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Halifax writer and researcher Lydia Phillip describes urgency culture as “the ‘less conscious hustle culture’… We’re constantly in motion, always feeling behind and in a state of overwhelm.”Darren Calabrese

We’ve all experienced it: You’re relaxing after work when you hear your phone chirp or your e-mail chime. A message comes in from a colleague requesting a document immediately.

You instantly feel dread and anxiety.

From weekend messages to multiple pressing projects to unrealistic deadlines, urgency culture is a phenomenon that many in the workplace experience. In her 2022 article for IONS (Impact Organizations of Nova Scotia), writer and researcher Lydia Phillip describes urgency culture as “the ‘less conscious hustle culture’ – a state of urgency applied to our day-to-day … We’re constantly in motion, always feeling behind and in a state of overwhelm.”

Mary Ann Baynton, principal and CEO of Mary Ann Baynton & Associates Corp., works with businesses and governments on psychological health and safety and workplace mental health. She says that in 2004, after dealing with urgency culture and running ragged for decades, she burned out.

“That was enough for me to question, ‘Why the hurry?’ What was so urgent? Why was I unable to put life into perspective?” she says.

It was a turning point for her. Ms. Baynton points out that burnout – extreme emotional, psychological and physical exhaustion – makes it so that the person experiencing it can’t be urgent any more.

“You’re just too tired to do it,” she says. “And you start to realize that the world keeps turning.”

How leaders create urgency culture

Ingrid Wilson, a senior HR professional with more than 30 years’ experience, points out that some employees need to work twice as hard to get half as far as their colleagues, making urgency culture that much more problematic.

“For those of us in Black and racialized communities, you’ve got to prove it again and again,” says Ms. Wilson. “You’ve got to work harder than everybody else. We’re often our own worst enemy when it comes to that.”

As Ms. Phillip sees it, urgency culture is “a social issue that reinforces capitalist and colonial ideologies of how we’re supposed to work. It’s very much a colonial lens of productivity, busyness and always going. When we’re unable to step outside of that cycle, we don’t have the energy to do the important work, [which is] decolonizing our organizations, our workplaces and our communities.”

While employees can run themselves into the ground, jumping on every request at all hours, leaders need to be aware of their contribution to urgency culture, says Ms. Wilson. She shares an experience she had while conducting an on-site inclusive leadership session at an organization. She saw employees hustling to the washroom, laptops in hand, between back-to-back meetings.

When Ms. Wilson mentioned it to the leaders in the session, she was met with confusion.

“One leader said, ‘Well, why don’t they just go to the washroom?’” she says.

Ms. Wilson needed to explain to the executive that “[it’s] the implicit power you carry when you say, ‘Stay on the line,’ or, ‘Let’s just get on another call.’”

Her comment had an impact. “Another leader pulled out his phone during the session and said, “I’m rebooking all my meetings. I’ll end my meetings 15 minutes earlier, so [they can] go have a snack, whatever.’”

Ms. Baynton agrees that because of the influence leaders have on employees, they need to change how they work and how they motivate their employees.

“If I have somebody saying to me, ‘If you don’t get this done, we’re going to lose this contract, you’re going to lose your job.’ If I have a threat over my head, I am going to do less work or less quality work,” she says.

On the other hand, “If [my manager] says, ‘Look, this is more than any of us are going to get done in a day, but let’s do the best we can,’ I’ve got the focus and the energy to be able to do my work to the best of my ability.”

‘Rest is not earned’

We can combat urgency culture by valuing rest and viewing it as a human right rather than a reward for work, says Ms. Phillip, referencing Tricia Hersey, founder of The Nap Ministry and author of Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto.

“It’s pretty dystopian when you think about phraseology like, ‘Earn a living.’ So much of our worth and value – our literal ability to live in this world – is based on how valuable our labour is perceived to be,” Ms. Phillip says. “Rest is not earned. You don’t need to feel like you deserve it – it’s just inherently yours.”

Ms. Phillip encourages employers to use an anti-oppressive lens to assess how urgency culture affects workplace policies and practices, especially for Black, Indigenous and racialized people, as well as people living with disabilities, those who are neurodiverse and newcomers.

The key to finding balance between rest and urgency culture is creating human-centred policies, says Ms. Phillip, such as giving immediate access to health benefits, paying living wages, supporting reduced workweeks and allowing flexible, hybrid and remote work.

“It’s not just [about] working from your house, but being able to span time zones, cities or countries,” she says. “Not everyone’s family lives in the same city.”

Ms. Wilson encourages leaders to be mindful with requests and timelines. If a manager is working on a something on a weekend, for example, they should schedule follow-up emails to team members for Monday morning at 8 a.m.

“You can send an e-mail at 3 a.m. [on a Saturday], but if you don’t give a specific timeline [for a response], the person is going to see it in the morning in a panic.”

Employees can combat urgency culture from their end as well, says Ms. Baynton, by listing their tasks and how long they take.

“Add it up and say, ‘This is more than the hours that I’m working. What would you [as my manager] have me get rid of, prioritize or put my energy towards?’ It’s not whining or complaining or not being a team player. It’s simply a mathematical exercise.”

Ms. Baynton adds that employers will never get the results they want with stressed-out teams who are running from one thing to the next.

“If you’ve ever seen a dynamic team, they’re excited. They’re passionate. They’re working hard. They’re not stressed. Their sense of urgency is fuelled by passion, not fear,” she says.

“Working hard is not the issue. It’s how we’re made to feel about the work we’re doing.”

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