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Adi Jaffe Ph.D.


Burnout Generation? Redefining Success and Work Culture

Are we burning ourselves out or are we going soft?

All work and no play—has this become our reality? Just like we need a new approach to mental health , we also need new ways of assessing success in the workplace, because we are working ourselves to death.

“For many of today’s rich there is no such thing as ‘leisure’; in the classic sense—work is their play. Building wealth to them is a creative process, and the closest thing they have to fun.” —Economist, Robert Frank

It seems work has evolved from a necessity to a means of identity. College-educated people (particularly men) now work more than they did 20 or 30 years ago and feel an intense pressure to be ‘successful’. While work does continue to be a necessity for people of lower socioeconomic status, for the wealthy population, work has even become some kind of higher calling or purpose .

We now live in a society where people feel comfortable sacrificing their mental and physical health (not to mention relationships ) in order to live up to societal expectations and pressures. Many of us also value economic status above all else and let that determine our sense of self-worth. And technological advancements now make it nearly impossible to ‘switch off’ from work. When work-related emails are pinging from your phone after hours ( Elon Musk sent another email at 1:20 am ), the lines between when a working day begins and ends becomes blurry.

Should we redefine success before we all burn out?

What exactly does success look like? Are we focusing too much on the material evidence of success (job titles, houses, flashy cars) rather than the way success feels?

And what about the international data that’s emerging about levels of global happiness? While lower income levels can impact on happiness levels, so too can higher income levels. Happiness is a complex concept that is influenced by many variables. The World Happiness Report (2018) has looked at GDP per capita (a measure of a country’s economic output), life expectancy, social support, freedom of choice, generosity, and perceptions of corruption and weighed these variables against levels of happiness. While the United States, China, and Japan are the three top GDP, this does not necessarily equate to the population’s happiness quotient. In fact, none of them are in the top 10 and the United States barely scrapes into the top 20 (#18), with China (#86) and Japan (#54) measuring pretty low on happiness when compared to other countries .

So what does this tell us? Of course, we should consider all of the other variables which influence happiness, but when we closely examine the work practices of these three countries, it starts to make sense why the economy may be doing well, but the people aren’t necessarily feeling happy.

In the U.S., workers tend to take advantage of about half of their paid time off or vacation time and more than half of American workers keep on working even when they are on vacation. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like a vacation at all! (Full disclosure: I am absolutely one of those Americans.)

In China, instead of working from 9 to 5, many work a 996 (from nine in the morning to nine in the evening, six days per week). There have even been cases of premature deaths in China likely attributed to young workers being simply overworked. This is ridiculous!

Over in Japan, where the aging population has resulted in workforce shortages, longer working hours have become an economic necessity. Like China, there have been cases in Japan where people have died from working too much. This phenomenon even has a name, “Karoshi,” which translates to “death by overwork.” A government-led study in Japan found that 20% of workers are at risk of Karoshi.

What will it take for people to slow down if the risk of death isn’t even a deterrent? That's pretty much the ultimate price, right?

Why are people addicted to work?

In the United States, addiction to work is on the rise, particularly amongst males. Workism, disconnectedness, and toxic masculinity are strong contributors to work addiction.

Workism: A term coined to reflect the belief that “work is not only necessary to economic production but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work .” When work becomes the center of one's life it's possible to start to lose focus on all other aspects of what’s important in life like health, family, personal development and friendships.

Disconnectedness from Community/Isolation: Technological advances have increased the disconnectedness of communities. We can literally work all day and night and have everything we need delivered right to do our door—food, clothing, and anything else you can find at online stores. This means we can spend days, weeks, or months without ever having to interact with our neighbors, friends, or local businesses (how many entrepreneurs or programmers live exactly this way?). This disconnectedness leads to the disintegration of community , thus promoting loneliness and isolation.

Toxic masculinity. In today's world, the thinking is that "the strongest survive," so those who falter are weak and are being "selected out.” It's like self-inflicted Darwinism. To make matters worse, men have been traditionally trained not to express their emotions or pain, so many look to bury their past trauma and discomfort by distracting themselves with a schedule full of things to do (called work). A lot of us get drawn to overworking when we’d rather not confront our emotions. And it’s a pretty big problem when the desire for staying busy (in order to mask our feelings) comes at the expense of our mental health. Overworking prevents self-compassion and perpetuates self-destruction .

The Dangers of Defining Success in terms of Financial Wealth or Job Title

  • When we define ourselves (and our culture's success) by the work we produce and the effort we put into it, we create a culture that prioritizes productivity over everything else. And that's when happiness and contentment go by the wayside and stress, anxiety, mental health struggles, and addictions flourish.
  • The continuation of #metoo-like abuses and the relegation of some citizens to second-class status. When work output or GDP or status in the workplace is worshipped, toxic leadership pervades (because production is the most important output instead of satisfaction, happiness, or anything else). Longer work hours, unpaid internships, no vacation days, become the norm. Those who are unable to work (e.g. disabled people, elderly) become second-class citizens because they aren't as "valuable" to society (this was the thinking in the old 3rd Reich too, the origin of Nazi ideology).
  • Placing your self-worth or happiness in the hands of an employer, job title or salary can lead to feelings of being lost, inadequate, or depressed if you get laid off or retire. This is known as “work-role centrality." It means that work is central to your sense of who you are. People with high “work role centrality” who lose their jobs suffer more. They are more likely to be depressed and anxious and more likely to feel that there is less purpose in their lives. Their identity and purpose seem to disappear when they lose their job.
  • Chronic work-related stress can affect the HPA axis along with other endocrine and physiological system collapse. When high cortisol levels are maintained over a long period of time it can lead to increased blood pressure and other health conditions. When you consider the severity of the impact of work stress on the human body, the Japanese phenomenon “Karoshi” or “death by overwork” is not too hard to imagine.

Are you addicted to work? Here is a list of questions you can ask yourself.

  • Do you prefer working more than other activities such as spending time with loved ones or relaxing on the couch?
  • Do you find yourself working on weekends, vacations, and evenings?
  • Do you talk about work more than anything else?
  • Do you use stimulants to help you work longer hours?
  • Do you have a hard time delegating tasks to employees because you fear they won't be done correctly?
  • Do you find yourself multitasking in order to get more done?
  • Have your long hours caused injury to your health or relationships?
  • Do you think about work or other tasks while driving, conversing, falling asleep, or sleeping?
  • Are you easily agitated, especially if things don't go as planned?
  • Do you feel restless on your downtime?
  • Do you frequently answer "busy" when people ask how you've been?

If you answered "yes" to three or more of these questions, you might be overworked and risking burnout. If that's the case I recommend you spend a few moments thinking about the bigger picture and what it is you really want from this life. You might want to try incorporating some meditation and exercise if you aren't already.

If you think you might be addicted to work, get in touch. At IGNTD , we get to the root of addiction.


About the Author

Adi Jaffe, Ph.D., is a lecturer at UCLA and the CEO of IGNTD, an online company that produces podcasts and educational programs on mental health and addiction.