Don’t be fooled by hyper-productivity levels witnessed in recent months, many employees are working themselves into a flurry or are becoming addicted to being busy. I should know, I’m one of them.
I’m embarrassed by how long it took me to write this introduction. At first I thought I’d start with some interesting research. Then I thought it was best to begin on a personal note. But when I tried to get some ideas out, I kept drawing a blank.
“You should be able to write a damn sentence,” I thought to myself. “You do this for a living. It’s not that hard! What’s wrong with you?”
I stared blankly at my screen, willing something to fall out of my brain. As my cursor blinked mockingly, my heart started thumping with the same offbeat intensity it did when I woke up this morning – and likely the same rhythm it will have as I try to fall asleep tonight.
This full-body panic often compels me to roll up my sleeves and work really hard, but it can just as easily derail my entire day. The annoying part is, I never know which it’s going to be.
It could be worse. I’m lucky this is a feeling to which I’ve only this year become intimately acquainted with. Many people navigate recurring bouts of panic throughout their whole lives. But 2020 has meant that I and many, many others have experienced our first serious case of anxiety and panic working and, rather than avoiding it, we’re going to have to learn how to deal with it.
Keep calm and carry on
I often suffer from everything-has-to-be-done-at-once syndrome. I’ll start answering one email and mid-way through realise I forgot to attend to another task, so I’ll start doing that immediately. Then a notification pops up from a colleague asking if I’m free for a quick chat. Rather than spending the extra two minutes finishing the task at hand, I respond immediately.
At the day’s end, I’m left with a hodgepodge of incomplete tasks and zero sense of achievement. Rather than chalking it up as a lesson in why I shouldn’t multitask, recently I’ve been more inclined to just work into the evening. I won’t lie, I’m doing it right now. No one asked me to and this article can absolutely wait until tomorrow, but there’s an underlying level of panic that’s overcome me today that will drive me to tell myself: “I’m getting ahead for tomorrow”, “I’m riding a wave of inspiration”, or “I want to regain some control over my day”. But the truth, I’m learning, is more complicated than that.
Dan Auerbach, an organisational psychology consultant with EmployeeAssistance.com.au and psychotherapist based in Sydney, says there are a few reasons why I might be doing this. First of all, the structure of how we’re working is different now.
“We’re doing a lot more digital work and that can have its own effect. We know from things like addiction studies and gambling treatment that when we work in an environment where there are incremental awards available to us, or when we can complete just a little bit more of an activity, that we might overwork because there’s always another bit to get done that will bring some level of satisfaction. People in this situation often lose track of time. They just keep going and going and going.”
The irony of what I’ve transcribed above isn’t lost on me.
The more obvious reason, says Auerbach, is that we’ve been given many valid reasons to be panicked this year.
“We’re faced with an unparalleled threat. One of the ways of coping with anxiety and looking for control is to keep busy – it’s almost like a manic type of defence,” he says.
“Also, we’re not having the normal social breaks. We’re no longer part of the herd that reminds us to go for lunch when we see everyone else is.
“Finally, a real phenomenon is disconnection during isolation. We’re not connected to our peers in a normal way. Human beings seek comfort by looking at the face of the person they’re relating to and getting feedback from their response. Without that immediate feedback there can be some anxiety about how we’re doing or if we’re doing enough, which can lead to overworking.”
“Panicking only has one channel, which is that everything is urgent. The first thing to recognise is that you’re in a really heightened state and full of adrenaline. If you’re working from that place, you’ll be frenetic and spinning the wheels without being able to think well.” – Dan Auerbach
The ripple effect
Dr Ali Fenwick, a professor of organisational behaviour at Hult International Business School in Dubai, theorises that the long periods of remote working in uncertain conditions could be forcing many employees into panic working mode.
His research us unpacked in this article for Forbes. In it, the author says the Ostrich Effect, which HRM reported on last week, is one of the unhelpful strategies employees have deployed in an effort to regain control over their lives. However, they end up panic working as a result.
“One way to cope with a perceived threat is to ignore it,” Fenwick says. “Homeworkers who follow this strategy stick their heads in the sand and pretend it is business as usual, even though they know something is wrong. But the more they ignore reality, the harder they work, which leads to panic working.”
