This story was originally written for news.com.au
When you think of a workaholic, you might picture a suited up, slick-haired douchebag, talking obnoxiously on his Bluetooth at a restaurant, then hooning home in his Merc.
What you probably don’t imagine is a millennial or Gen Y — touted as lazy, entitled and prone to dropping house deposits of cash on avocado on toast — grinding so hard at their job they burn out before 40.
But that’s me. Right now, I’m overworking while writing a story about overworking. Every week I run a personal training business, study a degree full-time, work as a freelance journalist and teach several yoga classes. It’s not unusual for me to pull 14-hour days, seven days a week.
Honestly, I don’t even have time to eat avocado on toast.
I’m not the only one, either. Until 18 months ago, this was 36-year-old Scott Warren’s life.
“I’d take my last work call for the day 16 hours after my first and tell myself it was worth it,” he explains.
“My boss would regularly ring me late at night, and I’d spend entire weekends working on issues that never saw the light of day. I was exhausted, miserable and depressed.”
Our stories aren’t uncommon. Through my work I spend time with clients from all walks of life, and it’s the same story.
We worry about being successful enough, having enough savings, having enough super, having enough recognition for our work. It doesn’t matter how “successful” we get, the general fear is that we’re falling behind.
“Whether we’re in schools, hospitals or sandwich shops, I haven’t known more hard workers than our generation,” says Scott.
“Jobs are much less certain. I’d been made redundant three times before I was 35 — and that’s not unheard of. We’ve had to be so much more resilient. Buying a house is beyond, so many people my age just look at the median house price compared with the median salary.
“We’ve come of age at a difficult time to achieve all the things the generations before us have decided are markers of success, and I’ve seen incredible, hardworking people our age sacrifice so much.”
THE FORMULA IS BROKEN
Mary Hoang, founder and psychologist at Sydney’s The Indigo Project, says her practice sees a lot of people in their mid-20s and 30s who overwork to the point it impacts their mental health.
“These days we’re given validation over what we do as opposed to who we are,” she explains.
“So, we create identities for ourselves based on things we think should be valued — and sometimes they aren’t even our own values.
“A lot of people are feeling super disconnected because they’ve either haven’t reached the point of ‘success’ they want and are unhappy, or they have reached it and are unhappy anyway.
“People are anxious about the future, and we haven’t been given enough tools to find meaning in life now as opposed to in the future. We’re on this hedonic treadmill of ‘I’ll be happy when’.
Happiness researcher Shawn Achor has written six books on the subject, and his TEDx talk “The Happy Secret to Better Work” has had millions of views.
He says society’s formula for success and happiness — ‘If I work harder then I’ll be more successful. If I’m more successful, then I’ll be happier’ — is scientifically broken.
“Every time your brain has a success, you just change the goalpost of what success looks like,” he says.
“If happiness is on the other side of success, your brain never gets there, and as a society, we’ve pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon.”
If young workaholics want to avoid burning out before they even hit middle age, Mary stresses we need to find contentment in the present moment.
“Stop seeing barriers to happiness and start finding it right now through simple things like appreciating what you’ve done in the past 24 hours, meditation, journalling and exercise,” she suggests.
“These things boost happiness in the present and, in return, make us happier, more creative and intelligent.”
And when we’re happier in the present, Achor explains, the brain experiences what he calls a “happiness advantage”.
“When your brain is positive it is 31 per cent more productive than when it’s negative, neutral or stressed. Your intelligence, creativity and energy levels rise,” he says.
GO BACK TO GET AHEAD
If you’re prone to flogging yourself at work, ask yourself if this behaviour really is just about the job.
“I wonder if I dug holes for living, would I become obsessed with digging holes and allow it to become a negative part of my life?” says Scott.
“I feel like there’s something about some people that we allow ourselves to do too much or go too hard. Like it’s an addiction.”
Mary says there usually is something else going on when we give too much of ourselves to undeserving causes.
Even though she’s a psychologist, Mary is still human. She has been in therapy for her own overworking issues so knows the subject well.
“I had to go pretty deep on these things, and I’m still working on it,” she explains.
