Time, toxic productivity and urgency cultures in non-profits: part 1
This is the first of a two-part blog. In part 1, I explore how cultures of urgency and time-management approaches are affecting non-profit staff and the impact of the work they are able to do. I take an intersectional lens to understand how dominant approaches to time management interact with systemic oppression.
I am loathe to start any article with a quote from Elon Musk. After all, I have always scoffed at the types of leadership advice issued by the cabal of Silicon Valley ‘tech bros’ who regrettably play an outsized influence in all of our lives. But since Musk tweeted that ‘Nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week’, it provoked a visceral reaction in me. I’ve been thinking about the world of social change, its relationship with time and its deep entanglement with ideas around power and productivity. I wanted to explore this further.
In May 2023, 221 people working in non-profits around the world responded to a survey I created to explore how time was being managed in their organisations. Respondents worked for a wide range of non-profits — from humanitarian and international development organisations to research institutes and rape crisis centres. The majority of respondents (67%) were from international NGOs (probably because these people make up the majority of my followers on social media, which is where I shared the survey). This article draws upon the findings from that survey but is also influenced by my own experience as a feminist of working for over 18 years in the international development sector, as well as my experience of consulting for and volunteering with a wide range of non-profits outside of that sector.
One of the first questions I asked respondents was to sum up the pace of work in their organisations in a couple of words. I copied all responses to this question into a word cloud generator. It spat out the image below:
Not only were people describing ‘fast-paced’ work environments, but they were also painting a picture of their working lives as ‘relentless’, ‘unhinged’, ‘constant’ and ‘unsustainable’. Only 32% of survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed they had enough time in the working day to fulfil their allocated tasks. Some said:
‘I just want to work at a pace that doesn’t create a constant stress response in my body.’
‘I want time to spend with my colleagues. Not working, but just being as people.’
I sat with the word cloud, taking it all in. The situation seemed very clear to me: in all the doing, we were missing the being.
How did we get to this stage? Many of us chose to work in the non-profit sector not just because of our commitment to a social mission and a desire to tackle inequality, but also as an alternative to a career in the types of conglomerates we suspected might work us to death and treat us like corporate drones. And yet, many survey respondents painted a picture of life in non-profits as like working at a sped-up conveyor belt on a busy factory floor — I’m reminded of the famous factory scene from the Chaplin film Modern Times.
‘the time expectation is to follow corporate-style work hours and not expect corporate benefits… When asked for lesser workload, we are told it is just not possible. No cake and no eating it, basically’.
Neoliberalism and new managerialism
The way time is being approached in many non-profit organisations is an expression and reinforcement of the neoliberal norms and practices that started to pervade the sector over the past couple of decades — which still cast a long shadow. Neoliberalism, of course, isn’t just limited to the economy: political scientist Wendy Brown has described it as ‘extending market metrics and practices to every dimension of human life.’ New managerialism is the organisational arm of neoliberalism: it involves institutionalising market principles into the governance of organisations. What does new managerialism look and feel like? Survey respondents describe life in many NGOs as being dominated by performance metrics, audit cultures, a fixation on growth and a fetishisation of ‘efficiency’ and ‘value for money’. Many speak about the ways in which financial and productivity targets often override prosocial goals.
‘It is hard for even the most progressive organisations to accept that growth is not the necessary goal we should all aim for’
‘although it is sometimes accepted that we should do less, it is never applied when the Senior Leadership Team plans.’
Other upstream dynamics have perpetuated the problem. Many donors impose very tight funding conditions which leave those organisations that are heavily reliant on them with little room to manoeuvre. Survey respondents themselves felt that donors play an outsized role in infusing urgency and a relentless drive for ‘results’ into their work. While some respondents gave examples of funders who tried to support their grantees to work at a manageable pace and who were flexible, they also gave many examples of donors with inflexible and demanding policies. They described how these demands often got often passed further down the ecosystem to smaller, less powerful partner organisations doing the frontline work.
Let’s also not forget that the demands for non-profit support seem never-ending, due to factors including cuts to social sector funding and the slashing of aid budgets. For example, I have worked with organisations addressing violence against women and girls who struggle to address staff workload issues because the waiting lists for their services run into the high hundreds.
