Being Still - Working


It is seen to be the prestige symbol in the modern world that times of rest are frowned upon. In the intensity of the workplace, lunches are to be skipped or taken speedily at the desk, with the work e-mails attended to all at times during the evening, night and weekend.

The nation that is often held up as an example of overworking is Japan  so that they have a word karoshi, which means ‘death attributed to overwork.’ In a survey, it was discovered that 12 per cent of employees work 100 hours a month, which includes 80 hours (often unpaid) overtime.[1]

In 2017, Silvia Belleza at the Columbia Business School in New York asked volunteers in the United States to assess the status of fictional personalities from short descriptions that were provided. If the person was described as being really busy, he or she went up in the estimation of the volunteer, as they thought the person was of higher importance and a greater achiever.

As a contrast, the same study was undertaken with a group from Italy, with the reversed results. Indeed, the Italian concept of dolce far niente – ‘sweet doing nothing’ – was the standout component.

It is almost reminiscent of the lyrics ‘Busy doing nothing’ from A Yankee in the Court of King Arthur.

The Italians seemed to have the right formula as, in 2018, Argyro Avgoustaki of ESCP Europe and Hans Frankot at Cass Business School in London examined data from 52,000 employees from right across Europe. They discovered that people who worked intensely for long periods, ‘at very high speed’ or ‘to tight deadlines; scored lower on the measures of mental and physical wellbeing. It tended to be for no cause for those employees were less likely to be promoted, or feel satisfied and secure in their jobs.

Hans Frankot commented: ‘If you exhaust yourself, you are going to reduce the quality of your work and, ultimately, you are going to lose out.’

He continued: ‘We’re not saying less work is better, we’re saying less overwork is better.’

He was backed up by Professor Cary Cooper, an organisational psychologist at the University of Manchester, who added: ‘It can be hard to judge performance in some jobs, so managers still tend to look at visible things like how late someone stays or how much pressure they appear to be under.’[2]

There is the pressure to look busy all of the time, which has been evidenced by a survey that showed that millennials are more worried than any other generation about the consequences of taking lunch breaks, with 37 per cent of the respondents not feeling empowered to break for lunch.[3] Often the result is presenteeism, where it looks as though you are at work in the body, but your mind and attention is elsewhere.

It has been assessed that working 40 hours is too much with strong indications that the maximum amount of time that a person can be really productive is six hours. There have been studies that show that quality work is produced in five or six hours with the other two or three hours spent in dealing with e-mails, attending meetings, making phone calls, tea breaks and so on.[4]

In a 2018 survey of workers in the United Kingdom, it was discovered that 70 per cent reported lower productivity because they were not able to get away from their desks for lunch.[5]

It was reported in the United States in 2018 that almost half of all employees were going to give up their vacation days in order to keep working.[6]

It has been ascertained that not having breaks means that energy resources are depleted, stress increases and productivity is reduced. An example of this fact is that the Draugiem Group, an IT company based in Latvia, tracked the behaviour of the top 10 per cent of the most productive employees who worked the same amount of hours as everyone else in the company, it discovered that those people took more breaks, with an average of 17 minute break after 52 minutes of working.[7]

Marcus Aurelius stated: ‘If you seek tranquillity, do less. Or (more accurately, do what’s essential. Do less, better. Because most of what we do or say is not essential.’[8]

One of the results of being busy all the time is what the experts call time famine. Eldar Shafir, a behavioural scientist at Princeton University, described it as ‘Feelings of scarcity, whether money or time, prey on the mind, thereby impairing decision-making. When you’re busy, you’re more likely to make poor time-management choices – taking on commitments  you can’t handle, or prioritising trifling tasks over crucial ones. A vicious circle kicks in. Your feelings of busyness leaves you even busier than before.’[9]

The sinking of the R. M. S. Titanic is a case in point, as the destruction of the ship could have been prevented on so many levels. There were problems with its boilers that could have dealt with had the time been taken. More catastrophic was the fact that the ship’s crew did not listen to the pleas of other vessels that the Titanic was sailing into a field of ice. The radio operator on the Titanic was so overwhelmed with his workload that he disregarded those other messages and infamously wired back, ‘Shut up, shut up, I am busy…’

The problem in not stepping back and taking note is that both the positives and negatives are not considered – for example, in project management, lessons learned documents are not heeded; in public enquiries, the conclusions and recommendations lie gathering dust; in school workbooks, teachers’ comments are ignored or not acted upon.

