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Optimal busyness: the psychology of why we work too much, even though it impacts our wellbeing

The concept of “optimal busyness” could explain why so many of us suffer from burnout at work as it hinges on when we feel most productive.

It’s no secret that, in 2022, many of us are overworked – or at least feel it. In particular, over the last two years, we’ve been contending with a pandemic of hidden overtime, where working from home has led to an always-on ‘ping’ culture that leaves us glued to our laptops and work phones after traditional office hours are long passed.

Busyness – and hustle culture in general – is paraded like a badge of honour, and burnout reframed as a side product of being dedicated to the ‘grind’.

We’re working longer hours, experiencing time famine and both our mental and physical health is suffering for it.

But what is it that makes people work too much, even when we know the negative impacts?

Researchers have termed it “optimal busyness” – an elating and enjoyable temporal flow (aka sense of time passing) in which workers feel at their best and most productive

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An ESSEC Business School study found that optimal busyness made workers feel energised, productive, and in control of their time, giving them positive energy.

For many, less work didn’t actually equal less stress. Even when people felt their work-life balance was off, they preferred busy periods over quiet ones.

Instead, the experience of optimal busyness seduced them into believing that they could control the demands of their work, so they ended up working too much.

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Despite the seemingly positive mental impacts, the researchers warned that optimal busyness is a vicious cycle.

“While this optimal busyness can lead to positive feelings and productivity in the short-term, over time it can lead to overwork, decreased productivity and motivation, and work-life conflict. While optimal busyness is fleeting, employees will continue to chase it through their use of time,” the researchers wrote in Psychology Today.

It’s a growing problem, as a recent study found that 69% of employees working from home in the UK are experiencing symptoms of burnout.

But regardless of how aware we are – what can we do to ensure we don’t fall too deep into the trap of optimal busyness?

How to cope when you’re addicted to feeling busy

Make sure you take your annual leave

While many of us may have racked up excess days from being unable to travel throughout the pandemic, it’s important to take time to rest regardless of occasion.

“Even if you are just at home, annual leave gives you an opportunity to relax and recharge,” suggests mental health charity Mind.

Get enough sleep

It sounds like an obvious one, but while we know how important getting eight hours is for both our body and mind, we often find reasons and excuses as to why we can’t obtain it. Adding a few easy self-care tricks into your wellness routine or even enjoying a protein-rich breakfast could help you prioritise your sleep health during the work week.

Try to finish work on time

“Without the commute and with the pressures of homeschooling, it’s easier to work late into the evening to try and get everything done,” says Mind. “Once in a while this is OK, but try to make sure you finish work on time most days.”

Ask for help if you need it

You might want to talk to your manager about any issues you are facing that are affecting your health during and outside of work. If you are struggling with exhaustion or burnout, it may be beneficial to take a few days off work while you recover, before returning with a plan in place to guide you through more sustainable working practices.

If adapting to the new world of work is taking its toll on your mental health, you’re not alone. From the isolation of being separated from colleagues while working from home and the stress of relying on technology to struggles with concentration, confidence and setting boundaries, there are a number of reasons why you might find this time particularly challenging.

So, what can we do about it? We’ve got a plan.

Stylist’s Work It Out series aims to give you the tools and resources you need to take care of your mental health at work. From completing your Work 5 A Day to dealing with issues including anxiety, loneliness and stress, we’ll be exploring all aspects of work-related wellbeing.

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