Australians are addicted to being busy and it's preventing us from getting the rest we need to perform at our best. That is the verdict of leading organisational and workplace psychologists and it is backed up by data that shows we are working 3.2 billion hours of unpaid overtime a year and have 134 million days of accrued annual leave.
On top of that, 3.8 million workers report they don't usually take a lunch break, while a recent health survey found 7.4 million adult Australians don’t get enough sleep.
Organisational psychologist, Leanne Faraday-Brash says “there is absolutely an addiction to busyness … And there are an increasing number of people who wear their busyness like a badge of honour”.
Faraday-Brash, who runs a Melbourne-based organisational psychology consulting practice, believes there are a number of reasons why we find it so hard to slow down and rest when we need to, including that many of us have been raised to believe that working super hard "is something to be celebrated and glorified”.
She says the high value we place on being busy means that, in a world where we can work from almost anywhere at anytime, switching off for many of us is becoming increasingly difficult to do.
“The ability to have stillness in our lives can actually be quite hard,” she says. “We have constant access to our devices, so even if we’re not working a lot of people still spend a large chunk of their life in an a very wired, over-adrenalised state … There is very little opportunity for any mental downtime,” she says.
Wellbeing and productivity adviser Thea O’Connor argues that very few of us are actually “forced” to work the very long hours that many of us do. And while we may not exactly be choosing to work so hard, she says many people find it difficult to stop.
O’Connor sees this so frequently among clients she coaches, that she has even coined a term for it – "rest resistance". This is when external pressures, such as working in an environment where working long hours is the norm, combined with an internal vulnerability, such as aligning our self worth with working hard, or the desire to receive praise, work against us to stop and rest when we need to.
“Clients will often come to me and say, ‘Oh, I work too hard and I need to get some more balance in my life,'” she explains. “And that’s great. But when it comes to the crunch and we’ve prepared the little scenario of how they’re going to leave on time and what they’re going to say, the clients are often like, ‘Oh that’s so hard. I don’t know if I can do that.'”
It is so hard, “because they’re worried they’re not going to get the praise that they used to get for going the extra mile … they see working hard as a measure of success, or they’re worried they’re going to be seen as a ‘slacker'”.
"This is very ingrained for a lot of people.”
She says for others, “slowing down and stopping can be really confronting because it means they have to actually feel what’s really going on in their lives”. It can be easier to stay busy.
However, O’Connor says to perform at our best, rest is crucial.
“I often ask people when was the last time they had a morning or afternoon tea break and they usually laugh,” she says. “However, if you look at the science of recovery and our need for recovery breaks in the workplace, a little pause about 1.5 hours into our day and mid-afternoon, as well as a lunch break, would actually be a good idea.”
She compares our need for rest breaks to that of elite sportspeople.
“Even though they work incredibly hard, they’re also very disciplined about getting enough rest because they know if they don’t, firstly, they won’t perform at their best and secondly, they’ll burn out.”
She says the same applies for the average person in an average working day. “The simple fact is, if you don’t give your brain a break you’ll start to work more slowly and you’ll make more errors.”