The cult of busyness in the nonprofit sector

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You know the right answer, don’t you? It used to be that when someone asked “how are you?” people would say “fine” but somewhere over the last few years the usual and expected answer has become “crazy-busy”.

It has become routine for people within the nonprofit sector — not unlike other workers — to make comments about how late they work, how much work they bring home with them, how many emails are in their inboxes. Online networking groups set up to discuss best practices often receive posts that say, “Saturday night at the office. Who’s with me?”

Are we really that busy? Are we busy by necessity or somehow by choice? Is busyness healthy for individuals, organizations and the sector as a whole? And what can we do about it?

Busier than ever?

Sheena Greer of Colludo states the facts plainly: “We’re all busy. We are knowledge workers in a time and place where there is literally an endless amount of work to be done.” Driving Change: A National Study of Canadian Nonprofit Executive Leaders done by the HR Council in 2011 found that more than half of executive directors work more than 45 hours in an average week, with 17% working more than 50 hours.

There are challenges, too, that are particular to the nonprofit sector, says leadership coach Kathy Archer. On the whole, the sector is less staffed and has lower wages. There is also higher turnover, and leaders often spend their days putting out fires rather than working strategically. All of these factors can increase the workload of nonprofit sector staff. Further, commitment to the mission of our organizations and the urgency of the cause for which we work can often lead people to go above and beyond, to give that proverbial 110%.

But not much of this is new. Mark Ellwood, a Toronto-based consultant who has done extensive studies over 25 years on how employees use their time, observes that trends in work haven’t really changed: people are not working many more hours than they used to.

What has changed during this time, says Ellwood, is technology and the resulting drive toward 24-7 connectivity, as well as increased complexity. From the advent of email to the pervasiveness of smartphones, workers are mentally at work for far more hours than they used to be. Nonprofit strategist and researcher Trina Isakson describes working at a university and having a staff person send her emails at 4 am. While Isakson encouraged the staffer to create better boundaries around her work, she also notes, “It is difficult to delineate 4:59 pm from 5:01 pm, especially if people are telecommuting.” (Interestingly, France is currently considering making after-hours and weekend work emails illegal. A bill that prevents companies of 50 or more employees from sending emails after typical work hours recently passed the French lower parliamentary house, with one member of the French parliament saying that connectivity “colonize(s) the life of the individual”.)

Ellwood also says that while technology can be empowering, it has also increased the complexity of tasks and the administrative burden on all staff. While executive directors have always had to produce annual budget plans, for instance, more and more they need to develop alternative spreadsheets using increasingly robust technology, including sophisticated PowerPoints and other technology-enabled factors their predecessors never had to consider.

The Misery Olympics

At the same time, there is evidence that some of this busyness is an issue of perception. A study from the June 2011 Monthly Labor Review found that people estimating 75-plus hour workweeks were off, on average, by about 25 hours. Laura Vanderkam, author of I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time, tracked her own time in half-hour blocks for an entire year and discovered “the stories I told myself about where my time went weren’t always true...If I wanted to construct a narrative of craziness, the sort professional women in particular tell one another as we compete in the Misery Olympics, I had moments that would qualify...[but] there was plenty of evidence of a calmer life.”

Vanderkam identifies several key factors in the cult of busyness (its adherents are often professional women who recount stories to one another about their crazy-busy misery, in a strange sort of competition) that explain both the phenomenon and its existence in the nonprofit sector. While busyness is not gender-specific any more than it is sector-specific, Archer sees the discussion of busyness happening more among women than men. Greer agrees, “All hardworking people are busy but women tend to internalize busyness more than men, to feel the pressure to be all things to all people.” In a sector with a lot of women, this pressure can become part of the culture.

What’s behind this cult(ure) of busyness?

While some organizations face legitimate seasonal pressures — such as homeless shelters in the winter — for the most part, the culture of busyness is tied to complex psychological and sociological factors. 

“In our society,” Ellwood says, “we equate a sense of busyness with worth — if we are busy, we must be doing something right.” He calls this a false paradigm and says that instead “our worth ought to come from doing a job that is making a difference.”

