Stop Spreading Busyness Like the Flu

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By Janet Choi

busyness at train station

Busyness has become such a sign of our times that there’s a trend in architecture of drawing blurry people on the move for office project designs. Apparently it’s a visual that clients can identify with “on an emotional level.”

While you might recognize yourself in that blurry state of being, consider how limiting busyness can be as a state of mind. Since you start coming across as irritable, impatient, and anxious, you start to close yourself off from others. It’s hard to connect with someone who’s a physical or mental blur that can’t sit still for a minute and feels like there’s no time.

One of the toughest part of falling into the busy trap is that you become preoccupied with your own busyness, and you might not realize that you’re spreading your busyness affliction to everyone around you.

The Effect of a Stressful Outbreak

It’s challenging to work with people who are chronically busy and frazzled. They are hard to get a hold of, unable to give you their full attention, and make you jump through extra hoops to be able to communicate well with them. What’s worse, as German researchers were surprised to learn, simply being around such stressed-out people has a striking effect.

In their study, the scientists administered a stress test to a group of people, making them struggle through a five-minute mock job interview and five minutes of difficult mental arithmetic in front of two “behavioral analysts” who were supposedly there to observe and evaluate their performance. Meanwhile a group of observers watched the test-takers through a video feed and a one-way mirror.

stress test table

When the researchers measured the levels of stress-induced cortisol in both groups, they discovered that simply seeing another person get stressed can increase an observer’s cortisol level. “The fact that we could actually measure this empathic stress in the form of a significant hormone release was astonishing,” noted one of the study authors Veronika Engert.

While the impact of empathic stress was strong enough to affect strangers and transmit through video feeds, the closeness of your relationship and physical distance heightened the effect. The closer you are to someone undergoing a demanding experience, the higher your stress response.

The workplace is prime breeding ground for this stressful contagion. Especially in open offices where you can’t help but be in close proximity to your coworkers and their stress levels and in work cultures where leaders flaunt their busy behavior, it’s easy to fall into matching and mirroring this behavior almost without thinking because it seems to be the norm of doing a good job. Yet, busyness for the sake of appearance is the road to an empty mental, emotional, physical tank of energy.

The Busyness Remedy

Thinking of busyness as a contagious ailment like the flu or a bad cold is quite helpful. It flips what people all too often flout as a badge of honor into a realization that a remedy to take better care of themselves is in order.

Just as when you’re feeling under the weather, you take it easier and take more time to recover rather than less — do the same when you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress and busyness. As the very wise Anne Lamott advises,

I’ve heard it said that every day you need half an hour of quiet time for yourself … unless you’re incredibly busy and stressed, in which case you need an hour.

Instead of bed rest and chicken soup — though that probably wouldn’t hurt either — take some time to nourish yourself, replenish your energy, and ask for a helping hand. Take a step back to regain focus on your priorities. And if you see someone else succumb to overbusyness, then reach out to ask them what you can do to help them slow down and de-stress — for your own sake as well as the health of your team.

If you’re a manager, you have a responsibility to inoculate other employees from the spread of contagious busyness and second-hand stress. Make it clear that busyness isn’t the equivalent of doing a good job by recognizing people’s achievements and results rather than rewarding face-time. Immunizing the workplace from the spread of inefficient busyness and harmful stress might mean proactively shaping work norms to encourage working smarter instead of the mere appearance of working harder — enabling people to take more meaningful breaks, more effective hours, and less email.

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Whether you believe in Jim Rohn’s observation that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with or not — it’s hard to escape the fact that the people with whom we spend those many hours at work impact our feelings and behavior. The ability to tune into the people around us also allows us to help each other out of these busy spells.

Fight against that dual stress and satisfaction of busyness that makes you feels like you’re accomplishing things, because you might actually be holding people back by operating at less than full capacity and infecting others around you.

Photo: flik


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