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Tips for overcoming a culture of false urgency at work

For our latest wellbeing at work tip, we look at what a culture of false urgency at work is, what are the signs that one may exist, followed by some suggestions for individuals, managers and team leaders.

Do you ever look back on a working day or week and feel you’ve spent it solely reacting to requests and demands. Feeling frustrated that ultimately, this hasn’t allowed you to make any worthwhile progress on your own workload. Indeed, it has also stopped you from having any time to spend on those deeper tasks that could move things forward and make a real difference?

A possible cause could be that you are getting caught up in a culture where the true urgency of what is important is not differentiated from false urgency. A work environment where false urgency prevails can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed and is a growing cause of stress and burnout in the workplace.

A definition of false urgency

Busyness which is fruitless and doesn’t result in worthwhile progress

Cultures of false urgency can often become the norm. Sometimes it can be an attempt by organisations to increase productivity. However, often it is not through any malice on a manager’s or team leader’s part, but due to inexperience or caring deeply about the way their team are seen both internally and externally. In our current highly connected environment, it is too easy for us to set an expectation, as well as for that expectation to be cascaded, that instant responses are essential without considering if that is actually the case or the many impacts that result.

What are the effects?

For the reasons outlined above, a culture of false urgency rarely boosts productivity. It tends to have the reverse effect as increased pressure and missed deadlines lead to low morale, performance and wellbeing. Over a period of time, it can drain energy levels, increase job stress and anxiety, and result in symptoms of burnout.

3 signs to look out for

  1. Team members constantly reacting to requests and firefighting, with a culture of busyness being associated with high performance.
  2. Overtime being requested in order to ‘actually get my work done’, or hear mention that evenings or weekends are the only time meaningful work is able to be carried out.
  3. Illogical deadlines being set with no clarity over what is urgent and what is important

Tips for individuals to kick back on false urgency

  • Develop a clear sense of direction – if you find yourself being drawn into treating everything as urgent, try turning off notifications on your phone and only checking emails periodically while you’re working on an important task.
  • Overcome limiting beliefs – as they may be a source of anxiety and be confining your actions. This stress management tip published for a previous newsletter looks at what they are, how to spot them and reframe them.
  • Stand back to reflect – try creating a habit of taking a moment to gain a better perspective rather than reacting immediately. Should this task be top priority in terms of urgency and importance? Would you be better setting realistic expectations for when it will be dealt with and getting on with something more important?
  • Question the status quo  – remind yourself that busyness shouldn’t be seen as a status symbol and that you can prove your worth without seeming to be busy dealing with urgent tasks all the time.

4 Tips for managers & team leaders to help dispense with a culture of false urgency

  1. Challenge your language – if you constantly communicate that tasks or ideas are ‘top priority’, ‘urgent’ or ‘need to be dealt with immediately’, it becomes hard for team members not to react instantly, to have clarity and to set their own priorities. Clearly communicate rules regarding time expectations to help team members prioritise. For example, state that unless you mark something as urgent you consider a reasonable standard response time is 24 hours or 2-3 days.
  2. Set the standard – encourage behaviours which will help to eliminate a culture of false urgency. For example,
    It not being the hours spent at work that are rewarded but what’s achieved during those hours.
    Thinking creatively to provide solutions for long-term success rather than throwing short-term solutions at problems again and again.
    Practice and welcome a trend of hours worked outside that of a usual shift becoming an exception rather than a rule.
  3. Empower team members and don’t micromanage – involve the team in decision processes and help them to separate the truly urgent by defining clearly what comprises an urgent task and setting out agreed tactics and methods for dealing with such tasks.
  4. Encourage the setting of expectations and saying no – setting realistic response times can help manage customer or colleagues expectations and help staff to prioritise tasks. Support them to say no to unplanned meetings or discussions they feel are being concealed as falsely urgent. Acknowledge the difficulty and reassure that you will step in when necessary if requests come from senior management.


“Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent
and not enough time on what is important.”

Stephen Covey


Many other mental health, resilience and wellbeing tips are available on our website – please have a browse to find some that work for you.

This tip appeared in our Winter 2023/24 newsletter.  If you would like future editions of our quarterly workplace wellbeing newsletter sent directly to your inbox, please sign up here

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