My boyfriend's cousin, a nurse who works in the accident and emergency department of Rotherham General Hospital, came to stay with us in London for the weekend. He pointed at our laptops open on the kitchen table and asked, slightly incredulously: "Do you guys work all the time?" The irony of an A&E nurse calling out a writer and an art director for believing our work to be so important that we're always 'on' was not lost on us.
My work has never been life or death. I’m not assessing an emergency, I’m rewording an email or tweaking the flow of a presentation. Yet the stress I put myself under is akin to a high stakes bank robbery – I make myself sweat while typing and behave like the world depends on me filing some copy. Last week was my family's Christmas get-together, a large gathering of four generations; my only tasks were to a) attend and b) take a present for secret Santa. I decided I was far too busy to shop for a secret Santa present – didn’t they know how much work I had to do? – and turned up rushed and breathless, clutching a selection box bought at the local garage. As I stood there, surrounded by people I loved who had gone to such effort to make the gathering happen, I saw how often I give work the best of me and everything else in my life gets the dregs.
I’m not alone in my commitment to work; half of UK workers don’t take all of their annual holiday allowance. And if you work in a city, chances are you’re putting in more hours than you have to – Londoners spend about three more weeks per year at work than the rest of the UK. When did endless hours become the definition of success? If you’d have asked me when I was younger to picture a successful person, I’d have described someone floating in a pool on an inflatable, with a great tan and a cold beer in hand; now the most successful (I use that word reluctantly) people I know are too busy to go on holiday. From what I can see, working hard just leads to more work. Which begs the question: What are we working for? Status, self-worth, a sense of achievement? Or for the enjoyment of the work itself?
In a society obsessed with career success – serial entrepreneurs are our current It girls and Instagram can’t help but parade those with five jobs and a side hustle – it’s hard to know what a healthy relationship with work looks like. "Those genuinely addicted to work appear to have a compulsive drive to gain approval and success," says Dr Mark Griffiths, a psychologist specialising in addictive behaviour at Nottingham Trent University. When arranging to interview Dr Griffiths, he asked me to call him on a landline as he gave up his mobile phone a few years ago. "We’re in an 'always on' culture. If you have Wi-Fi access and you have your mobile phone with you – you will check your emails. And most of your apps don’t distinguish between work or pleasure. It’s too easy to never switch off," he told me. If you take anything from reading this piece, it should be that one of the UK’s most eminent researchers into the effects of work addiction doesn’t own a mobile phone.
Addiction can be defined as "compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli despite adverse consequences". Reading that, there is no denying that many of us are addicted to work. My 'adverse consequences' are pretty extensive: I don’t exercise, I don’t see my family nearly enough, I can’t holiday without my laptop, which means I never really holiday – even when I’m reaching burnout (read: high anxiety, tears, a chest infection and a feeling of impending doom) I still pitch for more work. It doesn’t feel like healthy behaviour.
But here’s the thing. Work is where I feel most myself, it is intrinsically linked to my self-worth. It’s where I get my major endorphin hits, even when it's eating me up. That’s what worries me – I have allowed the thing that causes me the most stress to become one of my few sources of reward. "I’m really feeling the strain of overworking myself," Sarah Ditty, the policy director at Fashion Revolution, tells me. "It’s the end of the year and I’m reflecting on the last 12 months and realising that for my mental wellbeing, I can’t keep working like I am." Sarah’s job is incredibly important and has a clear purpose – to make the fashion industry cleaner, safer and fairer – but has this led her to over-committing? "Yes," she says, "I don’t take holiday because I always think something will be missed and time off just creates more work."
Speaking to Sarah and other millennial women about their working weeks, I can see why we’re now encouraging women to lean out rather than in. "Thirty, forty years ago, men were the workaholics and women were meant to be the dependable wife. We were routinely outnumbered in the workplace, which meant a generation of women had to prove themselves above and beyond their male counterparts," says Sharon Argov, a hugely successful serial entrepreneur and current VP of growth at people management platform HiBob. I know what Sharon means – when I worked in the male-dominated advertising industry, I felt I had to constantly prove myself and naively believed my value came from being the one who was always available. Pull an all-nighter at the office while six months pregnant, then get on a flight to Geneva the next day to present? Of course! I’m fine! (It later transpired I really wasn’t that fine.)
Pip Jamieson is the founder and CEO of creative network The Dots and in 2017 was named by The Sunday Times as one of the UK’s top 100 disruptive entrepreneurs, so if there's anyone who knows the future of the workplace, it’s her. "I’m a believer in doing stuff you love," she tells me. "There’s a Japanese term, ikigai, which describes a lifestyle that combines the spiritual with the practical. If you combine what you love with what you are good at and what the world needs, and you get paid for it, then you will land on that happy place where work will never feel like work." Sounds dreamy – and exactly what many of us have been sold – but Pip has a warning: "I’m seeing a trend of really passionate, driven, millennial behaviour, but when it starts to worry me is when they haven’t found that happy place, they are driving themselves into the ground but aren’t necessarily linking it with happiness."
It’s not all bad. Work can be the most wonderful salve, especially when other areas of your life are tricky. A friend who is 18 months sober tells me about the many alcoholics she has met who found salvation in work when they got clean. I know plenty of people who have dived into a work project after a messy break-up and relished the camaraderie with colleagues that only comes from eating Deliveroo in a boardroom at 2am. Alys, a 28-year-old who works in advertising, tells me how much she loves her work: "When I’m among my friends from back home who are all getting married and having kids, I can feel like a failure, but at work I feel myself, I’m curious and interested and, fuck, the other day I got to sit opposite Richard Curtis and work on a script with him. If I didn’t put so much of my energy into work then things like that wouldn’t happen."
I once felt like Alys, and found working hard incredibly rewarding, but at some point my work started to strip me away rather than build me up. There’s a tipping point when being a workaholic becomes more life-limiting than life-expanding; when your friends drop away, your bum moulds to your chair and you’re kinder to your work than yourself. We need to stop dressing up burnout as success or empowerment. So here's a promise for 2019: unless you actually work in an A&E department, let's stop behaving like work is life or death.