You sit down at your desk in the morning, a to-do list in one hand and a coffee in the other. You put on a ‘focus’ playlist on Spotify and get to work, with the intention of blasting through projects, emails and meetings. But, things don’t go quite to plan.
As you’re trying to concentrate on work, your inbox fills up and you receive endless notifications on Slack, Asana and WhatsApp. The doorbell keeps ringing with deliveries for neighbours. By the end of the day, you’ve managed to tick a few things off your list, but not as many as you had hoped.
Lots of us experience intense pressure to do as much as possible during working hours. And when we don’t do as much as we think we could have, it often results in feelings of shame and frustration. You end up berating yourself for not being productive, not reaching your goals or living up to your expectations, even if you’ve actually done a reasonable amount considering the circumstances.
The pressure to overwork and over-commit can be attributed to our society’s "hustle culture." Essentially, hustle culture means constant working. It means devoting as much of our time as possible to work, whether it’s checking emails early in the morning or answering messages late at night. It means we are always under pressure to work harder and to do more, regardless of the risk to our health. And when we do make progress, it never feels like it is enough.
But why is the pressure to always do as much as possible so harmful - and is it possible to overcome it?
We often assume working more will help us achieve in our careers. From a young age, we have been constantly reminded of the importance of having a strong work ethic - and asked what we want to do when we grow up. Throughout our school years, there is a huge emphasis on grades and academic achievement, from as young as age four.
As a result, lots of us have based our self-worth on how successful we are at work. In 2018, a study by the University of Bath and York St John University analysed the data of more than 40,000 students between the 1980s and 2016. The results suggested that today’s students, compared to prior generations, are far harder on themselves. One of the factors cited was a rise in “meritocracy” among students: A strong need for young people to strive, perform and achieve, which can lead them to develop unrealistic expectations.
The problem is compounded by our tendency to compare ourselves to others. Thanks to social media, we’re constantly surrounded by examples of people who seem to get more done than us, increasing the pressure to do more — even when we are at risk of burnout.
External circumstances can also contribute to this pressure too. The rise in redundancies, income loss and job instability as a result of the pandemic has led people to work excessively in order to safeguard their jobs. However, this may actually have the opposite effect, says Professor Argyro Avgoustaki from the ESCP Business School, a European school of management.
“Individuals who work extensively or intensively experience negative well-being outcomes such as stress, fatigue, burnout, exhaustion, illness, and reduced satisfaction” says Avgoustaki.
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Ultimately, the pressure to do more and work longer hours reduces the amount of time we have to rest and recover, allowing feelings of stress to build up. “Lack of recovery accumulates over time and ultimately decreases an employee’s ability to perform at adequate levels and deliver quality work. Tired employees are less alert and more prone to making mistakes,” says Avgoustaki.
To overcome the pressure to do more, it’s important to think about your personal definition of what is ‘enough’ in a working day. In reality, there will always be more you can do. However, you need to weigh up the potential benefits of working more against the impact on your energy levels and wellbeing.
While it’s tempting to base a successful day on the number of items we can tick off, this can be counter-productive. Often, we end up spending too much time on quick, easy tasks that we can get rid of, instead of our tasks of higher value to us.
To prevent overworking, employers and managers need to lead by example. They should encourage environments in which excessive work is not a norm, but only used by exception in very busy periods.
“Managers need to provide some discretion over how and when work should be done as well as creating meaningful work experiences will help employee well-being. This way, at times when employees have to work harder, their well-being, and in turn productivity, will be better preserved,” says Avgoustaki.