all this work-talking, let’s examine the source and cost of one particular manifestation of our current workforce system, the Cult of Busy. Perhaps revisiting how rough things are will motivate us to design systems for how great they could be instead.


At the time she wrote it, Mita Diran's friends probably read her Tweet and laughed, or maybe secretly admired her.

“30 Hours of Working and still going strooong," typed the young copywriter for Young and Rubicam in Indonesia into a keyboard, and then went back to work.

Within hours, she had lapsed into a coma, and she died soon after. Diran's demise captured worldwide attention and she became a poster child for what is sometimes called “death by overwork.”

It was that last Tweet which rang out so loudly both to workers and those who study workplace trends. Diran was bragging. Working all hours of the night, even at expense of fun, family and health, has become a point of pride for many employees.

"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.”

Diran's story is extreme – although dying at work is common enough that there's a Japanese word for it: karoshi. Schulte, who continues to study overwork at New America think tank in Washington, D.C., has studied karoshi in Japan and is convinced the tragedy is underreported there. And while many observers bristle at any comparison between Japanese work culture and U.S. work habits, Schulte warns they are not as different as one might think.

"We are living in an achievement-crazed era ... where more is not enough. It's unsustainable," she said.

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. (Editor’s note to self: Check real estate prices in Tuscany again.)


Working all hours of the night, even at expense of fun, family and health, has become a point of pride.

The Cult of Busy

No doubt, you’ve heard coworkers or friends brag about “binge working” using words that echo Drian’s. Maybe you’ve cheered them on or binge worked yourself. What drives this current “Cult of Busy?” Are people, sometimes literally, being worked to death against their will? Or are they “work martyrs” who are simply crying out for attention or accolades?

Whatever the motivation, there is real risk from overwork. One study found that those who worked more than 55 hours per week had a 13% greater risk of a heart attack and were 33% more likely to suffer a stroke, compared with those who worked under 40 hours.

Studying the "cult of busy" is a challenge. It's nearly conventional wisdom that almost everyone is busier today than in the past generations. Americans work longer hours than their European counterparts, and that trend seems to be getting worse.

Busy or productive?

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.


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.

Busy is not the same thing as productive.

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.

Maybe we do it to ourselves. Laura Vanderkam, in her ebook, “What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekends,” says many workers lack the self-discipline needed to finish all non-emergency tasks between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Then, they create a dog-chasing-its-tail phenomenon by sending messages – and expecting responses – all hours or the night, often for tasks that could wait. Others thrive on the sense of their own importance they feel when working all weekend.

When are you done?

Part of the problem is that the nature of workplaces has changed very rapidly but our conventions haven’t yet caught up with the times, Schulte suggests.

"Jobs have become complicated and technology is a part of that. We haven't figured out how to manage that well as human beings,” she said. “It’s very difficult figuring out how much is enough when you are a knowledge worker and there isn't a whistle that goes off at the end of the day, and you don't have any visual markers like, ‘I made this many widgets.’ It’s very hard to figure out when you are done.”

It’s very hard to figure out when you are done.

Much of Schulte’s book also deals with the struggle that women – especially mothers – face from the duel demands placed on them by their bosses and their families. Fathers don’t feel the same pressure, she argues.

“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.”

Several studies show that overworked employees are less productive.

She probably wasn’t even helping her career. Several studies show that overworked employees are less productive. Research by Stanford professor John Pencavel found that productivity dropped after 50 hours worked in one week and there was a “productivity cliff” after 55 hours. Many companies don’t actually reward overwork, either. This research by EY found that workers who took more vacations actually got more raises and bonuses. While it doesn’t settle the causation v. correlation debate – are workers who take vacations just better at managing their time? – it does suggest that skipping breaks is hardly a surefire way to get ahead. (Editor’s note: Gimme a break.) Meanwhile, a study published by the University of London that looked at 50,000 workers in 36 countries found an inverse relationship between work intensity and career advancement.

“Implications include the need for employees to become aware of the broader limitations of excessive work effort, for employers to give discretion when viable, and for public policy to devise strategies that help limit the adverse consequences of work intensity,” the authors wrote.

What now? I like working hard.

There’s no one solution to the overwork issue, though a healthy economy helps. Worker productivity skyrocketed when the Great Recessions struck, and that makes sense: when workers are being laid off, you are likely to feel pressure to produce more and not be the one person who fails to respond to that Saturday night email. When jobs are plentiful, workers have more leverage and are in a position to push back against unreasonable demands.

That’s only one part of the larger problem, however. Most workplaces have a clear culture that either respects nights, weekends and vacations, or doesn’t. It’s not enough for bosses to resist the urge to start an email chain on a weekend; they need to instruct workers not to do it, either. A culture change like that has to come from management. Several European nations have issued such work orders right from the top – they’ve passed or are considering “right to disconnect” labor laws that limit after-hours emailing. New York City is considering similar legislation. Company-wide policies have tackled this, too. In 2012, Volkswagen set its internal servers to not route email to individual accounts between 6:15 p.m. and 7 a.m.

A culture change like that has to come from management.

Studies on shorter, more focused work days also show promise. A New Zealand company named Perpetual Garden slimmed down its work week from five to four days and found that productivity didn’t slip, but workers were happier. They adjusted by wasting less time at the office and focusing more, bosses said. In Sweden, the city of Gothenburg switched to 6-hour days and found much the same result.

Naturally, there is a limit to this trick. When France mandated a 35-hour workweek over a decade ago, companies fretted they were losing competitiveness.

Perhaps the real problem is the folly of imposing Henry Ford-era notions about work on an economy where such ideas no longer have the same value. Back then, factory jobs were fairly similar, as Schulte has already hinted. One can only make so many cars or widgets in one day. Today, worker tasks vary wildly, as does worker motivation and company goals. Smart management sees each worker and each job as unique, and handles each situation with care.


Today, worker tasks vary wildly, as does worker motivation and company goals.

“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.” 

Given the social, personal health and organizational productivity costs of this Cult of Busy, it’s clear we need another way to get ourselves engaged, motivated, recognized and valued. Perhaps behavioral science can lead the way? We’ll let you click around this site and decide for yourselves.


Editor’s note: Take a stroll through the many pages of insights on engagement, incentives and motivation and rewards and recognition.


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