But this is precisely what can create a problem for those working in the nonprofit world, whose work is making a difference. For many people in the nonprofit sector, says Isakson, our core identity is tied up with our work. It is very easy for that to slide into a martyr complex where we unconsciously believe that we have to do more than is healthy in order to serve the cause, and that because we do so, we are more noble people. This leads people to engage in the dreaded “humble-brag” and making sure that, if we leave work on time, everyone sees us going home with a stack of folders.

Busyness becomes a badge of honour, Archer says, with people in the sector thinking, “If someone shows up early for a meeting, they must not have as much work as I do. If someone is sitting there thinking, they must be lazy.” This is because we measure success by time, Greer says. “We think if you aren’t busy, you aren’t working hard enough.”

Busyness is also motivated by other fears. People fear missing out, whether on the next big donor, a great networking opportunity or the next career move. Archer talked with a nonprofit CEO who sat on eight committees each of which met twice a month and who said, “I know it’s useless and is a terrible waste of my time but if I’m not there, I look bad and I feel like I’m being left behind.” Sometimes busyness arises out of fear of addressing issues — it might feel easier for an ED to add to her own workload rather than to address a volunteer’s performance for fear of losing that volunteer, for instance.

It’s not okay

“It’s not okay and it doesn’t serve anyone,” says Isakson, “for people to be overworked and to be bragging about how busy they are.” Isakson herself resists the cult of busyness. Part of the reason she started her own business was to be able to control her schedule and work less, which helps her manage an autoimmune disease for which stress is a trigger.

And busyness does lead to stress and health issues. The 2011 Driving Change study found that “the amount of hours worked in an average week has a clear relationship with the level of stress felt by executive directors” and that “nearly half of executive directors are experiencing levels of day-to-day stress that are excessive or approaching excessive”. This isn’t just true for leaders either: a 2016 study by the Canadian Health Food Association showed that 67% of Canadians said their work causes them stress, 59% say that their health is negatively impacted by stress at work and 63% feel that the stress they experience at work negatively impacts other areas of their lives.

Greer puts it bluntly: “Busy isn’t productive. Overwork doesn’t produce great work. When people are trying to do too many things and giving into demands, it takes a toll on work and themselves.” She often uses the following quote from Thomas Merton and says that when people in the nonprofit sector hear it, they pause and then sheepishly nod their heads about the toll taken by the cult of busyness:

“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

Breaking free

Anyone who finds themselves in a cult needs to break free — and needs support in doing so. Because this is a cultural phenomenon, there is an important place for individual organizations and the sector as a whole to stand against crazy-busy.

Tips for individuals:

  • Stop using word busy, says Greer. “Changing the way we talk can open us up to deeper conversations.”
  • Spend time at the beginning or end of week or day to list out your priorities and what you need to do to move those forward.
  • Distinguish between urgent and important, says Isakson. Track your time periodically to see how you actually spend it and how much of it you spend on important matters.
  • Use productivity hacks such as setting boundaries, developing deep work times where you chunk blocks of time,and using a three thing to-do list.
  • Say no and mean it.
  • Put your health first, says Ellwood. Getting a good night’s uninterrupted sleep is good for productivity. He advises, “Unless there’s blood involved, don’t take middle-of-the-night calls or emails.”
  • Take time to play, says Greer, as individuals and a work team. “Play is transformational. It is foundational. It can heal our bodies, reinvigorate our relationships, open our minds, help us solve problems, and connect us to each other. And in a field that requires us to heal, relate, solve big problems and make new connections, play is fundamental.”

Tips for leaders:

  • Model for your team the health and wellness practices of creating boundaries around work, says Archer.
  • Eliminate useless meetings and build in networking time.
  • If stuck in a bad meeting, Ellwood says, take responsibility to make it better by holding people accountable, asking for clarity, etc.
  • Talk with your team about their perceptions of busyness and how work can be adjusted for true value, says Greer.
  • Value thought and reflection, Archer says, rather than confusing efficiency with true productivity.
  • Hold team members accountable to action items, tracking deliverables, checking in regularly, etc. “This helps focus on results rather than time,” says Isakson.

“Everything is moving more quickly than it did even ten years ago and that puts a lot of pressure on people to pick up the pace – but we shouldn’t do that,” says Greer. “The world is speeding in that direction, but we as individuals and a sector have to ask some serious questions about what that is doing to personal health, relationships, and our communities. It starts with us not simply responding with 'busy' as our default.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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