The American  biologist, E O Wilson, has observed: ‘We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom.’[10]

Often our aims at work are the high level objectives that moves an organisation towards its goals. It is rarely about the details and even less so about the crisis that occur. It is often in the high quality thinking that details get lost amid the jungle of tasks to be performed. The continual state of busyness means that we never enter the position where unexpected connections and insights can make an appearance. The ideal way in which these ‘light bulb’ moments can occur are where there is a quiet mind and a happy disposition.

Although it appears as though there is idleness when people are daydreaming or letting their minds wander, the brain is actually going full tilt. The unfocused ‘default mode’ permits new connections in the brain. When these are activated, the new connections enable us to see old problems in a new way.

However, this downtime is a rarity as tasks keeping piling in on top of us, with every job crying out that they need to be accomplished. The result is that the new connections and insights do not appear.

Mark Beeman, a neuroscientist, states: ‘At work we expect people to pay attention, to focus. To focus on one thing, you have to suppress a lot of things. Sometimes that’s good. But sometimes a solution to a problem can only come from allowing in apparently unrelated information, from giving time to the quieter ideas in the background.’

His research showed that we require two distinctly different types of mental activity: the directed, focused attention that is usually expected of us in work situations but can only be sustained for short periods, and the diffused and unfocused state where we appear to be thinking about nothing in particular and is often described as mind wandering. It is in the oscillation between these two states that problems are solved.[11]

Manoush Zomorodi has stated that: ‘We humans do our most original thinking and best problem solving when our brains are allowed to wander.’[12]

It is important that leaders think straight because their employees will base their behaviour on what they observe. Adobe’s Northern Europe Vice President, Gavin Mee, gave these pointers as to how to get a better perspective: ‘It makes you a much better, more rounded person when you turn up to work if you’ve got a balance between your job and your home life. When I get home I turn my mobile off and put it in the corner.

‘I schedule a couple of hours a week of thinking time into my diary and I do half an hour of meditation before work every day. If it’s a busy place, I’ll plug my headphones and use the Headspace app. I have a short attention span, and that really works for me.

‘People are more likely to pay attention to work life balance if they hear their leader talking about it, so I’ve agreed on a bunch of standards with my team. I want everyone to take their holiday, I want them not to turn on their phone and I don’t communicate on weekends unless it’s a dire emergency.’[13]

There is the necessity to distinguish between the urgent and the important.[14]
An urgent task requires immediate attention, taking precedence over other tasks.
An important task is one that has great significance and value. The outcome will have significant consequences.

In turn, these tasks are categorised into four areas:

‘A’ tasks are both urgent and import, which should be undertaken immediately and other things should be laid to one side. Examples would include a crisis, pressing problems, deadline driven projects.
‘B’ tasks are important but not urgent, which have the problem of always being placed to one side without being addressed. This category should be placed in your schedule after the ‘A’ tasks. Examples would include preparation, personal development, relationship development, and planning risk analysis.
‘C’ tasks are urgent but not important. They need to be done but resources (such as time) should not be overly utilised on them. Examples include non-pressing interruptions, e-mails or letters requesting an immediate response, obscure reports, and seemingly endless meetings.
‘D’ tasks are neither important or urgent, so it would be wise to determine whether they need to be done at all.

In order to ensure that all the important tasks are accomplished by the end of the working day, it will be necessary to divide your tasks into the categories above. It may be that there will be tasks that will not be completed on that day and some may fall completely off the radar as they were of no consequence in any event.

In order to get a focused objective, there has to be time to readjust the vision. If it is worth doing, do it well. Because we rush around, we produce few things of note – doing many things badly rather than some things well. There is a problem with presenteeism, where the body is present but the rest of you is elsewhere.

Brother Lawrence, a monk living in the seventeenth century, would pray before he commenced his work in the monastery’s kitchen: ‘O my God…grant me your grace to stay in your presence. Help me in my labours. Possess all my affections.’