However, respondents also cited other drivers they felt were causing a ‘false’ and unnecessary sense of urgency. Some described organisational cultures that glorified productivity, competitiveness with other INGOs (international NGOs) and a sanctioning of anyone who did not want to or could not keep up with the pace. Others gave examples of leadership uncritically accepting, buying into and promoting a sense of urgency at all times, while using the excuse that their hands were tied:
‘I work for a very large INGO. Our annual income is HUGE and we do have unrestricted funding streams which give us some flexibility. There are times when leadership could have pushed back against donors and their unreasonable demands. We have credibility in the sector, we do good work — I think we have the power to say no. And yet we never do.’
Some respondents are in leadership positions themselves and are aware of how insidious these cultures of urgency can be. Some are doing their best to swim against the tide:
‘I realised I have internalised this sense of urgency… and then spread it to my team. I need to work on this!’
But this can feel like a Herculean task. After all, the drivers of our unhealthy relationship with time and urgency are not the behaviours of a few isolated individuals: they are rooted in structures and systems of power…
The racial and gendered politics of time
We often think of not having any time as a universal scourge. But is that really the full picture? If the lack of time is a structural issue, then I would argue that it’s people who sit at the intersection of different forms of inequality who suffer the most from time scarcity and the way time is managed in many non-profits.
As a consultant, when I work with a new organisation, I try to quietly observe: who is expected to rush and for whom? Whose time is recognised as being finite and of considerable valuable, and whose time is expected to infinitely expand to meet organisational objectives?
In a former job, if I wanted a meeting with a senior leader (I was middle management), then I was expected to jump into any available slot at the last minute. I bent my schedule around that of the male senior leader. I had a baby; I only worked in the organisation part-time — in reality, my time was far less elastic than his was. Result? If I wanted to speak to him, it would often have to be on my day off.
The cultural theorist Brittney Cooper has brilliantly spoken about the racial politics of time. She makes the point that, in some contexts, the pace of our working lives operates along racial lines because of who gets to dictate how time is used and managed in the workplace. The survey findings clearly illuminate the different shades of power in the 24-hour clock. One respondent said:
‘I am one of a handful of women of colour working in an INGO [in Europe]. We need to work twice as hard as our peers if we want our contributions to be recognised — this means I work evenings and definitely more overtime than my white colleagues. I am always early to meetings as I won’t have anyone accuse me of being ‘unreliable’. I put in extra time — unpaid — on informal working groups in the organisation because I hope it will make me more visible and therefore help with my promotion prospects. I see zero white male colleagues doing the same.’
The writer Ta Nehisi Coates, in his book Between the World and Me, describes the disparity in time availability for Black Americans as a form of time robbery:
‘It struck me that perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the Black race was the inescapable robbery of time, because the moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered… It is the raft of second chances for them, and the twenty-three-hour days for us.’
Another respondent describes how racial power dynamics also affect the ability of women of colour to claim time. They spoke about being unable to benefit from flexible working arrangements in non-profits that are supposed to enable people to have greater autonomy over how they manage their time:
‘There’s a conversation that needs to happen on women of colour in NGO spaces and their ability to achieve (or not) ‘life milestones’ such as having a family, and who is allowed to miss meetings due to caretaking responsibilities. I was at an INGO where white women regularly joined calls while on the way to pick up their children or were in other ways very obviously outside the office, but women of colour, especially from the Global South, were not likely to be able to do the same (or to feel comfortable doing it due to differences in expectations).’
Meanwhile, in many northern NGOs I have worked for, a lack of time and a strong culture of urgency has resulted in some ultimately racist working practices — including towards partner organisations based in the countries where the development work took place. An example of this was people being more likely to resort to ‘racist heuristics’ when they were time pressed. Racist heuristics refer to decision-making shortcuts that are influenced by racist or colonial dynamics — they include making snap decisions about the capacity of smaller, grassroots organisations, as well as decisions based upon generalisations about local staff or partner organisations.
Disability and time
31% of survey respondents said they were either disabled or had a health condition that affected their day-to-day activities. Some people gave examples of how their employer had tried to be flexible and accommodate disabled staff members’ needs, including one respondent who had access to a coach they could speak to about their disability and what that meant for time management. However, there still seems to be a mountain to climb if non-profits to wish to truly move away from normative approaches to time that disenfranchise disabled staff members:
‘My disability (dyslexia) makes me slower at completing most tasks, but I am expected to do the same amount of work as everyone else — so I end up working longer days.’
‘My employers know I have ADHD but the idea of adjusting timescales has not been discussed. It’s a case of ‘prioritise better.’
