Pulling an all nighter, staying back way too late at the office and pushing yourself to the limit, are sadly often associated with success. And to be quite honest, I’m sick of how society champions these unhealthy habits.
Whether it’s work or study, driving yourself to the point of burning out sounds like a huge bummer — not a badge of honour. Yet we see it celebrated at school, in the workplace and even in our personal lives. So how can we get better at recognising the difference between the stress of simply getting something done, and the anxiety of pushing yourself to the limit?
Since first entering the workforce as a young person, I’ve seen so many versions of what success can look like. Sadly, I’ve also witnessed people who are most often seen as champions of success going more than the extra mile. Don’t get me wrong, I think delivering more than what’s expected is a key part of accelerating your career — proving your ability to think outside the box, exercising your unique talents and showcasing all the wonderful ways you can solve a problem, are essential to getting recognised and rewarded — however, if you’re becoming exhausted, disengaged and ultimately unhealthy as a result, that’s a massive problemo.
In fact, there are plenty of studies that show overworking — staying back late, skipping meals or sacrificing sleep to make room for more work to be done — is actually a killer of a productivity. Your efficiency, attention to detail and ability to think conceptually or creatively is all compromised. In fact, it’s been shown that if you work over 50hrs per week the total amount of tasks you get done will decline relative to each hour overtime. Why are we still celebrating being overworked? And why is this kind of hyper-productivity quietly encouraged even when we’re in school? Throughout my whole life I feel like I’ve been constantly reminded that more work and more effort results in more rewards. We’re told to wear our endurance on our sleeve, and that the expectation is to work both harder and smarter.
There is also plenty of research that shows working too hard can have detrimental effects on your body — from issues like excessive eye strain (caused by overuse of screens) to chronic heart conditions (from sitting and passively working over long periods of time). How are we supposed to enjoy the fruits of our labour if our bodies are literally taking the toll for all our hard work? If we prioritised healthy sleep habits and taking time out for physical and mental rest (even if it’s for short periods of time) then the amount and quality of work we produce could multiply as a result. These shouldn’t be the first things to be bumped from our to-do list.
I keep my phone by my bed most nights and it leaves me vulnerable to late night notifications and out of hours emails. The omnipresence of technology means that like me, many of us can be virtually tapped on the shoulder with work requests at any point during our personal time. The phenomenon of feeling like you need to always be contactable is actually called “telepressure”. Psychologically, it can be really hard to switch off from technology — it’s so easy to say “I’ll just reply to this one email”, and then find yourself an hour later deep in a chain of conversations, links, docs and tasks. If you don’t trust yourself to stick to the rule of “just one more”, there are plenty of apps that will do it for you. Offtime, Moment or Flipd, monitor your usage, block specific notifications and functionalities, and can even lock you out if you’ve reached your daily digital limit.
But is that what it should have to come to? What if we all just globally agreed to never bug each other with work related queries after 5pm? There are some countries that are doing this — for some time there have been companies in Germany who don’t let their servers send emails to some employees out of hours. In France there is a law enforcing companies with more than 50 employees to establish hours when employees should not send emails. The solutions don’t necessarily have to happen on an individual level, that can be exhausting. For me, it’s easy to feel like dodging extra requests is a sign of my own inadequacy. Those really truly successful people would never say no, right? No one should be made to feel like putting their health first is an indicator of being any less “successful”.
Thinking about it all leaves me feeling pretty stressed to be honest. While in small doses, stress can push you forward in really positive ways — to explore things that make you feel nervous or to dive into the deep-end and challenge yourself — but when you feel unable to concentrate, resentful of the day ahead of you or like you want to run for the hills at the sight of a new email in your inbox, then that’s a big red flag. Chances are, the world won’t end if you push a deadline back or take time out for the sake of your health — I think the key is more about managing expectations and communicating how things are tracking, even if that means updating timelines.
If you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed and like you can’t quite cope with the stress and pressure of your day to day life, it might be time to reach out to a mental health professional. There are many services you can access either over the phone or through online chat. All of which are free, confidential, and available 24/7. You can contact Lifeline (Ph: 13 11 14), Headspace (Ph: 1800 650 890) or BeyondBlue (Ph: 1300 224 636).
If this is all hitting a bit too close to home, it might be worth coming up with an action plan to dial back your stressors. Maybe that means having a conversation with a manager, colleague or friend, as the people around you simply may not be aware that you aren’t coping or feeling swamped by unrealistic expectations. It’s likely that by continuing to say yes and working way too hard to get things across the line, people will assume you’re happy to go the extra mile. Speak up when expectations become unhealthy, step away from work if you need to, and remember to place your mental, emotional and physical wellbeing as your first priority. Maybe we all need to start questioning what success means and how we celebrate it, as well as how we talk about failure.