We are reminded in the psalms: ‘Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, O Lord.’ (Psalm 89: 15)

There are the opportunities to commune with God – whether to praise Him or to intercede on behalf of others – wherever you are, regardless of where you are. It might be standing in the supermarket queue, stopping at a right light at a traffic junction, on the platform at the railways, in the airport lounge, or in whatever situation we may find ourselves in where there is a halt in our lives. It is in the ‘wasted’ time that we glimpse what God is saying to us.

When we slow down, we will interact more with our colleagues so more meaningful relationships will be built that will increase our happiness[15], accelerate our productivity[16]and could even garner that sense of community at work[17].

Robert A Emmons has discovered the connectivity between the discipline of gratitude, wellbeing and resilience. He wrote that ‘grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism, and that the practice of gratitude as a discipline protects a person from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed and bitterness…[They] recover more quickly from illness and benefit from greater physical health…increased feelings of connectedness, [and] improved relationships…[W]hen people experience gratitude, they feel more loving, more forgiving and closer to God. Gratitude, we have found, maximises our enjoyment of the good…’[18]

Being intentionally slower will mean that you will have time to thank your colleagues, which in turn will increase resilience and reduce stress in the workplace, as well as the obvious outcome of strengthening our relationships with those with whom we work. It could be the smallest of things (such as a cup of tea/coffee) or a major step (such as help in the completion of a project). Of course, it could be done through the medium of an e-mail, which would be helpful if there are a large number of people to thank, but it is preferable if you stepped away from your desk and spoke to your colleague personally.[19]

It is so easy to get caught up in our own lives that we neglect to give to others, even in the simplest act of offering support. When it is noticed that you care about them, it can lead to deeper conversations. If we are concerned about other people and the amount of work that they have, it will be reciprocated in the future.

It is time to get from behind the computer screen or lay down our tools, we will benefit from having those face-to-face conversations. The e-mail or text that is misinterpreted by either wording or the tone will be replaced by a person interacting with another, showing that the colleague rather than the clock is the priority.[20]

Not being able to step away from work will have consequences in all parts of our personal and domestic life. One of which is that the inability to switch off adversely affects our sleep.[21] It is because we do not allow ourselves enough time to recover from work demands, before we have to start off on another treadmill.

The researchers stated that: ‘Employees who integrated work into their non-work life reported being more exhausted because they recovered less. This lack of recovery activities further explains why people who integrate their work into the rest of their lives have a lower sense of well-being.’

The conclusion was: ‘After all, impaired well-being goes hand in hand with reduced productivity and reduced creativity.’

There are many studies that show that, when people work less, they are more satisfied with their lives.[22] This finding is substantiated by a poll among German woman workers who were asked to describe a ‘perfect day.’ The largest proportion (106 minutes) would be allocated to ‘intimate relations,’ followed by ‘socialising’ (82 minutes), ‘relaxing’ (78 minutes) and ‘eating’ (75 minutes). At the bottom of the list were ‘parenting’ (46 minutes), ‘work’ (36 minutes) and ‘commuting’ (33 minutes). The researchers commented that ‘in order to maximise well-being, it is likely that working and consuming (which increases GDP) might play a smaller roles in people’s daily activities compared to now.’[23]

When we work as God wants us to, we will live according to ‘The God-given rhythm of life both corrects laziness and offers relief to those who feel pressure to be industrious at all times. The Lord teaches us to work, then pause to sleep, eat, pray, and rest each week.’[24]


