I once worked at a nonprofit organization where, EVERY TIME someone asked, “how’s it going?” the answer, seemingly by rote, was something along the lines of “unbelievably busy,” or “drowning, as always,” or, my personal least favorite, “running around like a chicken with my head cut off.”
As this semester winds down and I send another cohort of graduates off into the social work profession, I just want us to pause for a moment to reflect on this culture of “busy” and what it says about our organizations and, perhaps most importantly, what kind of message it sends to those we serve.
I think I know where this “busy reflex” comes from: nonprofit social service organizations are always squeezed for resources, so there’s a great deal of insecurity and everyone wants to prove that he/she is indispensable to the organization’s work. Besides, we often ARE really busy, even stress-inducingly busy, and it can be hard to break out of crisis mode when we’re often thrust there.
This orientation towards always feeling busy, or even acting busy, is pathological. Below, I’ve outlined some of my biggest concerns about this instinctive busy-ness, and then I’d love to hear your comments about organizational culture, the cult of overwork, and how to break beyond these constraints.
I was shocked out of this “so busy” culture by a particularly astute boss who called me into his office to ask me which responsibilities I wanted taken off my plate, because I was “so busy.” When I could only, in fact, identify a couple of minor things (serving on one particular committee, I remember), he relieved me of those and then gave me the directive to come directly to him if I felt that I had too much work. I still remember that day as my “stop complaining” meeting, and I am still grateful to him for calling me on unhealthy behavior.
Now, although I balance three young children, five part-time jobs, several volunteer commitments, and household management, I never respond the way some of my friends and colleagues do when asked how they are (“keeping my head above water, barely!”, “overwhelmed, as usual”). Instead, I reflect on what’s working, and what’s not, and what I need to attend to.
Besides, people would much rather hear, “I’m fine. How are YOU?”
Have you worked in a “chickens with their heads cut off” environment? How have you managed, or overcome, that culture? What keeps you productive and not overwhelmed? What advice do you have for soon-to-be-social workers, on time management?