The Fear of Not Working

“One of the fears of having too much work is not having time to observe.” —Benedict Cumberbatch

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There are those of us who worry, especially in these times, about working too many hours. About the harm it causes to our families and to our health and productivity. It is a worry that has only grown in the year of the pandemic, as remote work all but wiped out any work boundaries many of us had.

But there’s also another kind of fear. It’s more about not working. To be clear, this isn’t about the completely legitimate dread of losing a job in today’s brutal times. This is something entirely different. This is about the need to work, work, work, and then work some more. The need to never stop, to be proudly part of the “hustle culture” that may actually be destroying you. It’s a need that managers and corporate leaders often overlook (or quietly praise, or even encourage) but is much more likely to be counterproductive to the very companies their employees are trying to serve.

For a while, of course, the pandemic buried any concern we might have had about the hustle culture. Indeed, in the early days of the crisis, long work hours were all any leader could really ask for if the survival of the company was at stake. But we’re now three-quarters of a year removed from the outset. The harm and the death from COVID-19 continues, but much of the initial business crisis has settled down. The group of workers who want a work-life balance now look for ways to get it back. And yet the hustle culture just keeps on going.

You could fill a book with all the studies documenting the harm and burnout it causes. But the thing that fascinates me is what famed book author Daniel Goleman recently mentioned in his regular column for Korn Ferry. He says when we aren’t working, a default mode in our brain is activated. Science is still investigating this part of the brain, but Dan writes that it “helps us better understand ourselves, grasp social interactions, foresee consequences, and empathize with others.” Quoting a scientist, he mentions how it helps you understand the deeper importance of situations, to find meaning out of things. If you don’t do this, then you are just reacting in life. Now, I’m no expert on any of this, but what could be more important than tapping into this?

I submit that among the many issues we will be dealing with in hopefully the year of the recovery, we will need look no further than our heads to find the true meaning of work-life balance. Leaders will need to reject the hustle culture and show the overworked how much they are missing by not taking their foot off the pedal. Introducing more wellness programs, enforcing more vacation time, and limiting work hours will help. But it won’t be easy. It will take some work.

“You could fill a book with all the studies on the harm and burnout it causes.”