A recent article published by Dr Maria Kordowicz for The British Psychological Society* has highlighted that our obsession with ‘productivity’ (doing lots in the shortest amount of time), is often at the cost of our psychological well-being. Considering that the current pandemic and lockdown have already been identified as having a huge toll on our mental health, with Mind** research revealing that over half of adults surveyed felt that that their mental health has deteriorated during lockdown, it is arguably more important than ever to protect employee psychological well-being. However, with many individuals working from home, the boundaries between home and work life become increasingly blurred, and many employees are feeling pressured to prove their productivity and worth by working longer hours and being available at all times.
We need to get things done and it can be very empowering to do so! However, the danger is that our output is slowly becoming the sole measure of being a good worker, and worse still, a measure of our self-worth.
Our culture values accomplishments and there is a constant pressure to be seen to be doing lots, quickly, or fear being seen as lazy. In fact, this is instilled in us from an early age and is all around us; from the way that children complete timed assessments at school, to the messages we receive everyday via social and other media which serve to reinforce the value placed on always striving to achieve more, both personally and professionally. Essentially, we are led to believe that in order to be valuable, we need to be seen to be busy. Downtime and relaxation have become synonymous with procrastination, and as a result, we do not allow ourselves the space to create, to take stock of things, to reflect and to build meaningful relationships with those around us.
Even more worryingly, our sense of self-worth can become so tied up with the number of accomplishments at work, that our inability to get through our never-ending ‘to do’ lists mean that we can find ourselves feeling like a failure at the end of each day. If we measure ourselves against what we have been able to achieve, this can lead to a negative cycle of worthlessness and a lack of fulfilment.
This also results in a ‘tick box’ culture of completing tasks for the sake of getting them done. Quantity becomes more important than quality. The brain can only process so much, so it either drops what it’s currently processing to focus on the next thing, or it doesn’t pay attention to the next thing so that it can finish processing the current item. In other words, the cognitive overload of being too busy can result in nothing being given the full attention it deserves, and quality can suffer. Psychologists also talk about the importance of active attention and conscious processing for complex decision making to avoid errors, and many people are familiar with the importance of actively listening – however, if we are always thinking about the next task and how much we have to do, our ability to attend and listen actively to others is diminished.
It is easy to neglect the importance of slowing down; to create space, to engage in meaningful dialogue and to build relationships with others. However, failure to do this can result in a lack of meaning and purpose behind what we do, which ultimately takes away from the sense of enjoyment and satisfaction that we can experience from our work life. We know we work best when we are allowed to utilise our ‘strengths’; the things that come naturally to us and energise us. However, if we spend too much time doing the things that make us feel and look busy, then we can find that we are too drained of energy to find the time to do what really matters and to focus on what we are really good at. Working hard because we believe in what we do is much more meaningful and sustainable than working hard for the sake of appearing to get lots done.
The irony is that this drive to always be busy and productive can actually result in burnout and disengagement from colleagues, which, over time, will negatively impact on productivity. Forming judgements about our own value, identity and sense of worth based on what we’ve been able to achieve in a day is inevitably very unstable and is a precursor of poor psychological well-being. We are human, and we will have some days where we achieve less than we do on other days, but that shouldn’t take away from who we are and our value as an individual.
We need to be careful not to dehumanise the person; we need to recognise the value of ourselves and others beyond levels of productivity. We spend a lot of our waking hours at work, and this can be an important part of our identity, but it is just one part.
This is an important message for all of us, and perhaps a particularly important message for leaders; lead by example and celebrate the individual differences that help to make your team who they are; their unique personality traits, values, opinions, characteristics and strengths. Only through taking the time to get to know your team and building trust, can you really demonstrate compassionate, supportive leadership which will allow employees to flourish and thrive. Instead of focusing solely on the productivity of staff, focus on the journey of how you get people there and what productivity really means to each individual. Once you get this part right, we believe that true productivity will follow!
Dr Emma Rushton is a Psychologist at Zeal Solutions. At Zeal, we believe in strengthening people and organisations. Through our understanding of the science of human behaviour and experience of the workplace, we assess and develop people, teams and leaders. Essentially, we’re psychologists with business in mind and we help organisations create healthier, happier and more productive workplaces. For more information about the practical tools and bespoke services we can offer to your organisation, visit our website (www.zealsolutions.co.uk) or contact us today E: email@example.com T: 01159 932 324.
*BPS Vol.33 (pp.30-32) November 2020: https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-33/november-2020/you-are-more-your-productivity
**Mind (2020) The mental health emergency: how has the coronavirus pandemic impacted our mental health? London: Mind. Available at: mind.org.uk