Stop blaming your boss for burnout
"So I had a heart attack…" begins the viral LinkedIn post from Jonathan Frostick, an IT lead at HSBC. It was just another Sunday. Trip to the park; late lunch; sitting down at about 4pm to prepare for the working week ahead.
Suddenly he knew something was very, very wrong. “I needed to meet with my manager tomorrow, this isn't convenient,” was his thought, before even realising he needed to get his wife to call emergency services.
Frostick emphasised to my colleagues at Bloomberg News that “he is responsible for the overwork and neglect of his health that culminated in his heart attack”.
He said: “I owe a responsibility to myself and other people.” And: “I don't think this should reflect badly on the place where I work.” Instead, he wants to keep the focus on: “This happened to me, it could happen to you. You need to change that.”
In the annals of overwork-induced medical emergencies, this message is a relief. Workaholics often pin the blame anywhere but on themselves. It's their overbearing boss; it's an always-on company culture; it's rising economic inequality; it's “late capitalism”.
Of course, these can be factors, especially in time-greedy industries and dysfunctional companies. It is much easier to set healthy personal boundaries if you have a boss who believes in them. A company culture of late-night e-mails and always-on work can easily become an arms race, with employees striving to prove they’re more committed than the next guy or gal. Conversely, if you're on a team where everyone shuts down after 5pm or 6pm, there’s no incentive to keep checking your phone.
But many professionals are selling themselves a dangerous fantasy when they tell themselves they don’t have any control over their work schedule. There may be some trade-offs involved, but for many people in time-greedy fields — law, banking, consulting, tech, medicine — tweaking one’s relationship with work is not going to send them to the poorhouse.
It's unpopular to say this, and I expect to get hate mail, but workaholism is a prison we choose to live inside. That's hard to recognise, because losing one's sense of agency is a hallmark of workaholism. The effects of that loss are insidious and dangerous: A sense of autonomy over one's work is one of the things that buffers workplace stress.
It is also common to think, “Well, everyone works this way, and I have to as well if I'm going to keep up.” That is not true. There are lots of people out there who make just as much money as the workaholics — and who also enjoy their weekends.
Nonetheless, I understand all too well that forging a new relationship with work often does feel radical — even impossible. And that feeling keeps too many people on the treadmill of work obsession.
Let’s be clear: when we talk about overwork, it’s important to separate workaholism, which is an attitude, from long hours — which researchers set at 50 hours a week or more. You can be a workaholic even if you’re regularly putting in a 40-hour week. Getting too emotionally attached to your work, like any form of codependency, can be unhealthy.
Although various studies over the years have linked long hours to a host of physical problems — cardiovascular issues, sleep problems, obesity, alcoholism — researchers are still trying to disentangle the effects of long hours and the mental habits of workaholism itself. One study of workaholics, for example, found that long hours didn't correlate to any health issues, but ruminating and worrying about work did.
In fact, the Bergen Work Addiction Scale, a validated assessment of seven elements of workaholism, doesn't ask how many hours you log. Instead, it focuses on the role work plays in your mind and in your life, asking you to evaluate how often you “become stressed if you’re prohibited from working,” whether work has caused you to deprioritise hobbies or exercise, and whether you work “in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness and depression”. (The first time I read that I thought, darkly: “Aside from a paycheque, is there any other reason to work?” Which perhaps tells you a bit too much about my state of mind at the time.)
Starting to change these mental habits doesn't require anyone else's permission. For example, people who let work bleed into their personal time often say, “Sorry, I have to work.” Reframing that can help reclaim autonomy: “I’m choosing to work.”
It helps us remember that we are ultimately in the driver's seat of our own careers, even if the road we're travelling is that of a fresh-out-of-graduate-school investment banker, consultant or lawyer undergoing the cruel hazing ritual of life as a junior associate.
Lots of people, especially while working from home during the pandemic, have struggled to switch off their brains at the end of the day. Instead of simply trying to avoid thoughts of work, give the brain something else to obsess over. Fill the nights and weekends with deeply absorbing, meaningful, enjoyable activities.
Often the biggest challenge is just remembering that we have other identities out there waiting to be claimed. It is normal in our culture to identify strongly with work. It’s even a feature of the English language. We don't say, “I bank.” We say, “I’m a banker.”
Investing in those other identities isn’t just beneficial; it’s a form of risk management, as with any diversified portfolio.
It takes some effort to feel pride in one’s work while also maintaining a healthy separation from it. But it is an effort that will pay off. And as Jonathan Frostick has warned, it should not take a heart attack for us to realise it.
• Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion