An Argument Against Burnout Culture

Photo by Lost Co on Unsplash

It was my graveyard shift ritual. I’d go to the 24-hour coffee shop across the street from my work and get some drink with a name like ‘the kicker’ or the ‘call 911 I’m having a heart attack’ with four shots of espresso. I’d cross the street, and clock in just in time to start my shift, ride the night into sunrise. I did this for my entire freshman year of college, which essentially made me a zombie by the time finals rolled around.

This particular coffee shop had little quotes engraved into lids of their cups. On one particular graveyard night, I got a lid with the quote:

Wake up early. Stay up late. Change the world.

I thought, “I love this”, and so, when I got home I cut the quote out of the lid and hung it above my desk as a reminder. And hung it every subsequent year of college and throughout grad school at my desk. On late nights, when I was falling asleep at my desk, I’d look up and be reminded —Wake up early, stay up late, change the world.

That’s how I burnt out.

Photo by Justin Veenema on Unsplash

After graduating from grad school, I hit a wall. My life went from working two jobs, trying to found a startup, and taking graduate classes to nothing. I had three months until I started my first job, and I was burnt out. Burnt by staying awake ’til 2 AM writing a paper, and then waking up for work at 8 AM. Burnt by staying awake all night preparing for a conference, then doing a workshop for visiting professors the next day. Burnt by my own flame.

This is how I decided — scratch that, how I knew — that things needed to change. When I started my new job at a growing startup in Detroit, I decided to be intentional about my time and health. Basically, I wanted to avoid all of the wild things I did in college that lead to my demise, like working 12 hours days, skipping out on sleep, and eating poorly. Going into it, I knew this would be hard — startups are known for burnout, and I’d be joining a team that was understaffed at a company that was growing fast.

Here’s what I’ve learned since then.

Working long hours doesn’t make you a hero

“I was here last night until the security guard kicked me out at midnight.”

Is something my coworker has actually said to me. And it was honestly kind of upsetting — if my coworker sets the expectation of 12 hour days will that create an example to follow? And what kind of person wants to stay at work until they’re kicked out at midnight? That’s just unhealthy and unsustainable. When someone else creates this expectation it doesn’t make them a hero to the rest of the office, but more an enemy by setting an unrealistic goal to follow.

Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash

Plus, time put in doesn’t equate to production put out at a 1:1 ratio. Just because someone works exorbitant hours doesn’t mean they’re being productive or outputting quality work the entire time. In fact, a recent study determined that most salaried employees only do three hours of productive work in an eight hour work day.

You’re not a hero, go home.

Everyone is a human first

I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that you — dear reader — just like me, like to eat, sleep, shower, spend time with loved ones, and have a life. Work is exactly that, work. While some of us might have jobs that we’re passionate about and find personally fulfilling, the reality is that we can’t work all day long. Me, you, and all of your coworkers are human and we have a life outside of the four walls within we work.

Burnout is a symptom of a bigger problem

I’ve had tonsilitis once in my life, and it was a horrible experience, made worse by the fact that my doctor misdiagnosed it as strep throat at first. I use this metaphor for two reasons: treating the symptoms of the underlying problem won’t make the problem better and using the wrong medicine (or solution) for the problem won’t fix it either.

Symptoms are indicators of deeper problems, and putting a bandaid over it will only make it worse over time.

While working 60+ hour weeks might be a temporary painkiller for having too much on your plate, it’s not going to address the actual problem — why do you have too much on your plate? Is it just a busy week? Or is this a new state or normal? By being able to examine the problem in depth, and reach an understanding, you can address it with an appropriate solution. Perhaps it’s that you need to hire, or it could be that you need to revamp an outdated or inefficient process.

I would argue that you can’t call yourself successful if you’re not addressing the actual problem and are instead taking painkillers to cover up the systemic problems lying underneath. While burnout is a temporary fix for your pain points, making it a permanent solution will degrading the health of you, your coworkers, and company. Smart businesses and arguably ones on track for success will address the root cause of problems.

Hey!

If you liked this, give me a clap and feel free to connect!

All the best — Veronica.

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Veronica Head

Veronica Head

Impact Driven Engineer & Entrepreneur | Passionate about the Future of Work | Venture for America, Goodbets, Boost