Workism Is Making Americans Miserable

A man sleeps at his desk.

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The second external trauma of the Millennial generation has been the disturbance of social media, which has amplified the pressure to craft an image of success—for oneself, for one’s friends and colleagues, and even for one’s parents. But literally visualizing career success can be difficult in a services and information economy. Blue-collar jobs produce tangible products, like coal, steel rods, and houses. The output of white-collar work—algorithms, consulting projects, programmatic advertising campaigns—is more shapeless and often quite invisible. It’s not glib to say that the whiter the collar, the more invisible the product.

Since the physical world leaves few traces of achievement, today’s workers turn to social media to make manifest their accomplishments. Many of them spend hours crafting a separate reality of stress-free smiles, postcard vistas, and Edison-lightbulbed working spaces. “The social media feed [is] evidence of the fruits of hard, rewarding labor and the labor itself,” Petersen writes.

Among Millennial workers, it seems, overwork and “burnout” are outwardly celebrated (even if, one suspects, they’re inwardly mourned)…

The problem with this gospel—Your dream job is out there, so never stop hustling—is that it’s a blueprint for spiritual and physical exhaustion.

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On Physician Burnout and the Plight of the Modern Knowledge Worker

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On Screens and Surgeons

Atul Gawande has a fascinating article in the most recent issue of the New Yorker about the negative consequences of the electronic medical records revolution. There are many points in this piece that are relevant to the topics we discuss here, but there was one observation in particular that I found particularly alarming.

One of the striking findings from Maslach’s research is that the burnout rate among physicians has been rapidly rising over the last decade. Interestingly, this rate differs between different specialities — sometimes in unexpected ways.

Neurosurgeons, for example, report lower levels of burnout than emergency physicians, even though the surgeons work longer hours and experience poorer work-life balance than ER doctors.

As Gawande reports, this puzzle was partly solved when a research team from the Mayo Clinic looked closer at the causes of physician burnout. Their discovery: one of the strongest predictors of burnout was how much time the doctor spent starting at a computer screen.

How Am I Not Burned Out?

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I’m a solid 12 years into my YouTube career. During that time I have been the CEO of three different companies, hired dozens of people, fired a few, started two non-profits, a couple podcasts, wrote a book, lived through good times and bad times of my chronic illness, all while being in a stable, happy marriage and maintaining at least some friendships.

will now say the sentence that I say to creators most at creator-focused events: Diversify Your Identity.

Find ways to value yourself outside of the metrics of social media. That might be how you feel about your creations. It might be a small community of talented people that you respect and are part of. It might be classmates or colleagues. And, if at all possible, invest in your identity as part of your communities and families. Value your life as a sibling, a child, a parent, and/or a spouse. Value your life as a member of your town or city or neighborhood. Value yourself outside of your creations.

Practical Frameworks for Beating Burnout

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In a way it’s ironic that this problem plagues Type-A players the most. The people who want to do their best and accomplish the most end up limiting themselves unintentionally. In startup culture, this usually manifests in people trying to have peak performance at work while also going to all the social events and being great to their families at the same time. Then they’re hard on themselves for not getting perfect marks in every category. As soon as they meet their own bar, they raise it.

But there’s a second, even more invisible cause of burnout: The lack of inclusive environments in tech. This isn’t solely about gender or race or even socio-economic background. It’s about your personality and work style and how you operate professionally. Everyone is different in these ways, but tech companies — and startups in particular — tend to demand a specific style.

Think of the talented introvert in a workplace where you have to fight to get heard. Maybe you’re a night owl, but the hours required are designed for morning people. Perhaps your work requires dedicated, quiet, constant focus but most of your co-workers listen to pop music and take loud phone calls all day.

“Most organizations haven’t evolved to create an environment that embraces the diversity of their people,” says Saxena. “Which places an additional burden — or you can even think of it as a tax — on the folks who have to strive to fit in with the prevailing culture. They basically have to be someone they’re not at work, and that’s exhausting.”

Heavy Internet use leads to school burnout in teens

Excerpt from this article (thanks Daan for the link!):

The research suggests that the most critical stage for tackling the problem of digital addiction and school burnout is age 13-15. The most effective way of supporting adolescents’ mental health and preventing excessive internet use is to promote school engagement, to build up students’ motivation to learn, and to prevent school burnout.

Depressive symptoms and school burnout in late adolescence are more common among girls than boys. Boys suffer more from excessive Internet use than girls.