‘They [my employers] don’t care — this was my first job and the first time I had health insurance. I was dragging chronic undiagnosed conditions for years. Since I did not have diagnoses yet, and had to go to a lot of appointments, they got annoyed and would not accommodate me.’
I hear a lot of non-profit leaders talk about the ways in which they encourage people to ‘bring their full selves to work’. Unfortunately, for those sitting at the intersection of different inequalities, this rhetoric feels empty. 12% of disabled respondents (98% of whom were also women) said they were unwilling to disclose their disability in their workplace, because the risk is too high.
‘I have not formally notified my employer as I worry about my condition … being used against me and/or used as an excuse not to promote me or to make me redundant.’
‘I would never disclose my condition at work because colleagues… are highly likely to weaponize it, especially when feeling insecure about their own capacities or performance’
Non-profits can learn so much from disability rights activists, who have for many years written and theorised about ‘crip time’– a way of living, working and being that is all about slowing down, taking care of ourselves and others, and subverting capitalist notions of productivity. Crip time accounts for the fact that time is not distributed equally — and that disabled people need to spend inordinate amounts of time dealing with ableist barriers in their lives. It demands greater spaciousness of time as precondition for disability justice. (For more on crip time, see part 2 of this blog.)
The fetishization of flexibility
In 2021, I wrote about how many non-profit organisations were increasingly creating space for flexible working as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. I argued that this ‘flexibility’ is not the feminist victory it is sometimes framed as, because it has not single-handedly transformed the gender division of labour nor has it led to substantive improvements in women’s wellbeing. It has often extended the working day for so many as workloads are not adjusted — especially for those women bearing the brunt of unpaid care work. I also argued that we shouldn’t assume flexibility is available for all. The survey findings suggest not that much has changed — there were 22 examples of people whose requests for flexible working were turned down. Meanwhile, people who were able to enjoy flexible working as well as negotiate their workloads to a more manageable level were those who had more seniority in their organisations.
‘[My employer] gives adequate maternity, paternity leave but has not taken specific steps to encourage work-life balance. Even with flexible hours people tend to work extra.’
‘I work a 4-day week due to unpaid care responsibilities, but nobody takes away 20% of my responsibilities, that’s down to me to manage my time. Flexibility is there, for sure, and driven by feminist commitment, but actually reducing work, I don’t see that happening.’
‘Although I book my calendar for unavailability during the day to provide care, they never respect that and assign meetings or make requests.’
What is lost…
Our work is important. The needs are great. Urgency is often important to our work, and we do need to be responsive. But we also need to create space to explore what is lost by the dominant approaches to time management in the non-profit sector. Shouldn’t we be concerned that only 26% of survey respondents said that their employer gave them enough time to pause, reflect and reorient their work on a regular basis?
It often strikes me as curious how many non-profits frame their time- management approaches as being driven by imperatives for ‘efficiency’ and ‘effectiveness’. Because the actual impact of this blink-and-you’ll miss-it pace is often undermining our ability to carry out quality work, rather than enabling it.
52% of respondents said a lack of time had impacted upon their ability to think strategically and was affecting the quality of their projects. Managers spoke about having inadequate time to coach and develop their teams. Meanwhile, networking with others, alliance building and learning from other sectors is taking a backseat. Others mentioned that despite working in a frenetic way, the pace of change in their projects and their organisations still felt very slow (refer back to the word cloud, above, in which the word ‘slow’ was cited by multiple respondents).
It seemed clear to many that this way of working makes very little sense. It is driven by a sense of productivity for the sake of it (aka toxic productivity) and is doing a disservice to organisational missions:
‘There’s little rationale in my organisation behind how I organise my time. It’s just driven by urgency…’
‘The way we work is illogical to me. Leaders in my organisation treat every workstream as if it’s a humanitarian emergency.’
We are in a time of polycrisis. The social justice problems we aim to tackle have never been more complex. We need time to think, strategise and innovate as well as learn from what has gone before. The philosopher, activist and writer Bayo Akomolafe tells us: ‘The times are urgent, let us slow down’. But how? Where to start? What can we learn from people who are not only resisting urgency in their organisations but trying to build a new relationship with time? Head to part 2 of this blog for suggested ways forward, and much more.
Leila Billing is co-founder of We Are Feminist Leaders. Follow her on Twitter @leilabilling