The other three coping mechanisms Fenwick links with panic working are:
- Busy Bee Syndrome – this is the pressure to be constantly on. It’s when you’re checking emails all the time and making a to-do list ten times larger than you’d achieve in ‘normal times’. These people feel a strong sense of guilt about not doing enough, so they fill their time with (often meaningless) tasks in pursuit of validation.
- Working to survive – if an organisation has announced, or hinted at, redundancies it can cause employees to become hyper-productive in an effort to protect their job. This is a type of panic working caused by fear, or perhaps guilt if remaining staff are suffering from survivor syndrome. In an article for Bloomberg, Gianpiero Petriglieri makes the interesting point that a decrease in job security has meant full-time work has started to take on the characteristics of gig work. We’re all caught on the ‘hustle’ hamster wheel and it’s hurting us.
- Working to regain control – Fenwick says when staff feel the majority of their lives are out of their control, working overtime is a common technique used to “exert their control in a meaningful way”. For employees working in lockdown, work can be a way to experience some normalcy.
“Not all managers will necessarily feel alarmed at the prospect of their teams being hyper-productive. They may even welcome it at first,” says Fenwick.
“Nevertheless, they should be wary of encouraging panic working and have quiet asides with any team members who demonstrate this behavior. Not only are panicked workers at risk of burning themselves out and damaging their mental and physical health, they are also at greater risk of making big mistakes or rash decisions.”
How to turn off panic mode
Understanding that panic working is harming you is one thing. Knowing how to turn it off is another. Take me for example. I understand the negative impacts of my frantic working behaviours – I’m writing an article about it. But I can’t simply decide to stop panicking (if only). It’s a process and it need to be consistently addressed to avoid it becoming a larger problem.
“If you’re panicking, you’re not able to use your higher-order thinking in terms of how to prioritise something,” says Auerbach.
“Panicking only has one channel, which is that everything is urgent. The first thing to recognise is that you’re in a really heightened state and full of adrenaline. If you’re working from that place, you’ll be frenetic and spinning the wheels without being able to think well.”
The second thing Auerbach says people should do to talk themselves down from a panicked moment is to recognise what they’re panicking about.
“That might be about job insecurity, the global health situation or just the future in general. It’s important to address those within their context and look at them as separate to you trying to get your job done really well. Recognise that you’re displacing some of that fear into trying to get a very small thing done perfectly.”
Take some time out and try and address it, he says. One way to do this is to contextualise your fear and identify the worst case scenario.
“Ask yourself, ‘Am I safer than I feel I am?’ and ‘Is this an automatic panic that I’m prone to?’. If it’s about job insecurity, then you might think about the different supports available to you if you did lose your job, what else could you do? And then look for prior evidence to see if you’re thinking accurately or not.”
He also thinks it’s important to reconsider the whole notion of ‘doing more with less’.
“There’s been a massive adjustment period for people to recalibrate and cope with working online and reinstate all the structures [and supports] that were available before. There’s been a massive increase in workload to get back to normal, but now it’s probably time to challenge whether or not we need to continue doing more with less or if we need to return to the level of productivity that we might have expected before.”
Leaders have a duty to model healthy behaviours and working habits.
“Those will be the organisations to attract and retain the best staff in the long term,” he says.
“Leaders that learn how to do that will find their staff remain productive and continue to thrive.”
This is particularly important because the fight isn’t over yet. Auerbach points to the current situation in Melbourne.
“Workplaces need to recognise how frightening this is for their staff and provide lots of support. Don’t create an expectation of hyper-productivity. Encourage people to take time out. Most peoples’ insecurity causes them to overwork instead of underwork. We need to be even more vigilant in checking in with people given the level of disconnection.”
He says being aware of the jobs you’re working on, while you’re working on them, can be a helpful way to ease a panicked mind.
“Don’t just live in your inbox. Make sure you know what you’re working on at any given time, as well as when you’ll start and when you’ll stop.
“If you get a small chunk of a few tasks done each day, you’re miles ahead of the people who are just working on what’s in front of them.”
It’s not going to be easy to learn how to work faster and more efficiently without panicking. I know that. But I’m willing to make a public pledge to do better. We need to recognise that work makes up only a small portion of the rest of our lives and, especially in times like this, taking care not to neglect those other facets – relationships, exercise, relaxing – is the most important thing we can do.
Looking after peoples’ mental health in the workplace is of utmost importance. AHRI’s short course is designed to help participants with stress management and more, and provides helpful mental health awareness resources.