Has Being Busy Become a Warped Status Symbol?

We can't stop talking about How. Very. Busy. We. Are. But, asks, Vicky Spratt, how much of this is down to choice?

Busy Women syndrome

by Vicky Spratt |
Published on

‘How are you doing?’ I dare to ask my mum

‘Busy’ she replies, like clockwork.

‘Aren’t we all…what are you doing?’

‘Errrr…I’ve got to go…I’ll call you back’

It’s always the same. She’s just really, really busy. So am I. So are you, probably. How busy are you right now? Do you feel like you probably don’t really have time to read this? Do you feel a bit guilty about it? Are you skim reading this…rushing to the end?

God, I barely even have the time to write it. I’m doing at least seven other things at the same time you know. I’m just really busy.

When I think about never ending list of ailments most people (myself included) reel off – stress, not sleeping, feeling anxious a lot, a creeping apocalyptic feeling somewhere in the pit of their stomach when they wake up in the morning – I default to blaming it all on late capitalism, smart phones, social media, David Cameron and mercury retrograde.

And, while there’s no doubt that celestial happenings, faceless economic forces and corporations have a lot to answer for, I do wonder whether we need to stop outsourcing responsibility for it all and ask ourselves whether we’re actually making ourselves too busy…

Be honest with me, and with yourself: do you ever think that being busy is a good thing even though you moan about it? Do you really need to squeeze in that gym class before work, call a school friend at lunch, go for dinner with another mate when you finish and then try to squeeze in a wax somewhere in amongst it all? What about that bit of extra work you’ve taken on…do you need or even want to do it?

Has being busy become a sort of warped status symbol? Have we blindly opted into the miserable capitalist conspiracy of being ‘very busy women’? (more on that later).

Biochemist Dr Libby Weaver thinks the answer to all of the above is yes. In 2014 she coined the term ‘Rushing Woman’s Syndrome’ in a blog post and followed it up with a book on the phenomenon in 2017.

‘Rushing Woman's Syndrome has evolved out of my observation of a shift in women's health and behaviour over the past 16 years’ Weaver says, ‘never before in my work have I witnessed so many females in a mad rush to do everything and be all things to all people’.

One of my oldest mates, Kristina, relates. She is a freelance make-up artist. ‘If I have a day when I don’t have much to do I will never sit down and watch a film’ she explains ‘my boyfriend would absolutely do that though, he’ll put the TV on and watch whatever he feels like and take the time to chill out’.

The more we talk about it, the more we wonder whether there is a gendered element to it - ‘in general I think we have a bigger mental burden than men’ Kris says, ‘we’re taught that you have to be a caregiver - whether that’s for your friends, your partner or for your home. And then, on top of that, you need to be excelling at your job and, now, with social media as well you need to be able to show everyone that you’re excelling’.

My sister once tagged me in a meme of a mother shouting at her children and manically redecorating her home with the caption ‘we’ve got people coming over for coffee’. We laughed about it, because it reminded us of how our mum would behave at the weekend, after working all week and then coming home to raising a family and unpaid emotional and physical labour that comes with that. But, now, as an adult woman I’m starting to question how funny it actually is.

Dr Weaver explains to me that part of the problem is the fact that women’s admission to the workforce on a large scale is still fairly recent - it has happened in the last 60 or 70 years. ‘Women were given the opportunity to do what had traditionally been their father’s jobs, while maintaining what were traditionally their mother’s responsibilities’ she says. As a result, ‘what has unfolded for too many women is a frantic double shift of work day and night, with very little – if any – rest. We’ve made more progress in the workplace than we have in the home’.

Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was published back in 1949. At the time, she wrote that ‘few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition’ and spoke of how it was seen as women’s work. Fast forward to 2016 and figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that women still shoulder the responsibility of the majority of unpaid work such as child care, cleaning and laundry, carrying out, on average, 60% more of it than men.

Essentially a woman has multiple jobs when, often men have just one. ‘What I want people to deeply appreciate is that we are more than capable of doing all of these things (in the workplace and at home) but it is THE FIRST TIME (in all of human history) that we have asked our bodies to live in this way’ Weaver cautions ‘and for some people this is resulting in health consequences, that most people will describe as stress-related’.

Weaver thinks that being so busy and rushing around in an often ill-fated attempt to conquer a never ending to do list, is making us ill. ‘Rushing (both physically and mentally) results in us living in what is known as sympathetic nervous system (SNS) dominance, where the fight or flight arm of the nervous system is almost constantly switched on’ she explains. This is problematic because ‘our bodies are not designed to be constantly switched on in this way and it changes our biochemistry. For the entire time humans have been on the planet, adrenaline, one of our stress hormones, has signalled to the body that our life is in danger’. So, in a nutshell, if we are too busy, rushing around and feeling stressed our bodies are in a constant state of emergency despite the fact that there is hardly a sabre tooth tiger chasing us down the aisle in Tesco.

‘We make adrenaline these days when we consume caffeine (sorry!) or as a result of our perception of pressure and urgency’ Weaver adds ‘so for many, stress hormone production today, is constant and relentless. And this can lead to many changes in our biochemistry including digestion, blood pressure, our ability to sleep restoratively and whether we burn body fat efficiently as a fuel or not’.

So, what to do? Perhaps it’s time to start thinking hard before talking about ‘how busy’ we are. Why are we rushing around all the time? Do we really need to take on all of the things that come our way? How much of it could we push back on?

Another friend, Bia, who is originally from Brazil and works as a consumer behaviour analyst says she thinks that in this country we have definitely wandered down the dark path of conflating being ‘busy’ with being needed and, therefore, ‘successful’. When I asked her to tell me, honestly, what she thinks about our culture of being busy she said that she thinks business is a ‘lifestyle choice’. She sees it as something we are actively opting into as well as ‘a way of establishing a hierarchy and one upping one another’ - the subtext is always that you must be important if you’re busy and rushing around all the time.

The latest OECD figures show that day to day, women in this country spend more than four hours in unpaid work compared to men’s 2.5 hours. And, if that wasn’t enough of a bitter pill to swallow, ONS statistics released earlier this year also show that men enjoy five hours more leisure time than women every week And, I wonder, does that take the very unleisurely £18 cardio killer class you’re squeezing in before work?

Human beings have always evolved and adapted to our changing environment. However, in the last few decades Dr Weaver says ‘the advent of the internet, mobile phones and social media’ have meant that our ‘environment suddenly demanded that our body, mind and soul be available, on call 24/7 and deal with everything immediately’. This, she says is ‘one of the greatest health challenges facing those in the Western world today’.

Being busy is not a given, it’s a choice. We can choose to carve out more time for ourselves if we stop to think about what’s actually being asked of us and interrogate the demands being placed on our time.

It’s clear that there is a gender gap when it comes to being busy. So, asking these questions could, actually, be one of the most revolutionary things you do for yourself and other women.

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