I am NOT going to show you a chicken with its head cut off!
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.
There’s a difference between seeming busy, or even actually being “busy” and being productive, of course. While social workers’ days are notoriously unpredictable, I always found that my professional life worked better if I started each day with a commitment to accomplishing at least one really important thing, something that led to a longer-term goal, and saved the “busy work” for the end of the day.
When everyone’s complaining about being super-busy, it’s harder for supervisors to hone in on the real problem spots. If you have a concrete complaint about excessive work, make it, in a way that’s designed to lead to corrective action. The rest of the time, come up with a different response to the “how are you?” question.
Organizational cultures that expect excessive work become toxic places, where people are ashamed to take vacation or leave at 5PM. While we need to be committed to meeting our clients’ needs, we know that we can’t do that in a climate that denies us the right to meet our own.
Our clients hear this kind of talk, too. Who wants to tell a social worker about a new problem, or ask for help with some new concern, when you’ve just heard that same worker say that she’s (actually heard this one) “going to kill herself if she gets any more cases”? It’s disrespectful to our clients to talk as though they are burdens.
Social workers who become trapped in a “busy reflex” often miss opportunities to pass work along to others–volunteers, clients, colleagues–because they’re afraid to give up control or afraid of looking as though they’re not doing enough. No one is empowered by you being a martyr, and no one wins bonus points for seeming the busiest.
If we’re accustomed to always thinking of ourselves as overwhelmingly busy, then we can miss the warning signs of burnout or overwork in our own lives, too. We need mentors who can objectively help us check our workloads, and how we’re physically and emotionally withstanding them, and who can help us find assistance when we really need it. But if we’re always crying ‘wolf’…
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?