On work, the Great Resignation, and burnout.
And what an ongoing study since 1938 tells us about happiness
Before I begin,
This week felt extra difficult watching the developments in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I feel heartbroken and compelled to help, but clearly have no skills I can offer the people of Ukraine while the war rages on. At the same time, I follow the mood of the Russian people, an overwhelming majority of which approve of Putin’s actions. Unaware, for the most part, of what their sons are doing in Ukraine, Russians agree with the official justification for the war as spoonfed to them by Putin’s authoritarian regime. This underscores the importance of a free press, the value of good journalism, and the information abys that follows when free speech is restricted, even forbidden. This is something we need to pay close attention to as we naturally want to silence those we don’t like or disagree with. On a small scale, we may all be little Putins without realizing it.
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I work a lot. I like what I do, so I keep doing it. It helps that I don’t do just one thing. I can’t narrow my productive experience to one track. So, technically, I am not the person who spends 10 hours in the office every day or grinds on the same career track to the exclusion of everything else for decades. I feel engaged with life and fortunate to be me.
I sometimes wonder what my life would have been had I chosen a different way of spending my productive years. I can imagine some of the benefits and the costs of possible alternatives. The uncertainty of self-employment worries many but not me, thankfully. It helps to be disciplined and educated about money and saving for the future. It helps to be flexible, resourceful, and adaptable. For a person of my temperament, having a boss and playing by someone else’s rules is difficult. We don’t like not having time and freedom to experiment and explore different venues, what we do, and how.
Yet, for others, security and predictability trump all. They like going home and not thinking about work because they only get paid when at work. Weekends are for playing and paid vacations rock. I can understand their willingness to trade 8 hours per day, 40 hours per week for all of that. But this amounts to 1/3 of one’s daily hours! Add to that 8 hours of sleeping, and all that’s left of living must fit in the remaining 8 hours. It includes eating, bathing, dressing, driving the kids to school, getting stuck in traffic, walking the dog… so when does one create! When does one dream? When does one tinker around with things, and enjoy hobbies? Ah, yes, the weekends! So, people live on weekends only?
And yet, some don’t live on weekends either. They are the workaholics. Self-employed or not, one can still end up in the category. How does this happen?
Easy. When one does something they consider fulfilling and purposeful, something that boosts their sense of self-worth, they willingly dedicate most of their time to it. When one’s identity gets wrapped up in their work and responsibilities, they become the work and responsibilities. Taking it a step further, they keep working when they get more appreciation and validation at work than at home. Add the work team that can be more fun than the family, and the person is gone for good!
I recently discovered the work of a self-proclaimed recovering workaholic, a fellow writer Sophia. She shares her experience in “Confessions of a Workaholic,” exploring why we stay with jobs we say we don’t like, how to survive terrible bosses, and how to figure out what we want out of life. I can write a lot on the subject because it’s fascinating how our minds work, but I’ll let her do that and just say this:
When work fulfills more of our needs and wants than anything else, work becomes an all-consuming priority!
But not everyone who works all the time falls in the workaholic category. Some people have no choice. Between shitty pay and benefits and rising living costs, people must keep working, often more than one job, long hours, and late into their senior years. This has nothing to do with fulfillment, ambition, or the need for validation. This has to do with survival! Especially for those who make their own situations worse by overconsuming, overspending, and getting into more debt they can support stress-free.
Enter the Covid pandemic. Millions got sent home. Stimulus checks start flowing. With time on their hands and money in their pockets, people found themselves contemplating their situations. As labor shortages forced employers to raise pay, they also opened opportunities for those who wanted to work to find better jobs. As a result, labor got picky and demanding. The movement named “the Great Resignation” for the massive amounts of people moving to better pastures is still underway, reshaping the labor market and labor relations.
Harvard Business Review article says resignation rates are highest in those 30 – 45, mid-career individuals - partly because of possible pent-up demand for better jobs unavailable during the pandemic; partly because of online work necessitating more skilled employees; and partly because of this age group rethinking their work/life balance and priorities. They also found that resignations were highest in tech, healthcare, and generally in industries experiencing great demand due to the pandemic and leading to people overworking and burnout.
It seems during the pandemic, people either had nothing to do or too much to do. Those with nothing to do got themselves a nice long vacation and finished a few house projects! Others opened businesses. As a result, some 10 million new businesses opened in 2020 and 2021, the most on record.
Realizing what they were missing by working all the time and trying to avoid health risks, politics, and complications due to COVID, many retired. Some retired even if they couldn’t afford it. But that’s another subject.
Those who had too much to do are on the brink of burnout. These are not necessarily workaholics or people trying to survive. Many are skilled professionals in high-demand positions which are hard to replace. The toll they pay daily, physically and mentally, hurts them and their families. Burnout seriously impacts people and is hard to recover from. It has become part of a significant mental health crisis affecting the country. People most prone to it are the uber-responsible, type A’s who never say no and aim to please.
According to this Burnout Prevention and Treatment guide,
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest and motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.
Burnout reduces productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give.
The negative effects of burnout spill over into every area of life—including your home, work, and social life. Burnout can also cause long-term changes to your body that make you vulnerable to illnesses like colds and flu. Because of its many consequences, it’s important to deal with burnout right away.
The guide outlines the signs and symptoms of burnout. So, if this sounds relevant to you, check them out.
You are also not alone. Hearing from someone who’s lived through it may help you figure yourself out. Conquering Burnout is a publication by one such person, Jani Konjedic. He shares personal lessons learned from his burnout journey, what fills and drains his energy buckets, and daily living challenges.
Because work is such a huge part of living, we need to ensure it doesn’t prevent or hinder living. Unfortunately, culturally, the US glorifies business, work, careers, and professional achievements. Hopefully, the pandemic showed us the errors of this thinking. Hopefully, as we talk more about the subject, we can help each other navigate our individual situations.
We stand more than a month into a war that upended the regular lives of 40 million people in a single day! None of their work prior to the invasion exists as they know it. Their to-do lists consist of one item – survive. If this is not a wake-up call to re-evaluate what work really means, what we really need, what to value, and who to be, I don’t know what is!
What makes us happy changes as we age because who we are, what we need, and what we value shifts with age. It’s only natural!
“Your well-being is like a retirement account: The sooner you invest, the greater your returns will be,” says Arthur Brooks in this Atlantic article. Harvard scientists have isolated seven big “investment” decisions we can make for growing our happiness 401K!
Are we doing everything we can?
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