Depression and Overwork: A sign of the times, or time to embrace change?

 In Blog, Depression, Lifestyle, Resilience, Stress

We live in the age of inspirational quotes and aspirational Instagram accounts.  We are being taught that to ‘have it all’ we just need to hustle harder, faster and smarter than everyone else.  So we work and work – but do we get that Insta-perfect lifestyle?

Nope!

And what’s worse is that more often than I care to think of, we get sick before we get there!

Now I’m not anti-work or anti-social media, far from it.  But what I worry about is the push so many of us feel to overwork.  From Japan’s Karoshi victims, to the single parents juggling more than one job, and to the struggling Solopreneur and everyone in between – we are not getting it right.  Life is precious and we need to protect our health; the physical and the mental aspects of it.

The driving forces for overworking

I think there are two big driving forces to our overworking.  One of them is the need to please others that many of us develop in childhood.  Part of this need to please is the fear of taking downtime if it means saying no to the requests of managers and colleagues – we judge ourselves for it, and we fear their judgment.  

The truth is we would never judge others for saying no as harshly as we judge ourselves.  So why do we do this?

Being social creatures that haven’t evolved neurologically all that much since the Neolithic period, our brains are wired to detect danger.  Even though modern society isn’t filled with the same kind of mortal danger as our ancestors experienced — there is no chance of a lion attacking you on your commute to the office — spotting danger early is still a priority for us.

Not being liked by our social group is a perceived threat to our survival.  As children we learn that if we act up we will be isolated, maybe sent to our room for example.  We learn that conforming means inclusion and approval. These messages may not seem relevant to our adult selves, but on the subconscious level they still exist in our brain circuitry.

So how might that show up at work?  

Being unpopular in the office, losing out on a promotion, or even losing your job are reasons your brain remains on high alert.  We are focused on our survival way more than our wellbeing.

It feels easier to just say yes to taking on one more work project, than saying no and doing battle with your fear and self-judgment.  So the end result is a lack of personal time, which really isn’t good for our mental wellbeing.


The hustle and the promise

The other big driving force is this promise of freedom and happiness just on the other side of ‘making it’.  We are inspired to work just a few more hours on that side hustle after our day job, or just give up a couple more weekends, and so on.  We are doing this because we have come to believe that putting in the hard yards will reap rewards.

To some extent this is true, but many of us fail to strike the right balance.  We misunderstand the lessons about working smart, and focus instead on working harder and harder – just us, with no help, until we burn ourselves out.  

Stress, anxiety and depression can sideswipe us when we are this low on energy.  So those rewards are still out of reach, because we became unwell or exhausted just before we reached them.

It’s the finish line of nightmares that we never quite reach, not because we stopped running, but because the finish line keeps moving away from us.

But still we tell ourselves, “I will have success when…”, or “I just need to do a little more…”

How about a little perspective – if it’s not worked yet, then will it ever?  Albert Einstein said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results.  It’s time to do things differently, with health put first – yes, putting health ahead of your goals.

The simple truth is that you can’t actualize your goals from your sick bed.  You need your health to have the mental bandwidth and physical strength to live your best life.

Once you are healthy and have your vitality back, you will find that extra mental bandwidth that you had been too busy to notice was missing.  Yes, that’s right, overworking depletes your focus and attention. When you are rested your creativity and mental agility improves, and suddenly you can find the creative solutions to master your business or career.  

Now you can start to work smarter, rather than forcing yourself to work harder and harder.

In short, you can step off the merry-go-round and walk a straighter path to where you want to go.  Health is wealth – and this is more than a motivational quote, this is a simple truth.


So, can we talk about where you want to go?

If you can take this on board and start working in a healthy way, then that’s amazing and I commend you.  But I want to add one more dimension to this before I wave you off on your journey.

A sure-fire way to feel disillusioned with the work you are doing, is to be doing the wrong work for you in the first place.  So have you ever stopped and asked yourself if it’s just the long hours that are making you weary, or is it the role itself?

Along with the pandemic of overwork is the similarly worrying fact that so many people never give themselves the permission to follow their dreams.  If your heart beats for one thing while you dream at night, but your waking reality is doing entirely something different – is that how you want to continue until retirement?

I just want to put this out there as food for thought.  If you have a dream, then please don’t write it off as impossible without exploring it fully.  Our culture seems to be one that applauds the “realists” among us, and belittles the dreamers. But I think that culture is changing.  You only have to look at how the word ‘Entrepreneur’ is now revered, where are it used to be scoffed at.

Ten or twenty years ago, ‘Entrepreneur’ was considered to be shorthand for unemployed.  Where as today the word conjures up images of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs – and he certainly didn’t get the memo about not overworking.  So times really are changing. Our millennials are entering the workforce now, and they are much more vocal about what they do and don’t want from their careers.  So could we learn a little something from them?

The new noble

I know that many of us grew up hearing about work from the generation who went to war.  Our parents and grandparent had a hard time – but the world was different back then. So some of these messages we absorbed in childhood, the ones that make us feel guilty for wanting more than our lot, are not really so relevant to us – and that’s okay!  We can embrace a little change, can’t we?

The old way was to view hard grind as a noble act, taking a job for life where you could get it and never complaining.  But the new way, the new noble, is to find the courage to follow your dreams, walk your own path, and be who you really are!  


As I said in my
TEDx talk, Become Who You Really Are, denying your self-expression can lead to depression.  But when you are following your passion, working on what you feel called to work on, then you feel that life is deeply meaningful and worthwhile.  When you are happier, you will also take better care of your health. It’s all connected.

Have you noticed a connection between your health and your happiness, or between depression and overwork?  I’d love to hear from you, so please do leave me a comment.

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If you would like to learn more about burnout and how to recover from it – check out my free on-demand video series here.

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