How workplace busyness and busy work can lead to employee burnout
Engagement 3 minute read

How workplace busyness and busy work can lead to employee burnout

Megan Orr | May 26, 2022

Are your employees actually busy or is it just busy work? Learn how workplace busyness can lead to burnout and what you can do about it.

Between big picture projects and regular job responsibilities, many employees may spend the remainder of their time on busy work to run down the clock during a workday. The BBC distinguishes busy work from “regular” work by the fact that workplace busyness often “doesn’t have a purpose [and] it doesn't lead towards reaching any goals, it doesn't improve the person, the operation or the culture”. 

Research has shown that employees spend more than half (58%) of their day doing busy work, such as “communicating about work, searching for information, switching between apps, managing shifting priorities and chasing status updates”. Not only that, but 33% of employees report that their attention span is shorter than it was a year ago. 

COVID and remote work have really changed the way that people work. With the constant need to be online and regular interruptions by way of chat notifications and video calls, focus is now harder to come by. Studies have shown that it can take as long as 25 minutes to refocus after an interruption, and with multiple interruptions in a day, that can add up to hours of work time wasted. 

The need to be constantly busy can actually be an indicator of a dysfunctional work environment.

Workplace busyness can represent a culture of work where staying busy is more important than actual productive output. Anyone who works in the service industry or other similar industries has probably heard the phrase “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean”. 

This need to be constantly busy—or at least appear constantly busy—can actually make employees less productive. The Harvard Business Review describes this as the “busyness paradox” where employees are “only able to concentrate on the most immediate, and often low value, tasks right in front” of them, leaving bigger projects unfinished, creating more busyness, and the cycle continues. 

Is there really anything wrong with an employee taking a break or ending the day early when they finish a project/task?

If your employees are constantly busy with small tasks and seem to avoid taking breaks, workplace busyness may be an issue. There are a number of things you can do to help create a better working environment that focuses more on overarching goals instead of busy work. 

The first thing is being sure your organization’s expectations are clear and realistic. Employees should know what they need to do every day to succeed in their role, but also have a clear idea of what tasks they’re doing that contribute to the overall goals of the organization. 

Additionally, leaders should lead by example, taking breaks when they finish tasks and setting clear start and end times for their days. A culture of workplace busyness tends to come from the top down, so it’s important that leaders set clear expectations by modeling the behaviours they expect from their employees. 

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