Urgent: That Work Thing Is Probably Not Urgent

Having an “urgency culture” can feel like it’s rocket fuel for productivity. But when every task is top priority, it’s a problem.

For the longest time, even the sound of work notifications would give Yatharth Gupta intense bouts of anxiety. 

The architect’s boss would call at odd hours, expecting him to drop everything to finish presentations or attend impromptu meetings. To combat this expectation to be hustling all the time, Gupta would resort to stopgap solutions: switching off his phone to catch a nap, lying to his boss about his laptop updating, or just putting his phone on flight mode and zoning out after work hours. 

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In Gupta’s case, his boss was a fan and proponent of the urgency culture – where you are expected and assumed to be available to work at all times, even if it exceeds your official working hours or spills into the weekends. Urgency is a reality of our dynamic times, where things are constantly evolving and changing. But when it becomes a way of life, when everything is urgent and there’s no real distinction between what needs to be done now and what can wait, it can do more harm than actually amp productivity. 

In the case of PR manager Sumi Mahato, the effect of urgency culture was more physical, manifesting in irregular periods and frequently triggering her PCOS. The first time she experienced the absurdity of urgency culture was during her internship at a PR firm at the height of the pandemic’s second wave in India. 

“I decided to move back to my hometown,” she told VICE. “Despite being aware that I had taken a day off to move, my reporting manager asked me to complete a document on my way to the airport. I tried explaining to her that I was in a hazmat suit and was anxious about going to a small town where no one was affected by the coronavirus. But she emailed me a stinker marking everyone in my team saying that I was slacking off, which made me feel really embarrassed in front of my team.”

Lizanne Dsouza, who runs an HR and recruitment agency, emphasised that the rampant nature of urgency culture can also be attributed to how we’ve been conditioned to view work from an early age. “There is always the pressure of achievement where you’re constantly trying to prove yourself,” she said. “You don’t want to disappoint your boss and your client because you are supposed to take pride in your work. Eventually, you get burnt out and you end up hating your boss and clients.”

Even during the pandemic, the toxic hustle culture continued unabated, often masked by cheugy quotes like “The grind never stops,” “I don’t make excuses” or “Hustle so hard, your bank account looks like a phone number.” This also feeds into glorifying overwork as a means to achieve your dreams.

 Some countries in Asia have fostered infamous cultures of overwork with brutal working hours. Japan, a country where you can easily spot exhausted office workers catching naps in the streets, even has a word that literally means “death by overwork”: karoshi

According to neuropsychologist Jasdeep Mago, it is critical to locate the reason why we’re not able to say no to our bosses when faced with unrealistic deadlines and work calls. This is the first step in navigating the chaotic waters of urgency culture. 

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“[This inability to refuse] can come from a fear of getting rejected or not getting a good enough appraisal,” she said. “If that’s the case, then you’re clearly working out of fear and your organisation is actively enabling that atmosphere. Such a work culture will always treat labour as dispensable and you will never grow in such a space.”

Mago added that one could also keep giving in to a culture of urgency at work because they have derived their sense of identity and self-worth solely from work. 

“In that case, even a slight deviation from the unrealistic expectations of your boss will affect you in physical ways. Regardless of how much you love your work, it’s only a part of your life. Your work is not supposed to give you sweaty palms and constant anxiety – we have all normalised ‘work stress’ to justify feeling this way.”

She insists that any meaningful change in a work environment that enables an urgency culture can only come through systemic changes in the organisation. 

“Some organisations have understood that they operate on urgency culture,” she said. “So, they usually get work coaches and similar third party bodies to help them draw healthy ‘expectation management,’ a tool we follow in therapy too, where a third person can objectively help all the parties involved to revisit their unrealistic expectations.”

Coaching psychologist Aneeta Madhok told VICE that not saying “no” to our bosses and constantly being afraid to assert our boundaries, often comes with assumptions that might not always be true. 

“You need to ask yourself: Will you really lose your job if you don’t answer that notification? Tell your boss you were in the shower, or on a walk with your dog, or just at a party with your friends if they call you after work hours. Just be very authentic with why you couldn’t urgently respond because you have a life outside work and things to do.”

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Sometimes, though, drawing boundaries means being an outlier in your profession.

For Arastu Zakia, who had worked with non-profits in the past, the urgency culture turned out to be a “completely different beast” when he joined filmmaking. 

“There was no pay, no credit, and these established filmmakers would often say that if someone wanted to work with them, they had to sacrifice their life,” he said. 

According to the latest estimates from the British government’s Labour Force Survey, the total number of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2020–21 was 822,000, with a prevalence rate of 2,480 per 100,000 workers in the U.K. A 2020 survey by Paychex, an American payment technology firm, revealed that not only did employees’ mental health suffer during the pandemic but that employees are still afraid to discuss those effects with their bosses.

In most cases, people who face the raw end of urgency culture also end up spreading it further. 

“In many ways, I’ve been complicit in [furthering] urgency culture,” said Samreen, a journalist who prefers using just her first name. “It’s a chain reaction – if someone is pressuring me into delivering something in the next half-hour, I will automatically end up pressurising the person who I have to take the input from.”

She said that journalists are often expected to file stories fast and work on an urgency culture even when it’s not breaking news. Sometimes, then, the culture might not have to do with your boss or organisation but just the overarching culture that has been normalised in your profession. And it comes with repercussions.

Even though Samreen was already in therapy for clinical depression, she was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder when in the thick of a job that promoted urgency culture. “I had ‘brain zaps’ where I’d shudder at the thought of deadlines,” she said. “I still have brain zaps as a reaction to intense anxiety because it’s still not out of my system.”

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But now that Samreen is in a managerial position, she can navigate this culture better and, in turn, not impose it on those in her team. 

Madhok, the coaching psychologist, said that when one reaches a senior position, it’s incumbent upon them to break the toxic chain and not pass on their traumas to their juniors. Neuropsychologist Mago added that just having boundaries is not enough, but asserting them with your boss is crucial, even though it might not always pan out the way you want. “At least you are setting grounds for others and yourself about how you want to be treated,” she said. 

According to a 2017 study titled “Toxic bosses in the workplace,” published by the Alliance Manchester Business School, employees of toxic bosses engage in more counterproductive work behaviours as a form of retaliation against their colleagues and leaders.

Gupta, the architect, said that he’d experienced this too, where his colleagues pretended to be perfectly fine with the urgency culture at work, thus making him out to be an outlier if he even considered voicing his feelings. 

Dsouza said that even well-meaning bosses end up perpetuating an urgency culture if they are not careful enough. 

“There are many bosses who revert to emails late in the night,” she said. “So, even though you might not expect your juniors to respond, they might do so because they don’t want to disappoint you. Always schedule your emails for the next morning because you don’t want your worker to get that annoying notification while they’re in the middle of a family dinner.”

The way Madhok sees it, one must have ikigai (a sense of purpose) and be loyal to it. 

“When you’re living in alignment with your sense of purpose, your priority will always be yourself first and everything else later.”

Follow Arman Khan on Instagram and Twitter.

Tagged:

Culture, mental health, Hustle, anxiety, Work, overworked, urgent

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