Monday 10 December 2018

Catherine O'Mahony: ‘Busyness’ may be a badge of honour but appreciating leisure time doesn’t make us lazy

Response: Facebook vice-president Nicola Mendelsohn has decided to keep working after her cancer diagnoses
Response: Facebook vice-president Nicola Mendelsohn has decided to keep working after her cancer diagnoses
Catherine O'Mahony

Catherine O'Mahony

Sometimes it feels right to reflect on our increasing devotion to the cult of 'busyness'. The thought struck me this week as I read about Nicola Mendelsohn, Facebook's vice-president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, who marked World Cancer Day by talking about her diagnosis with an incurable form of lymphoma.

Mendelsohn is not having treatment for her cancer, other than taking up exercise and cutting out sugar from her diet. She may start conventional treatment if her cancer worsens, but for now she is monitoring her symptoms as she continues to work for Facebook, where she is the most senior executive outside the US. She feels, she says, "healthier than ever".

To be clear: each person's response to serious illness is individual and it is not for me - or anyone - to judge Mendelsohn on how she chooses to live her own precious life. She has a family of four children who are presumably buoyed by her strength. And an outpouring of support followed Mendelsohn's revelations as people praised her bravery and stoicism in the face of adversity. She is clearly a trouper, a riser to the occasion, a survivor. And yet her case makes me feel ever so slightly wistful for a time when her reaction to her illness might have struck people as curious.

There was a time - was there not? - when a diagnosis of a terminal cancer was expected to trigger a re-evaluation of one's life, an opportunity to sit back a little, to take stock of one's achievements and, in many cases, elect to focus on what really matters to us.

For many, at least in times past, the result would have been a decision to step back a little from the busyness of our lives, to spend more time with family, to indulge a long-neglected passion, to travel, to eat well, to relax with friends. To pursue time, in essence, since above all else, a serious illness is a reminder that everyone's time is limited, and so it makes sense to spend it wisely.

And society would have allowed us that. Can it be that this is no longer the case? There's no doubt that busyness is regarded as a badge of honour these days - and in these globalised times, this is no longer only true of the US. In 2016, the Harvard Business Review published an intriguing piece of research which examined how signalling busyness influences perceptions of status in the eyes of others.

In one of a series of experiments, participants were given a short description of a 35-year-old man named Jeff. One group of participants were told: "Jeff works long hours and his calendar is always full." Another was told: "Jeff does not work and has a leisurely lifestyle." Questioned afterwards, higher social status was always accorded to the 'busy' Jeff.

In another experiment, participants read a short description of a 35-year-old woman named Anne. For one group, she was said to be wearing a hands-free Bluetooth set (a very worky item) and for another, a pair of headphones for music. Anne was always seen as higher status when she was wearing the Bluetooth set.

The researchers' conclusion? "We think that the shift from leisure-as-status to busyness-as-status may be linked to the development of knowledge-intensive economies. In such economies, individuals who possess the human capital characteristics that employers or clients value (e.g. competence and ambition) are expected to be in high demand and short supply on the job market. Thus, by telling others that we are busy and working all the time, we are implicitly suggesting we are sought after, which enhances our perceived status."

It is a rather grim conclusion. The problem with according top status to busyness is the attendant suggestion that an appreciation of leisure time signals laziness, or even incompetence, which are traits nobody wants to be associated with, even in illness.

The question on my mind now is this: will more and more of us decide that the wisest use of our time is to stay engaged as firmly as ever with the world of work, to continue to 'lean in', as it were, regardless of our state of health?

I wish Nicola Mendelsohn many years of health and happiness. And I wish the same for those who - with a similar diagnosis - elect to follow a very different path.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss