Redefining Work Ethic and Success to Avoid Burnout

Americans are addicted to work, and now more than ever.

The work grind never been foreign to us, but in 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that the average workweek by 2030 would be 15 hours. Little did he know, the average workweek now, in 2019, is more than double, coming in at a staggering average of 47 hours per week. And most Americans report that they even work 50.

Since the landscape of work in America has dramatically shifted, our mental health has declined. Burnout, also known as “karoshi” in the equally workaholic country of Japan—in which it was found that 20 percent of employees are at risk of death due to overwork—poses a serious risk to physical and mental health.

In this article, we’ll discuss:

  • The current state of “workism” in America
  • The dangers of defining success by work
  • A short exercise to gauge your risk for burnout

The American religion of “workism”

Primarily, college-educated elite men are the most “workaholic” demographic in the US. From 1985 to 2010, men’s reported weekly leisure time dropped by 2.5 hours—more than any other demographic.

Do you find yourself working or thinking about work when you should be relaxing or spending time with loved ones? You might be at risk for burnout. But you’re not alone—many Americans are sacrificing their free time for work due to our workist culture.

Even if that statistic doesn’t surprise you, you still might not realize just how negative the impact of “workism” is. Workism is a term used to describe the near-religious identity that primarily college-educated elite are embodying today, coined by Derek Thompson at The Atlantic.

This identity is founded on the “belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”

Here are a few different reasons why Americans may keep “workism” at the center of their identities:

  • Disconnectedness from community or isolation: This is especially the case in an age where our technological advances allow us to go about our days without speaking to people at all.
  • “Toxic masculinity” or machismo: The negative results of social expectations of men, that include: suppressing emotions and maintaining and appearance of hardness. In terms of work, this also involves the idea that men feel they have to be the sole economic providers for their families.
  • American need for wealth: We have a constant need for more and more capital, and 62 percent of millennials say they’re living paycheck to paycheck. Not to mention the classic “American dream”—that involves a constant work grind in order to get what you want.

The dangers of defining personal success by your work

Here are a few reasons why workism is putting Americans in grave danger.

  • When we prioritize productivity over all else, we foster the perfect environment for elevated stress, depression, anxiety, and addiction—which stems from the need for an outlet for stress.
  • A continuation of #MeToo-like workplace abuse and toxic leadership.
The #MeToo movement spread virally in late 2017 and began the start of a domino-effect of sexual assault victims’ sharing of their pain. Many #MeToo survivors indicate harassment and assault that stems from power-hunger in the workplace. Illustration courtesy of Healthline.
  • Inadequate identity in the case of retiring or being laid off.
  • Chronic work-related stress which can lead to physical illness.

Think you’re addicted to work? Here are a few questions to ask yourself

If you work, take some time to answer “yes,” “no,” or “sometimes” to the following questions to gauge your potential work addiction. Questions via Psychology Today.

  • Do you prefer working more than other activities, such as spending time with your loved ones or relaxing?
  • Do you find yourself working overtime and on weekends or vacations?
  • Do you talk about work more than anything else?
  • Do you use stimulants to help you work longer hours?
Do you use stimulants to work longer into late hours? Stimulants are drugs that commonly treat ADHD symptoms but are commonly abused by workaholics. They include adderall, ritalin, focalin, and more.
  • Do you have a hard time delegating tasks to employees because you fear they won’t be done correctly?
  • Do you find yourself multitasking in order to get more done?
  • Have your long hours caused injury to your health or relationships?
  • Do you think about work or other tasks while driving, conversing, falling asleep, or sleeping?
  • Are you easily agitated, especially if things don’t go as planned?
  • Do you feel restless when you have downtime?
  • Do you frequently answer “busy” when people ask how you’ve been?

If you answered “yes” to three or more of these questions, then you might be overworked and risking burnout. If this is the case, you should address your work addiction as seriously as any other addiction.

Burnout: Serious, but preventable

If you’re worried by your results in the previous section, have no fear, because burnout is preventable.

Be sure to check out our other posts on stress management on the GRW blog to integrate stress-reducing, mindful, and intentional habits in your life.


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