America's Workers: Stressed Out, Overwhelmed, Totally Exhausted

YES! I can’t tell you how many years I bitched and moaned about how much I did at home and how unfair that felt. I always had so many people willing to chime in about how they felt the same. Then we all went back to our lives, bitching and moaning, and picking up the dirty socks and mumbling under our breaths and seething. It never changed. Maybe I felt a little better because I wasn’t alone, but all it did was reinforce this notion that men were getting away with murder and my life sucked and I was justified in being so pissed off all the time.

But it wasn’t until I met Jessica DeGroot and got to know her work with the ThirdPath Instituteshe’s been working with couples for nearly 20 years to get them to a point where the division of labor feels fairthat I began to see how poisonous that bitching and moaning is. I had to see what part I was playing in how out of whack things had become. I had to learn to see things from my husband’s perspectivewhy he’d felt stuck at work and I felt like I had to be the default parent as the mother. And it wasn’t until we began hammering out common goals and standards, dividing things up, making all the invisible work I did visible and talking, that things really began to change. Jessica is a big proponent of what she calls “active listening”where you get to bitch, cry, worry, fret, get angry, but all in the service of figuring out where you really want to go and how you can try little experiments to get there. The other person listens, doesn’t judge or chime in, but is there to support you as you figure it out.

In talking about busyness what I found fascinating was spending time in Fargo, North Dakota, of all places, where the researcher Ann Burnett has spent her career tracking the rise of busyness and living a fast-paced life as signs of importance and status. When one woman at the focus group I was observing burst in, and explained she was late by spilling off a lengthy list of all the stuff she “had” to do, how she was double booked for another meeting and then got stuck in traffic (and I looked out the window and saw only a handful of cars on the street), I first thought, wow, she sounds like I do, rushing in late all the time, and spilling off a list of all sorts of stuff I’d done. And then I thought, wow, what traffic? That’s when it hit mehow we sometimes create busyness in order to conform to this social ideal, that to be worthy is to be busy. I don’t say this to blame people. I do it, too. But the only way to change it, if we don’t like it, is to first be aware of it, be aware of our that urge to conform, to be worthy, to be enough, drives us sometimes unconsciously.

Yes! I notice this a lotfrom men toooften framed around “I get XYZ million emails per day.” Beneath the superficial complaint, the subtext frequently seems to be an assertion of that person's importance. It drives me nuts.

Ha! So true. I notice it all the time, particularly in workplaces where face time, extreme hours, and 24/7 total work devotion are prized (did I say media?). I worked through the night on a killer breaking story a few months ago, and I came into the office really grumpy the next day. When someone asked why, I snapped that I’d been up all night. “Oh yeah,” the person said, “Well I’ve been up for two nights!” It’s funny. I truly was complainingafter all the research I’ve done for the book about peak human performance science, how to get the best, most creative work out of motivated workersI knew that staying up all night may be necessary sometimes, but as a general rule, is nuts. And the other person was still very much in the grips of the one upmanship busy-petition. At that point, I stopped, and thought: Okay, you win. But I’m going home at a decent hour tonight.

So I want to talk a bit more about this work culture we have “where face time, extreme hours, and 24/7 total work devotion are prized,” as you put it. And you note that that is characteristic of media but it’s certainly not limited to media. Is this sort of cut-throat, competitive worklife a new phenomenon? Do you see it as being driven at least in part by inequality, as Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffrey have written in Mother Jones? And, regardless of what’s causing it, what can be done?

Their piece was right on in so many ways. It’s not just media companies; overwork has really become pervasive. I’m not talking about hard work. I’m all for hard work that we find  meaning in. But overwork leaves us burned out and disengaged butts in chairs at work and fried at home without the energy to do much more than flop down in front of the boob tube—not quite the leisure the ancient Greek philosophers had in mind when they said pure leisure was that place where we both refreshed the soul and become most fully human.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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