Busy fools

Busy fools

How being ‘always on’ is slowing down your business
7 Nov 2019

Britain is becoming a nation of busy fools, a phrase coined by Steven Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. We’re always on, enslaved to our smart phones and constantly communicating under the misapprehension that we’re being more productive.

And it’s damaging British business. Stress has become a way of life. Eighty two per cent of Brits feel stressed in a typical working week [AXA], which lasts for an average of 42 hours 18 minutes, longer than any other European country [ONS]. We took just 62% of our annual holiday entitlement [Glassdoor] and did 2 billion hours of unpaid overtime in 2018 [TUC].

For all that graft, we’re still in the midst of a productivity crisis. Britain was the only large advanced economy to see a fall in productivity growth in 2018 and we have been trailing our peers in terms of productivity growth for the past decade [the Conference Board].

So, is being ‘always on’ slowing your business down? What can you do, as an operator of a small to medium sized enterprise, to make sure you are not breeding a workforce of busy fools? And how can you measure the success of the initiatives you put in place?

SME leaders are more likely to be ‘always on’

We all recognise the warning signs. “You check your emails on your phone just before you go to bed at night and find it’s the first thing you do when you wake up,” says HR strategist and author Rita Trehan. “You find yourself getting frustrated on holiday when can’t get a wi-fi signal… congratulations you’re part of the ‘always on’ club!”

You’re more likely to be a member of the club if you run an SME. Sixty-five per cent of SME leaders say they struggle to switch off, according to a recent poll by software solutions provider Advanced. Nearly half confess to getting short tempered when under pressure, 52% say they struggle to sleep and 30% say they are more likely to get ill at times of stress.

“The digital era is making it worse,” says Advanced group HR director Alex Arundale. “Mobiles, while of course a great asset, can become a hindrance, not allowing people to focus or ‘switch off’ at the end of the workday. With emails and updates so easily accessible, many managers feel an obligation to continue working outside of traditional work hours.”

How to spot a busy fool

So, a busy fool is a tetchy, ring eyed insomniac who’s prone to emailing or calling his or her colleagues and staff at ungodly hours. If this describes you, and you run a business, beware. Your actions will be rubbing off on your staff and making them less productive too. “Leading by example helps to set boundaries, so make time to switch off yourself,” says Arundale.

“Think about how and when you communicate – don’t leave it for late in the evening. The email you’ve written on your commute home may be better sent in the morning. Otherwise it can send a signal that you’re ‘always on’ and that staff should be too because you expect an immediate response.”

How to switch off the ‘always on’

Stress can take a heavy toll on our health. One in six of us will experience a mental health problem in any given week, says The Mental Health Foundation. And it’s clear on the causes. ‘The pressure of an increasingly demanding work culture is perhaps the biggest and most pressing challenge to the mental health of the general population,’ it says.

Taking measures to stop your staff burning out (like not emailing them at 10.33pm on a Tuesday) isn’t just the responsible and decent thing to do, it’s also the right course of action for your business. Stress, anxiety and mental health issues are the most cited reasons for sick days, according to the HSE. So, less stress means fewer sick days and more productive staff. And that means better business.

“We introduced a flexible working policy over two years ago, allowing staff to start their working day any time from 8am to 10am,” says Bridie Gallagher, MD of digital marketing agency Glass Digital. “Following the success of flexible working, we decided to trial a remote working policy. Over the longer term, this has helped to attract and retain staff.”

If you don’t make time for health, make time for illness

There are many ways to switch off, of course. Initiatives range from the practical – such as nightly email curfews, after which workers cannot send or receive work related messages, and holiday work phone amnesties that require workers to surrender their devices before taking annual leave – to the rather more esoteric.

“You can’t give from an empty cup,” says Stuart Groves, co-founder of events agency Shout About. “So, I started to make time for myself and made sure I always fill my cup first. People ‘fill their cup in different ways. Create a morning routine that incorporates meditation, yoga, gratitude or healthy food, for example.”

Don’t roll your eyes. Groves isn’t suggesting such measures should be used as a substitute for a proper, comprehensive staff wellness policy (and of course meditation is only going to appeal to certain sets, such as those in Shout About’s London). What he is saying is that they could help supplement a policy that puts employee health first.

“You should remember, more than anything, that if you don’t make time for health, at some point you are going to have to make time for illness,” he adds. That doesn’t just apply to your own health, but that of your workers. And, ultimately, the health of your business. Still, I have no idea how I’d incorporate ‘gratitude’ into my daily schedule.