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Why do we glamorise overworking?

Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·4 min read
Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

You’re scrolling through Twitter and you see a post from someone complaining about being busy. “Ugh,” they write, alongside a picture of a coffee. “This is all I’ve had time to eat today.”

One of the perks of working from home is making elaborate lunches from leftovers. But as you look at the plate in front of you and scroll social media aimlessly, it makes you wonder why you aren’t as busy as that person on Twitter.

Perhaps, you wonder, having more time to enjoy lunch means you aren’t working as hard - or aren’t as successful. Suddenly, your food seems less appetising.

Being richer used to mean working less, with a person’s wealth measured by their spare time and the trips and hobbies they took to fill it. Those who were less well off, on the other hand, worked longer hours and had less free time.

Over the years, though, things have changed. Today, we often perceive the busiest people as being the most successful. Being ‘too busy’ is a status symbol and a sign of how much the labour market values them and their skills, rather than a genuine problem.

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In a series of studies published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2017, researchers created a fictional Facebook user and asked people to look at her posts. When she posted about working 24/7, the volunteers believed she had higher status and more money than if she posted about her leisure time.

The researchers also explored Twitter data categorised as “humblebrags” consisting of self-deprecating boasts, to find that a substantial number of these brags relate to long hours of work and lack of leisure time.

“Movies, magazines, and popular TV shows such as Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous often highlight the abundance of money and leisure time among the wealthy,” wrote Silvia Bellezza, a professor of marketing at Columbia Business School, along with Georgetown’s Neeru Paharia and Harvard’s Anat Keinan.

“While this leisurely lifestyle was commonly featured in advertising for aspirational products, in recent years, ads featuring wealthy people relaxing by the pool or on a yacht, playing tennis and polo, or skiing and hunting (e.g., Cadillac’s ‘The Only Way to Travel’ campaign in the '90s) are being replaced with ads featuring busy individuals who work long hours and have very limited leisure time.”

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The finding that busyness has become a status symbol turns Thorstein Veblen's idea of conspicuous consumption among the "leisure class" on its head. In 1899, Veblen theorised that the absence of work - or conspicuous leisure - and the flaunting of wealth through frivolous purchases was the ultimate status symbol. Now, though, it seems it’s not what you spend your money on, but how hard you work - or appear to work.

According to Bellezza’s research, “the positive inferences of status in response to busyness and lack of leisure time are driven by the perceptions that a busy person possesses desired human capital characteristics (e.g., competence and ambition) and is scarce and in demand in the job market. This research uncovers an alternative kind of conspicuous consumption that operates by shifting the focus from the preciousness and scarcity of goods to the preciousness and scarcity of individuals.”

And culturally, we are often rewarded for industrial-like actions in which we produce physical things we can see and feel, says business and career coach Clara Wilcox, founder of The Balance Collective.

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‘Many say this starts with our schooling,” she says. “Our talents and interests are filtered down to grades, which are used to create categories and predict potential. This then it moves into a presenteeism culture of work, where ‘first in and last out’ is rewarded. Sleep is seen as something that is flexible, rather than a necessary function to grow, learn and heal.”

In addition, Wilcox adds, people are often revered by their early morning routines. Silicon Valley execs like Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey are known for their morning ice baths, meditations and exercise, which they somehow find time for before a full day of work. Although extreme, their hectic schedules seem almost alluring. But for those of us who aren’t tech billionaires, the glamorisation of overworking comes with serious and tangible risks to our health and wellbeing.

“This worshipping of busyness is leading to an increase in burnout and mental health issues, where stress and anxiety are more prevalent,” Wilcox says.

“The past eight months, where home-working has been enforced and a slower pace of living has been created, we can see this production line culture is not needed. If we continue to see value in output, not working hours, we can ultimately create a healthier, creative and more productive working environment.”

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