“I’m Too Busy”: What to Do About Time Crunch At Work

It’s a popular refrain for those who reject the prospect of exercising regularly, or taking the time to home-cook meals on most days of the week. It’s also probably true.

For many employees, the work day goes far beyond the 9-5. Traffic can add anywhere from half an hour to three hours onto the work day. Employees with children have to deal with feeding them, helping with homework, bathing them and putting them to bed, and shuttling them to after- or before-school activities. Oh, and let’s not forget any activities that they themselves enjoy outside the workplace.

They don’t have time to go home and prepare a meal that might take 30-60 minutes. It’s more time-efficient to grab something quick from the drive-through or heat up something ready-to-eat. They laugh at the notion of taking that same amount of time to go exercise.

It isn’t necessarily bad, or wrong, that some employees feel this way. Work and life are often at odds with one another, with the employee caught in the middle. What are they supposed to do? Do they sacrifice time with family to go to the gym, or do they sacrifice work time and risk reprimands, warnings, even dismissal? Do they sacrifice sleep?

Everyone has 24 hours in a day. 5-8 are spent sleeping. 8-10 are spent working. Another 1-3 is spent on the road. At worst, this leaves three hours in the day for anything not named sleep, work, or travel.

We’ve arrived at a big question. How can employees find the time to exercise and prepare healthful foods without trying to fit 28 hours into a 24-hour day?

The answer, ultimately, is effective time management. Could that have been any more vague? Nope. But it’s still the right answer.

The trick is that the time management isn’t just the employee’s problem. Many workplaces also have a time management problem: employee downtime can eat up as much as half of the work day. The culprits of this downtime?

  • Contacting colleagues, coworkers, or customers
  • Finding information
  • Scheduling meetings
  • Information duplication (forwarding messages or phone calls to see if an email, text, or fax was received)
  • Taking care of unwanted communication (SPAM emails, time-wasting phone calls)
  • Lack of work, which leads to tooling around on the Internet, reading, texting, or doing other personal activities. (This isn’t a cause stated in the report, but I’ve seen too many anecdotes to count it out.)

These issues point to a variety of issues — in both the employees themselves and the workplace as a whole. For instance, it shouldn’t be necessary to have to play phone/email tag with somebody for over an hour just to confirm a meeting time.

As much as employers bemoan the data that says employees aren’t as productive as they might want their employees to be, they also sometimes neglect two critical points. First, people aren’t robots. Human attention ebbs and flows, and concentrated focus is quite fatiguing. Second, circumstances outside direct employee control often hinder productivity. Whether it’s a mindless manager, ridiculous red tape, brain-dead coworkers, or senile senior management, a lot goes into determining just how productive employees are.

The problem is that there is still a significant fraction of American corporate culture that rejects out-of-hand the notion of anything except Hard Work™ being done on company time. This means none of the following are “approved” activities:

  • Exercise
  • Meditation
  • Napping
  • Designing better workflows to reduce redundancy (some places seem to enjoy mediocrity)
  • Anything not relating strictly to an employee’s job description

Exercise has long been proven to give a boost to energy levels, mental function, and – as a result – productivity. If you could eliminate 2-3 hours of downtime by giving employees a half-hour of exercise time during the work day and re-designing work processes to eliminate useless practices, would you?

Before you say, “How about we just re-design work processes and get that extra half hour of work?”, let me bring your attention (again) to the idea of attention fatigue. Even if they’re productive, they’re still susceptible to mental burnout. Giving employees the option to get some exercise, meditation, or a quick 20-minute nap (without sacrificing lunch time!) not only bolsters energy levels and the ability to stay focused, it also does wonders for morale.

Imagine how much happier some employees would be if they knew they didn’t have to worry about sacrificing family time or sleep to get some exercise. That they could nip into the break room and get a few minutes of shut-eye, without worrying about being yelled at by a supervisor immediately thinking, “You lazy good-for-nothing!” Your trust that allowing exercise time will help, not hurt, their productivity has the neat effect of driving them to prove that they’re more productive.

Exceptions to the rule occur, of course. Those who would take advantage of that sort of trust are likely to take similar advantage in more sinister ways, and should be dealt with. However, easing the time burden on employees can bank quite a bit of goodwill toward the company.

So, how should you go about accomplishing this feat?

  1. Re-design workflows to eliminate needless back-and-forth by phone and email. It shouldn’t be necessary to have to answer “can you confirm?” messages all day.
  2. Allow for half an hour or more to be used as energy rejuvenation time: exercise, napping, or meditation.
  3. Stress to employees that this trust implies that they are still responsible for meeting their performance criteria.
  4. Throw in a couple office-wide stretch breaks throughout the day. They help to counteract the pitfalls of sitting for extended periods of time, which has the double benefit of helping along your wellness initiatives.

How does your company like to help employees avoid the time crunch crutch?

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