When did busy become cool?


Though it used to be a necessary evil, busy is now cool. It's even become a weirdly aspirational bit of American culture, and the sort of thing that upwardly oriented brands have attuned to: "People who don't have time, make time to read the Wall Street Journal," reads a recent campaign for the staid paper, complete with testimonials from Karlie Kloss and British business executive Sir Martin Sorrell. Ivanka Trump traffics in "glambition." While rappers used to brag about being "up close and personal with Robin Leach," host of Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous, now they "ain't got no ... time to party on the weekend."

This isn't how things were supposed to turn out, at least according to prominent economic theory. Not having to work was supposed to be the reward for having made it. That's what economist Thorstein Veblen saw in this formative 1899 text The Theory of the Leisure Class: the toiling classes, who were not cool, took labor to be their "recognised and accepted mode of life," and they had no choice but to take "pride in a reputation for efficiency in their work," since that was the only avenue of satisfaction available to them. To be at the top was to be a member of the leisure class, for whom abstaining from productive work was part of the deal. Laboring was "a mark of inferiority" for the upper crusters, Veblen writes, and "to be accounted unworthy of man in his best estate." Veblen, famous for coining "conspicuous consumption," said that the elite also engaged in "conspicuous leisure."

This was seen in earlier, pre-capitalist societies — in feudal Europe or Japan, the upper class would occupy its time with palace intrigues and courtly hunts, rather than rising and grinding. It was also part of old Hollywood glamor, and what celebrity used to be — Errol Flynn helming his yacht or Elizabeth Taylor dangling her feet in the waters of Venice. "In the 1920s and 30s if you had a tan it was a status symbol, it said you could afford to lie on the beach and take a vacation," says Jeffrey Pfeffer, an organizational behavior professor at Stanford. "Now status comes from being so busy that they have to always be connected," he adds. "There's this competition to see who works more hours."

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17 ways your office job is destroying your health
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17 ways your office job is destroying your health

Sitting all day could shave years off your life

Sitting for lengthy periods is terrible for your body. Aches and pains are the least of your problems — sitting too much can lead to an early death. You face a higher risk of musculoskeletal disorders, obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and more, even if you work out regularly.

Around 86% of American workers sit all day at work. If you're one of them, your best plan of action is simply to move around for a few minutes every hour.

As Business Insider's Erin Brodwin reported, one observational study found that participants who moved around for about two minutes every hour had about a 33% lower risk of dying three years later than those who sat the whole time.

(Hero Images via Getty Images)

Regularly slouching in your chair can lead to back pain and headaches

Take a look at your posture right now: Are you slouching — or sitting up nice and straight?

According to the Mayo Clinic, "when you slouch or stoop, your muscles and ligaments strain to keep you balanced — which can lead to back pain, headaches and other problems." Yikes.

Business Insider's Brodwin shared the best way to develop better posture at your desk, based on tips from the Cleveland Clinic:

"First, sit at the end of your chair (that's right, don't rely on your backrest). Let your body go into a slouching position.

"Now, try to sit up straight, accentuating the curve of your back as much as possible. Hold this position for a few seconds.

"Next, release the position a little bit — Cleveland specifies that you shouldn't move more than about 10 degrees. This should be your sitting position!"

(endopack via Getty Images)

Using a treadmill desk may increase your chances of physically hurting yourself

A treadmill desk may help with the risk of obesity and heart disease — and at least for a while, they were pretty trendy. But a 2013 Wall Street Journal article reported the higher incidence of falls among those using treadmill desks and stability balls.

Besides, using a treadmill desk might not even make you more productive. 2015 research suggests that, at least when you first start using one, your cognitive performance may suffer, and you're more likely to make typos.

(Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Long commutes can lead to poor sleep, higher cholesterol, and an increased risk of depression

Commuting more than 10 miles by car can lead to higher blood sugar and increased cholesterol, according to a study from the University School of Medicine in Saint Louis and the Cooper Institute in Dallas. It can also increase your risk of depression and anxiety.

But public transit is no picnic, either. One report published by the Office of National Statistics in the UK found that people who commute 30 minutes by bus have the lowest levels of life satisfaction, and even cyclists weren't immune to the ill effects of long-distance travel.

Interestingly, recent research suggests that most of us don't realize just how miserable commuting can make us. It's something to consider before you accept your next job offer.

(Paul Bradbury via Getty Images)

Motivational meetings can depress people

In April 2016, the National Labor Relations Board issued a ruling against T-Mobile because the company had included a provision in its employee handbook stating that employees should try to maintain a positive work environment.

On The New Yorker's website, Maria Konnikova explored the effects of requiring people to be happy and upbeat at work. In sum, it rarely works.

One organizational psychologist told her that while a positive work environment sounds nice, "The irony is, when you’re trying to get people to do something positive, you can't do it. Once it’s required, it's fake and forced." People may act and feel negative instead.

(Hinterhaus Productions via Getty Images)

Recirculated, toxic air can cause illness and hurt your productivity

The EPA uses the term "Sick Building Syndrome" to describe what happens when "building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified."

Meanwhile, one small study found that workers in "green" buildings — with better ventilation and lower carbon dioxide and VOC (volatile organic compound) concentrations — scored higher on some tests of cognitive function than workers in "conventional" buildings.

Working for more than 55 hours a week may increase your stroke risk

A 2015 review from researchers at University of College London found that people who work more than 55 hours a week have a whopping 33% greater risk of stroke. The review adds to a growing body of research on the health hazards of long work hours.

It's not like you're getting more work done, either: Research suggests that after working 60 hours a week for three weeks, our productivity starts to plummet.

(stockdevil via Getty Images)

Working for a bad boss can contribute to anxiety, unhealthy habits, and even heart disease

One Swedish study cited by The Washington Post found the chronic stress of a bad boss was linked to an elevated risk of heart disease — and the longer you work for that person, the worse the problem seems to become. 

That's just the beginning. Other studies have shown that working for an unfair boss may contribute to a host of other complaints, including depression, sleep issues, high blood pressure, and being overweight.

(PeopleImages via Getty Images)

Working odd hours can cause weight gain and increase stress hormone levels

Those who mostly work in the evenings — such as programmers — are at greater risk for Type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, according to an article in The Atlantic

A study led by Harvard researchers in 2009 found that people who woke up later in the day showed a decline in leptin, a hormone responsible for curbing appetites, and an increase in the stress-related hormone cortisol.

(Rostislav_Sedlacek via Getty Images)

Endlessly staring at a computer screen can (temporarily) harm your vision

"Computer vision syndrome" refers to symptoms like irritated and tired eyes that result from starting at a digital screen all day. As Business Insider's Kevin Loria reported, one report found that the syndrome affects more than 60% of Americans.

One way to avoid eye strain is to implement the 20-20-20 rule: After every 20 minutes of work, take 20 seconds to look at something 20 feet away.

As Loria explains, "Your eyes have muscles that help them move and focus on different objects, but if we stare at a screen the same distance away for hours at a time, those muscles have a hard time adjusting once we move again."

Not getting enough sunlight can make it harder to fall asleep and more difficult to concentrate when you're awake

Artificial light doesn't just give your skin an unflattering greenish cast — it also messes with your internal clock, making you sleepy and sedentary.

A study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that employees who weren't exposed to natural light at work slept an average of 46 minutes less a night than their peers with windows — and the sleep they did get was less restful.

Extreme boredom can increase your risk of dying from heart disease or stroke

It's not just hyperbole — you can actually be bored to death.

A study from University College London suggested that those who complain of boredom are more likely to die young, and those who report high levels of tedium are much more likely to die from heart disease or stroke.

The researchers are quick to note that boredom may not directly cause fatal illnesses — it's also possible that people who are bored engage in harmful behaviors such as drug use.

