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How People Survive a High Intensity Workplace

We are all concerned with doing the best work we can, either because we’re passionate about it or because we simply need the money, especially with everything going on in the world today and how much businesses have changed as a result. Now more than ever, there’s a lot of pressure to be the perfect, ideal worker.

A study recently conducted by two professors at Harvard Business, Erin Reid and Lakshmi Ramarajan, found three main strategies for how to cope with an intense, stressful workplace

They interviewed hundreds of professionals from a variety of different industries to see what the majority of people did to cope, and came to the following conclusions.


The first strategy, and the one that proved to be most common, is also the easiest, depending on how you look at it.

Accepting the job you have to do and conforming to the role you play is the path of least resistance, and while it may be the easiest way to do what’s required of you, it can be very taxing on your mental health.

43% of people interviewed said that they used this strategy, prioritizing work over everything else so they’re viewed in a positive light by their coworkers, even if it means they have less time for other people.

This strategy, while it may seem like the best option when considering the short-term impacts on your career, it can easily lead not only to burnout, but becoming stuck in the routine you’ve forced yourself into. Many people will regret choosing to do this later in life, but it’s still the choice of the majority to conform.

A close-up image of someone's hands typing on a laptop, the screen some sort of document that isn't in focus. Another computer monitor is in the background.
Avoiding burnout with a typical 9-5 work day has become nearly impossible, especially in intense work environments, even if that work environment has become remote.

While accepting your high intensity work environment as it is may be beneficial to advancing in your career, any unprecedented setbacks will be extra difficult for these conformers to deal with. It’ll also be difficult for them to relate to and get along with coworkers who they perceive as not adhering to this same strategy.


Another way of getting by in a high intensity workplace is to simply fake it ‘til you make it, or pass as an accepting employee while still finding small ways to deviate from what’s expected of them and focus on other aspects of their lives.

These people, 27% of responders in the study, are still dedicated to furthering their careers, but not at the cost of everything else. They still spend a lot of time on things unrelated to work, though typically they try not to clue their employers in to this fact.

There are many different ways to do this, and employees who fake parts of their efforts are typically reviewed as just as hard-working as their accepting peers.

Unfortunately, though, this method can also quickly become tiring, albeit in a different way. Making your coworkers think that you’re working hard even when you’re not can be a lot of effort in and of itself, and it can also feel like lying, which can be stressful.

People who try to pass for tireless employees will be reluctant to speak to their coworkers at all, in fact, especially about their lives if there’s something they’re prioritizing over work. This can create a divide in the workplace.

People who use this method typically are aware that there’s a problem with the perfect worker ideals, but by trying to pass in the intense system they fail to challenge the problems it has, and so none of them will be resolved.

Opening Up

Sometimes, if one of the other strategies becomes too stressful, employees will choose to begin sharing other aspects of their life with their coworkers in the work environment, as well as asking for changes to be made to their tasks or schedules.

30% of interviewees choose to do this, and they typically end up on the best terms with their coworkers.

An image of four people standing around a desk at a workplace, all smiling and laughing.
If you get along with your coworkers, it’s sure to make any work environment feel much less stressful, especially if you’re open with them. Unfortunately, this may be seen as unproductive by your supervisors.

However, while it may seem by far the most appealing strategy in terms of mental health, it can potentially put one’s career at risk. These types of employees were found to be punished more than others in terms of performance reviews and promotion opportunities.

Certain ways of opening the floor for sharing and discussion can be more successful than others, such as having clear boundaries about personal lives and encouraging the leaders in the work environment to share as much as they’re comfortable with.

Still, the system of the ideal worker is a hard one to break, as it is perpetuated by the ones who accept and feign.

What to do?

So, which one of these methods is the best decision for dealing with a high intensity workplace

They all have advantages and disadvantages, and none of the three main practiced strategies found by Reid and Ramarajan’s study seems particularly appealing. A balance of the three seems like the most logical answer, but it seems that would result in a lot of contradiction.

An image of a crowded place of business, with many people sitting on computers at long tables, several of whom appear visibly stressed.
Sometimes, intense work environments can be a drain on your mental health, and it feels as if there’s no real solution, but it’s important to prioritize yourself over your work.

Perhaps the best thing to do in an intense, stressful workplace is to make sure that you’re prepared for it. Make sure you’re getting your work done as needed, but focus on quality rather than the time you put into it. At the same time, don’t set unrealistic expectations for yourself. And most important, don’t disregard other things that are important to you.

If a balance between the three strategies is impossible, at least learn from them that a balance between work and your personal life is necessary, whatever that means for you. 

Managers and bosses would do well to encourage this, as well. Happier employees will lead to a better work environment, and being the ‘ideal worker’ should not require one to be miserable or only spend their time on work.