Art: Charter

One factor with an outsized impact on worker wellbeing is the extent to which people experience “time poverty,” which Cassie Holmes, a professor at UCLA Anderson School of Management, defines as “this sense of not having enough time to do what you need to do or want to do.”

Holmes, who studies the relationship between time and happiness and wrote the book Happier Hour, has found that time poverty doesn’t just contribute to stress—it can damage job satisfaction, impact physical health, and degrade our relationships.

We reached out to Holmes to understand the factors that contribute to feelings of time poverty, as well as solutions to mitigate them. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation, edited for length and clarity:

What is the relationship between time poverty and overall wellbeing?

We conducted a national poll that showed that nearly half of Americans feel time poor. Work is a big contributor to it, and not just paid work. Unpaid labor, like raising a family or performing household duties, absolutely contributes to time poverty.

When we feel time poor, it makes us do less. Research shows that when we feel time poor, we’re less healthy. When we don’t feel like we have time, we spend less time exercising, we delay going to the doctor, we eat food that is fast but not healthy. It makes us less nice: When we feel busy, we’re less likely to slow down and help others out. It makes us less confident in being able to achieve what we set out to do. I also have data that show that when people feel that they don’t have enough time to do what they need to and want to do, they experience less happiness and less life satisfaction. That is largely driven by heightened feelings of stress.

What actions can individuals or organizations take to combat feelings of time poverty?

At work, a sense of productivity and purpose contribute to life satisfaction. So what are ways to offset feelings of time poverty? Well, one is identifying and protecting time for the activities that matter—those activities that contribute to one’s personal sense of purpose and making progress. At work, that includes responsibilities that have a clear point to them and produce visible results. Often, work weeks are filled with tasks and meetings that don’t actually progress the individual towards their goals. That kind of busyness that doesn’t feel like it’s actually producing anything is where you see these big hits to satisfaction and increases in burnout.

There are a couple tactics to help identify work activities that are worthwhile. For example, I have people track their time over the course of a week and write down what specific task they’re doing, as well as how satisfied they feel from that time.

Managers and organizations can also do a much better job of identifying the purpose or the reason behind their work and their product. On the team level, managers should be making the ‘why’ of a particular task very clear. That involves explaining how a particular task, even if it’s not that fun, is actually really beneficial and important.

In terms of helping employees to identify their own sense of purpose, I have an exercise called the ‘five whys’ exercise, which helps individuals and organizations understand the why behind their work on five levels. Start by asking, ‘What are you doing?’ Then, ‘Why are you doing that?’ Usually that initial answer is quite superficial. So ask again: ‘Why is that important?’ Once you ask and answer the layers of why, it really digs into the underlying motivation for the work. An individual can do that for themselves. Organizations can do it at that broader level, too.

Charter Pro members can read a full transcript of our conversation for more on the actions managers can take to combat feelings of time poverty within their teams and the implications of Holmes’s research for return-to-office policies.

Read more from Charter

The handbook for the future of work, delivered to your inbox.