[1]Edwin Lane, ‘The young Japanese working themselves to death,’ BBC News, 2 June 2017, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-39981997
[2]Studies and quotes: Chris Sims ‘Your Workplace Survival Guide,’ New Scientist, 12 January 2013, pp. 35 - 36
[3]Mike Pomranz, ‘Millennials fear lunch breakl ‘stigma’ more than other generations,’ Food & Wine, 4 June 2019, https://www.foodandwine.com/news/millenial-lunch-breaks-office-study?utm_source=Newsletter_AH&utm_medium=Thrive
[4]Sara Robinson, ‘Bring back the 40-hour week,’ Salon, 14 March 2012, https://www.salon.com/2012/03/14/bring_back_the_40_hour_work_week/
[5]Jerome Smail, ‘Over half of office-based employees have no area to eat lunch in the workplace,’ Employee Benefits, 22 October 2018, https://www.employeebenefits.co.uk/office-employees-lunch-workplace/; Alan Kohill, ‘This is how working lunches are making you bad at your job,’ World Economic Forum, 31 May 2018, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/05/new-study-shows-correlation-between-employee-engagement-and-the-long-lost-lunch-break
[6]‘Many US workers are going to lose their vacation time this year,’ CNBC, 20 November 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/11/20/us-workers-to-forfeit-half-their-vacation-time-this-year.html
[7]Cited in Chris Sims ‘Your Workplace Survival Guide,’ New Scientist, 12 January 2013, p. 38
[8]Quoted in Aytekin Tank, ‘Why Today’s Best Business Leaders Look to Stoicism – An entrepreneur’s guide to this ancient Greek philosophy,’ Entrepreneur, 23 September 2019. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/338735?utm_source=Newsletter_AH&utm_medium=Thrive
[9] Cited in Oliver Burkeman, ‘Why you feel busy all the time (when you’re actually not,’ BBC News, 12 September 2016 http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20160909-why-you-feel-busy-all-the-time-when-youre-actually-not/?utm_source=Newsletter_AH&utm_medium=Thrive
[10]Quoted by Nicholas Kristof, ‘Starving for Wisdom,’ New York Times, 16 April 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/16/opinion/nicholas-kristof-starving-for-wisdom.html
[11]Jan Hills, ‘Are you busy or you thinking?’ People Management, 30 January 2014
[12]Quoted in Kells McPhillips, ‘By scheduling time to do nothing every day for a week, I learned the secret to creativity,’ Well and Good, 4 July 2019, https://www.wellandgood.com/good-advice/how-to-do-nothing/
[13]Quoted in Adam Gale, ‘Why you should schedule downtime into your diary,’ Management Today, 14 March 2019, https://www.managementtoday.com/why-schedule-downtime-diary/any-other-business/article/1579032?utm_medium=EMAIL
[14]See Charles Hummel, Tyranny of the Urgent (Inter Varsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1994) http://www.olemissxa.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Tyranny-of-the-Urgent.pdf
[15]Beth Azar, ‘Friends and Co-workers,’ American Psychological Association, January 2012, https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2012/01/relationships
[16]Joe Avella and Rachel Gillett, ‘A happiness expert explains why having work friends is vital to your success,’ Business Insider, 21 September 2017, https://www.businessinsider.com/annie-mckee-friends-work-coworkers-vital-2017-9?r=US&IR=Thttps://www.businessinsider.com/annie-mckee-friends-work-coworkers-vital-2017-9?r=US&IR=T
[17] S Leonard Syme and Miranda L Ritterman, ‘The importance of Community Development for Heath and Well-Being,’ Community Development Investment Review, https://www.frbsf.org/community-development/files/syme_ritterman.pdf
[18]Robert A Emmons, Thanks! How the new science of gratitude can make you happier (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, New York, 2007) pp. 11 - 12
[19]Francesca Gino, ‘Be Grateful More Often,’ Harvard Business Review, 26 November 2013, https://hbr.org/2013/11/be-grateful-more-often
[21][21]Ariane G Wepfer et al, ‘Work Life Boundaries and Well-being: Does Work-to-Life Integration Impair Well-Being through Lack of Recovery,’ Journal of Business and Psychology, 33 (6), December 2018: 727 – 740 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10869-017-9520-y
[22]Nicholas A Ashford and Giorgos Kallis, ‘A Four-day Workweek: a policy for Improving Employment and Environmental Conditions in Europe,’ The European Financial Review, April – May 2013: 53 – 58. https://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/85017
[23]Christian Kroll and Sabastian Pokutta, ‘Just a perfect day? Developing a happiness optimised schedule,’ Journal of Economic Psychology, volume 34, February 2013: 210 – 217, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0167487012001158
[24]Daniel Doriani, Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation (P & R Publishing, Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 2019), p. 131

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