(PeopleImages via Getty Images)

Most workspaces and keyboards are welcome environments for germs

The office can be a breeding ground for bacteria if it's not kept clean.

A fascinating study from the University of Arizona, highlighted in The Wall Street Journal, traced the path of a single virus (which doesn't infect people) throughout an office building.

Sumathi Reddy writes in the Journal:

"Within two hours, the virus had contaminated the break room—coffee pot, microwave button, fridge door handle—and then spread to restrooms, individual offices and cubicles. There, researchers found, the virus had heavily contaminated phones, desks and computers.

"By four hours, they found the virus on more than 50% of the commonly touched surfaces and on hands of about half of the employees in the office."

Experts disagree on whether hand sanitizers are helpful — or whether they're counterproductive because they kill good bacteria, too. Another way to prevent the spread of germs? Stop shaking people's hands.

Open-office plans may be trendy, but they're also drastically more likely to make you sick

Nearly 70% of offices have ditched cubes for open plans, but while that may (may) increase some kinds of communication and collaboration, it's also making us sick.

A 2011 Danish study found that as the number of people working in a room increased, so did the relative number of sick days — and people who worked in fully open offices were out 62% more than their cubed counterparts. 

(SolStock via Getty Images)

Keeping your mouse in the same spot makes you prone to repetitive strain injury

If your mouse stays in the same spot all day, you can be prone to repetitive strain injury (RSI).

Upper-limb RSI occurs when your tendons are straining more than they should for long periods of time, which can be because of movement repetition, a sustained awkward position, or prolonged pressing against hard surfaces.

One option is to use a mouse platform and a forearm support, so you reduce the area you use the mouse in. Another option is to use a shorter keyboard, so you make fewer sideways movements.

Smartphone overuse may cause inflammation in your thumb

People who use their smartphones heavily to text and email may wind up injuring their thumbs, since that's the go-to typing finger for many people.

As a physician at the Philadelphia Hand Center told TODAY, overuse may cause inflammation in the area — which can lead to aching, cramping, and throbbing — or even osteoarthritis.

The physician said the best treatment is usually rest and ice.

Uncomfortable shoes may eventually lead to spinal injuries, muscle spasms, and chronic headaches

Those power pumps you're wearing might make you feel tall and confident, but they're also harming your body in surprising ways.

Between 2005 and 2009, women's visits to doctors for their feet increased by 75%, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS)

As an orthopedic surgeon told Health.com, wearing uncomfortable shoes can cause your back to curve, potentially leading to spinal injuries, muscle spasms, and even chronic headaches and migraines.

(skynesher via Getty Images)

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It's enough to make you reconsider getting a ticket to the top from an elite business school: The higher up you go, the busier your calendar gets. Yahoo president Melissa Mayer says she used to do 130 hours workweeks, General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt claims to have worked 100-hour weeks for a quarter century, and Apple CEO Tim Cook gets up at 3:45am every morning. It's similar at the top of pop culture — late last year, Kanye West checked himself into a mental hospital for "temporary psychosis" stemming from being overworked and underslept — and in the professional class, too. References to "crazy schedules" in holiday cards have reportedly shot up since the 1960s, and a recent study of 8,000 baby boomers found that the wealthiest 10 percent eat just about as much fast food as everybody else, since they just don't have the time. All those hours do, in a narrow sense, pay off: overworkers reportedly earn 6 percent more per hour than those who are merely fulltime, a number that becomes less tantalizing when you consider how quickly humans get used to material circumstances, how few high-earners learn how to save, and how, to paraphrase Billy Joel, only the overworked die young.

