Sunday 28 August 2016

Going backwards with busy bodies

Published 04/12/2012 | 05:00

• The philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote a very serious essay in praise of idleness. His main contention was that there was far too much work done in the world. I am convinced, however, that it was busyness, not work, that Russell really had in mind.

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Offices are shrines to the cult of busyness. To keep up the appearance of gainful work, they tend to be sustained by irrelevant rituals, becoming hives of redundant activity driven by spurious urgency, fired by lots of coffee, culminating in the excesses of the Christmas party.

The Vatican is a centre of divine busyness. There is a story about one of the cardinals, who seeing what he thought was the figure of Jesus Christ coming up the steps, panicked and rushed to the Pope asking what they should do. His curt response was, "Look busy".

What I call Compulsive Obsessional Busyness Syndrome (COBS) afflicts all of us at some time. We feel obliged to be seen to be doing something.

A person afflicted with COBS is always in a rush, regularly declaring that they don't have time. 'I don't have time' is not a statement about time but about what we value. Somebody remarked to me recently that he is so busy that he doesn't have time for his children. Clearly, he has time for the wrong things.

Significant irritants for office workers are colleagues who are COBS victims, usually men, who, overcome by busyness, feel impelled to stay back after the normal end of the working day. This tends to serve two purposes: it gives the impression to the boss that they are blessed with a superabundance of commitment, and provides an escape from bedtime story duties.

A particularly debilitat-ing form of COBS is induced through the threat of redundancy, particularly when couched in the barbarisms 'reengineering', 'downsizing', 'creating a leaner organisation' and other depersonalising euphemisms created by linguistic busyness.

An incurable version of COBS has beset members of Dail Eireann. It has been identified as the Junket or a tendency to go in large numbers on inconsequential expensive trips to distant places. Incidentally, I am up to my eyes organising a COBS awareness day.

Philip O'Neill
Edith Road, Oxford

Irish Independent

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