“What I found for myself and what I help clients with is discovering what motivates us unconsciously. Often, it’s a case of tapping into self-worth issues: Am I not good enough?
“For a lot of people these behaviours go back to memories from the past, whether it’s family dynamics in childhood or not feeling good enough because you lost a great job.”
Personally, I’m fully aware that my unrelenting standards stem from issues of not feeling enough. I also know without a doubt my choices are harming me: my mental health, physical health and relationships.
I used to tell myself, “I’ll just get through this busy period, then I can relax.” I’ve since woken up to that lie and admitted my entire life is “this busy period”.
The ironic thing is, working harder doesn’t mean you achieve more. I often find myself spread so thin I’m just spinning my wheels and getting absolutely nowhere. I’m incredibly tired.
But despite this self-awareness, I still can’t stop.
Mary says the issue for me and many others is we’re trying to fix things at a surface level.
“Picture your thoughts, feelings and behaviours as a tree. If you just chop off a leaf or a branch, the tree will keep growing back. You’re not going to the root of the problem,” she says.
For example, the overachieving behaviour might be how you received love and validation as a kid. It served you then, but it doesn’t anymore because now you’re tired, overworked and strung out.
“Or you might be a people-pleaser and have trouble setting boundaries because you don’t want to feel guilty,” says Mary.
“So, say no and learn to feel guilty. We’re pleasure seekers and haven’t been taught how to sit in discomfort.
“Initially it’s hard, but when you understand you’re doing it for you, you become motivated by internal rewards.”
THE REAL COST OF ‘SUCCESS’
But sometimes, some of us need to hit the ultimate pain point until we change.
For Mary, losing her dad was the wake-up call.
“I had just expanded The Indigo Project and was doing a million things and trying to be everything,” she remembers.
“Getting hit with grief in the middle of that was really tough, and I had to re-evaluate what was important in my life. I knew that if I didn’t attend to that grief I would be in a really bad place long term.
“I looked at a lot of aspects of my life but particularly how I was working, and it just wasn’t sustainable. It was a painful process of unravelling, setting boundaries with myself and others, learning how to say no, take care of myself and just realise that I was more than what I was doing for others.”
For Scott, it was his family. “One day my two-year-old hopped on my lap while I was on the couch, put her hands on my cheeks, stared me in the face and said, ‘Daddy, when will you be happy again?’
“All I could think was: ‘Even a child can see that this isn’t right for me — why can’t I?’
“I’d missed all the little things that turned out to be big things.”
DO THE WORK
If you recognise overachieving, people-pleasing, self-loathing workaholic traits in yourself, Mary suggests looking at the real cost of your behaviour: emotional, physical, to your relationships with others and, most importantly, with yourself.
“Notice if you’re being motivated by guilt, obligations or responsibility. Or perhaps deep down there’s an excessive desire to be recognised?” she asks.
Some telltale signs you’re “doing the same sh*t and expecting a different result” are:
• Consistently overcomitting yourself
• A sense of urgency to do everything right now
• Always doing several things at once
• Over-planning every day
• Saying yes when inside you’re screaming, “please God no!”
“Right now, you might be strong in your body and able minded, but five, 10 years down the track it won’t be the same,” warns Mary.
ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE HORIZON
Scott says these days, even though he’s earning less money, his family is “infinitely” better off.
“My marriage is unquestionably better, not least because I’m more present with my wife, and she can have her own life because I’m at home more,” he explains.
“I’ve fundamentally re-evaluated what’s important in my life, and it has been a real period of discovery.”
He admits the thing inside him that drives him to overwork is still there, but he’s found a much healthier outlet for it.
“I’ve channelled it into things like contributing at home more, spending actual quality time with my family. It appeals to that achievement part of my brain,” he says.
“Where I’d previously get off being praised by my boss, I now get off on my wife saying she really appreciates me cleaning up.
“In a few years, no one at my old job will know I ever worked there, and that’s totally OK. But time I give to my wife and my kids, they’ll remember, and it’ll matter to them.
“That’s where I’m going to do my most important work.”
If my brain dribble resonates with you, punch in your details and I’ll occasionally send you an email – no spam, no marketing funnels. Mostly thoughts, recipes and probably a bit of unsolicited exercise advice.