When Americans hear "busy," they think "status," a link that Silvia Bellezza and Neeru Paharia, marketing professors at Columbia Business School and Georgetown, tested in recent study. They found busyness-status links in shopping habits: someone getting their groceries from the delivery service Peapod was thought to be busier and higher status than a Trader Joe's shopper, while a woman wearing a Bluetooth headset was rated as higher status and busier than one wearing headphones. In another experiment, 112 respondents were asked to read one of two letters from an imaginary friend: in one missive, the author wrote of how his life "crazy busy as usual" and how he didn't have time to watch sports, while in the other, his life was "relaxed as usual," with plenty of time to catch games on TV. True to form, the respondents thought the busy guy was higher status, with greater wealth, better skilled, and more in-demand that the chill alternate reality version of himself. There appear to be national differences: Italian respondents, when given busy versus easy lifestyle vignettes, rated the breezy life as higher status, since it must mean you can afford not to work.

In America at least, this points to how conspicuous consumption and leisure are out, while conspicuous production is in. Displays of busyness show that society values you, that everybody wants a piece. The displays are driven by "the perception that a busy person possesses desired human capital characteristics (competence, ambition) and is scarce and in demand on the job market," Bellezza, Paharia, and co-author Anat Keinan at Harvard Business School observe in the Journal of Consumer Research. Instead of associating yourself with objects that are scarce resources — diamonds, flashy cars, snazzy real estate, you portray yourself as the scarce resource. You and your time are the product, and your labor is the status symbol. Twitter and Facebook might be making this easier: "It's hard to brag about owning a Mercedes on social media but really easy to brag about being busy," Paharia told Thrive Global over email.

The busy-cool link may also be a symptom of how the axis of business has shifted toward tech. Judy Wajcman, a sociologist at the London School of Economics and author of Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism, says that it radiates out from Silicon Valley. "It's a lot of young men carrying on about how they're just so passionate," she says. Another sign of this takeover of work by leisure is the "tyranny of fun" that comes when offices start looking like living rooms, with kegs and ping pong tables in swanky coworking spaces with names like Second Home. That has consequences: If you're living at work, it probably means that there aren't kids to go home to. "They're childfree places," Wajcman says of these offices, and it goes down to nucleus of the tech industry. As Quartz observed this week, Apple's new $5 billion campus has 100,000 square foot gym but no daycare. In contrast, outdoor apparel brand Patagonia has onsite childcare, and 100 percent retention of employees who become new moms.

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While loads of ink has been spilled about how iPhones are the reason for the busyness pandemic, Wajcman says we need to look at how family structures have changed. In 1960, just 25 percent of American families were dual income; by 2012 it was 60 percent. Kids, of course, take a lot of time too: parents end up having less leisure time together than their childfree peers, and one estimate puts one child eating up two hours of leisure time per day, which sounds a little low. The average American commute time keeps getting longer, too, with almost 17 percent of people plodding at least 45 minutes to work and back.

What's weird, within all this, is that working hours themselves have stayed relatively stable.

In a 2014 working paper, Oxford sociologists Jonathan Gershuny and Kimberly Fisher evaluated working hours in 16 countries from 1961 and 2010, and they found that overall work time had only slightly increased since the 1970s, though men are doing much more unpaid work than their fathers did. The best-educated work the most, according to their data, creating not a leisure class, but a "superordinate" (or high status) working class. But, Gershuny tells Thrive Global, the sensation of busyness may be on the wane, at least in Britain. According to his forthcoming research on the 2000 and 2015 UK time use surveys, the link between the objective evidence of busyness — how packed people's schedules are — and how rushed they feel is getting weaker.

The way we represent ourselves to each other is constantly changing, signals shift, fashions change. Bellezza, Paharia, and Keinan, the marketing researchers, say that once a status symbol becomes ubiquitous, it loses its luster, so as busy becomes normalized, it may increasingly mark you as a commoner. "Fifteen years ago, you were really on trend when you said that you were just unbelievably busy," says Gershuny, the Oxford sociologist, while today it's either a status claim or a way to get through small talk. But if the trends that Gershuny sees hold, busyness may be losing it chicness. By 2020, it could be borderline faux pas: "If you're super cool, one of the things you're saying is 'I'm not the sort of person who says I'm always busy," he says. It may soon be gauche, in other words, to work yourself to death.

This article was written by Drake Baer and published on Thrive Global. Reprinted with permission.

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