How you can cope with the curse of ‘busyness’

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership] December 7, 2016

Psychologist Alison Hill is the co-founder of Pragmatic Thinking, a behaviour and motivation strategy company, and the author of Stand Out: A Real World Guide to Get Clear, Find Purpose and Become the Boss of Busy. A consultant to companies such as PepsiCo, Siemens, McDonald’s and BHP Billiton, Hill speaks to the Australasian Law Management Journal about the ‘busyness’ phenomenon that is afflicting modern law firms and companies – and she offers some strategies to fight back.

When did being busy become such a badge of honour?

“I’m not sure how we got to this point,” Hill says. “The response to ‘how are you going?’ is often for people to say, ‘Oh, I’m busy’ and for the shoulders to drop … It’s almost like waiting for permission for someone else to come in and say, ‘Hey, how about you chill out or knock off at an appropriate time rather than just hanging around the office.”

For others, being busy comes with a sense of pride because it allows them to say they are working on a lot of cases, or some significant matters. Too often though, according to Hill, people are feeling overwhelmed and do not know how to break the cycle.

How can workplaces respond to this trend?

First, firm leaders need to acknowledge that many lawyers are aspirational and hard-working and they want to deliver strong results for the business and their clients. That is not a bad thing.

However, Hill says in the digital era of emails, smartphones and social media there is a huge amount of ‘noise’ with which people have to contend. “The opportunity for workplaces is to start to have conversations around, ‘Okay, now that we know that our attention is being pulled in a million different directions, what are some strategies for us to make choices about where our attention goes’,” she says.

A change of language can help. Hill says it is often useful during really busy periods if work teams can take the view that they have a lot on their plate, they are working on a great case, they have pride in doing so, and acknowledging that the work is progressing well. “That really subtle change in language means we are not automatically saying, ‘Oh, I’m busy’ or ‘I’m overwhelmed’ and it has a way of re-energising not only us but also the people around us.”

What are some other ways to respond?

Hill believes people need to be able to hit a ‘reset’ button when they are feeling stressed or overworked. Pause, even if it’s only for 10 minutes, to get out of your busy bubble and take stock. There may be personal signs that you need to reset. For Hill, two things happen when she is overwhelmed – she starts to snap at those people who matter most to her, including her family; and she does tasks twice. It is important to understand your personal busyness and stress signals so you know when it is time to reset.

How does this translate to work teams?

One way leaders and managers can help teams reset is to reconnect people with the reasons why they are working on a particular case or project. It may be crucial for the firm, or it may be a chance for teams to showcase their experience and skills. This process can give staff a sense of perspective about workloads.

“When you reconnect people to ‘why’ it’s often a really re-energising space,” Hill says.

What should leaders in the firm be doing?

The information overload that is bombarding workers – chiefly as a result of smartphones and laptops that may connect people to work 24 hours a day – should be a topic of conversation within firms. More than that, however, it is up to leaders to set the expectations and understand what is appropriate for employees. Some staff members may be happy to take work calls at 7pm because they finished work early to pick up their children from school; for others, that time is out of bounds for family reasons.

Hill comments: “Let’s have more conversations around this so we can set the ground rules around what’s okay and what’s not okay. Then the role for leaders and managers is to lead the charge on those conversations and be role models.”

She advises a scenario whereby senior managers make sure they leave work on time at least a couple of days a week (or whatever suits the firm’s circumstances) to send a message to support staff that there is a life outside work. “If a manager is talking about leaving work on time but then staying at the office until 8pm or 9pm people are going to listen to what you do far more than what you say.”

What smart things are your clients doing to tackle busyness?

One of Hill’s clients has put in place a policy across the organisation that no work emails are to be sent after 7pm. For such a plan to be successful, she says it requires a commitment from the top down. Such a policy may not suit other firms – their task is to develop strategies which are appropriate for their businesses and staff.

How can firms respond if they are committed to a major case or project?

Sometimes work cannot be put off. If the firm has to get a big project over the line, explain to team members that the next six weeks or so could be crazy and set the expectations. “But then when there is a downtime, we need to actually recuperate during that period so we are ready again for peak performance when the next big case or the next situation (occurs) rather than that busyness becoming the norm all of the time.”

Won’t productivity suffer if staff are less busy?

No! Hill believes businesses have mistakenly reached a point where they associate being busy with being productive. “Yet the things that are important aren’t necessarily what we get around to doing because we get caught up with emails and responding to small things. We are connected in so many ways and we are dealing with a lot of interruptions in our work – and that’s having a huge impact on our productivity.”

The focus, Hill suggests, should be on those activities which “help move us forward” rather than blindly following a to-do list.

And finally …

Hill believes “self-care” should be on the agenda within businesses. How can firms look after people? How can individuals look after themselves? Such issues are not routinely discussed in most organisations – and Hill is adamant that needs to change.