Busy busy

The Guardian


Being too busy at work has become a convenient excuse for neglecting life outside it and, crucially, our relationships with family and friends. But does the relentless “I’m busier than you are” contest played out in thousands of homes and offices every day really ring true?

In the view of many industrial psychologists, the modern-day martyrdom of those who are constantly too snowed-under to take weekends off, go on holiday or even grab a drink after work — but who happily spend hours every week in footling meetings — may simply mask the fact that, for some people, work is more interesting than life.

Getting people with what might be called “Office Martyr Syndrome” to admit that much of the pressure at work is of their own making, though, is tricky. According reports published by the Roffey Park Institute, as many as 58 per cent of us work extra hours not because managers expect it, or because our commitment is measured that way, but simply because we want to.

In the view of Professor Zander Wedderburn, Professor Emeritus at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, there is scant evidence to suggest that the permanently busy are actually doing more at work, despite all the whingeing. “For many people, work does seem more pressured than a decade ago, but that doesn’t mean that workloads are any heavier, or that people are more productive. Everyone nowadays tends to use the ‘busy, busy’ excuse to get out of things. The fact is that we all make a choice about what we do.”

Particularly for those higher up the work ladder, corporate life can provide a welcome sense of order and routine — and a nicely inflated feeling of self-worth — while non-working life appears messy, anarchic and less immediately rewarding. The office king or queen who feels smug when surrounded by flowcharts, or a retinue of bowing and scraping minions, is likely to feel less so when confronted by the demands of a tired three-year-old or fed-up partner.

Many people over-identify with their work — however important or unimportant it may be — while neglecting the far harder arena of human relationships. Ironically, employers have begun to be far more proactive on the matter of work and life balance than work-obsessed staff.

Traditional wisdom has it that all jobs should be treated with equal respect and that the man who sells washing machine parts for a living is entitled to take his job just as seriously as the woman who runs a multimillion hospital trust. But isn’t it time to blow a huge raspberry at the notion that most of us are engaged in vitally important jobs upon whose success hangs the entire future of the human race? Well, maybe. Aside from the self-employed who have no paid holidays or any other sort of corporate cushioning to mitigate the effects of indolence and those at CEO level (who stand or fall by very much by their own efforts like the self-employed), the rest of us should put what we actually do for a living into some sort of perspective and make every attempt to get a life away from it.

To Wedderburn, honesty is the best policy. “If you are honest with yourself about what turns you on and motivates you then, for some people at least, that will mean that work comes before anything and anybody else. It may not sound very caring, but if it’s how you feel, then it’s important to admit it to those closest to you. “It is certainly better than feeling guilty about not being at home as often as you should, or feeling martyred when it’s you who turns the office lights out again.” So, if you’re griping about missing your best friend’s birthday bash or your child’s school concert, ask yourself — would you really have it any other way?