There is an old saying: “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” It’s consistent with so many snippets of motivational advice, saying to anyone who aspires to success that passion for your career means you need never worry about it being a chore or a strain. You can see why people trot out these mantras—they suggest that application and focus will surely bring results—but, taken untempered, they can be corrosive and unhealthy.
Let me say right away that I’m saying this not as pious advice but with sympathy from the battlefield of experience. I do a lot of different things: I write two weekly columns for newspapers and a lot of other copy, I run a consultancy advising clients on strategy and communications, I edit a digital-first culture and arts journal and (no small task, this) I try to address my teetering pile of books to be read in a nagging quest to know stuff.
I don’t believe in the virtue of overwork, but I do work hard, partly because a lot of what I do is labor-intensive and partly because, as the quotation with which I opened suggests, I’m lucky enough to love what I do. I really do.
Of course, we all work too much. About 15 years ago, the phrase “extreme jobs” started being used for those who put in terrifying hours—90, 100 hours a week, sometimes more—but did so amid protestations that they loved their jobs and were committed to success. It was a psychological switch: Those bearing crushing workloads were no longer pitiable and exploited but were somehow heroic in their dedication. Particularly for men, it became easy to elevate a monomania, missing family engagements and surviving on little sleep, into a Herculean virtue.
The spread of working from home which has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation worse. With much less distinct boundaries between work and home, in spatial and mental terms, we slip easily into doing more than we need to do or are paid to do. A Bloomberg article last spring calculated that U.S. workers were logging three extra hours a day and were being regarded increasingly as on-call 24/7 to their colleagues. For the C-suite and entrepreneurs, this is at least understandable: If business is declining, it’s a natural instinct to work harder to compensate.
And, of course, it is important to be passionate about your career. A study conducted by the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School suggested that happy workers are 13 percent more productive, but it may be that the advantage is in fact even greater. Contentment makes you work not just harder but better, something we all instinctively know. Who hasn’t written an email as a chore and looked at the text, seeing the grudging process in every word? Equally, who hasn’t experienced the joyous flow of words when you’re writing about something to which you’re committed, and you suddenly find your task complete?
Yet we know perfectly well what the danger is here. Google “burnout,” and you will find 100 million results. As august an institution as the Mayo Clinic discusses burnout at some length, noting that, while it is not a medical diagnosis, it contributes significantly to mental health. Only the most hard-nosed and antediluvian boss would now say it’s “all in the mind” and can be overcome with willpower. We accept nowadays that we need to look after our emotional well-being.
I have noticed a couple of warning signs. One is, simply, an inability (or an unwillingness) to switch off. If you work from home, and especially if you are self-employed, there is no obvious stimulus to lay down your tools and relax. There is always something else which could be done, one more task to complete, one more email to send. It seems harmless enough to begin with, but when you find yourself sending a pitch to someone across the ocean at 3 a.m. and calculating how long it will be until you will start to receive responses to other work emails, something has gone wrong. I speak from experience.
Another indication is a creeping habit of treating personal relationships in a transactional way. Of course, you will have friends with interesting jobs, and it may be that their work intersects in some way with your own. But when your first thought of someone is “his sister commissions for Vanity Fair,” or “she has a client who might need advice,” then your mind is no longer prioritizing properly. Friends are just that, friends, not opportunities, and if you regard them as work channels, they will soon realize it.
The solution is simple but challenging. Learn to switch off. You may not be the sort of person to drift into a meditative trance for half an hour a day and experience your own zen. Fine—find displacement activities. Start reading detective novels, teach yourself Arabic, study Renaissance portraiture, learn to strip a car engine. Don’t make your time out a work project; reading about 10 great Wall Street tycoons or leadership in the developing world will not be relaxation, just another form of professional commitment.
Do what you love and love what you do. But love yourself, too. Know your limits before you reach them, rather than learning the hard way.
Eliot Wilson is the cofounder of Pivot Point, a change management, strategy and PR consultancy based in London.