Work stress is the saddest American status symbol

Our obsession with overworking is about prestige — the less time you have, the more important we think you are

Published January 1, 2017 9:30PM (EST)


In 2008, the Pew Research Center conducted a series of surveys to predict the future of the Internet in order to attempt to determine how technology would reshape society circa 2020. The report included different scenarios, one of which examined the evolving concepts of time dedicated for work and leisure. Researchers hypothesized that emerging technology would cause a coalescence of work and play, essentially doing away with a separation between office and recreation. With mobile technology, the belief was that work lives would eventually impose on social lives via email pings at dinner, quick calls to a coworker while at a bar, and nights cut short in order to meet a new and pressing deadline.

According to the report, “In 2020, well-connected knowledge workers in more-developed nations have willingly eliminated the industrial-age boundaries between work hours and personal time. Outside of formally scheduled activities, work and play are seamlessly integrated in most of these workers’ lives.”

It’s no secret that our culture today prides itself on the amount of work we put into our jobs. We work to an excessive degree as if there’s a competition to impress people by our willingness to take our work everywhere.

But why?

A new study sheds light on what seems to be an American obsession with being overworked and stressed out.

Researchers from Harvard University, Georgetown University and Columbia Business School presented research participants with two fictional scenarios. The first scenario presented a hypothetical man called Jeff who “works long hours and his calendar is always full.” The second scenario presented another version of Jeff, this time he “does not work and has a leisurely lifestyle.” The first scenario seems realistic, whereas the second seems like a lovely daydream.

According to the report published in Harvard Business Review, the busy person was perceived by participants to have higher status than the one with free time. The research team presented other scenarios and found people are more impressed by someone who shops online for groceries compared to people who did their shopping at Trader Joe’s, in terms of elevated social class. Additionally, a person wearing a Bluetooth headset on the street was deemed more impressive than someone wearing headphones.

Americans seem to be obsessed with overworking ourselves in an effort to gain social esteem. When the study was conducted on Italian participants, the opposite was found: Italians perceived the person with a life of leisure as high-status.

The research suggests part of Americans’ obsession with being overworked is an effort to seem important and gain social influence, which makes sense given the hyper-competitive system with which we’re socialized.

Throughout high school, college and graduate school many hold the belief that any free time in a schedule means forfeiting the next great opportunity because another candidate will have used their time more productively by volunteering, taking on another internship, or curing cancer over the weekend. We’re encouraged to pack our schedules and work to within an inch of our sanity to prove our worth and desire to achieve our goals. We all try to fill holes with something of substance.

Gap years following graduation or the completion of projects are also positively viewed, but are a hallmark of the elite who can afford to take a break from the hustle, whether to find themselves or indulge other curiosities. To be overwhelmed and stressed out is valued more highly than a person’s sense of contentedness in their lives. Few bat an eyelash when someone says they’re doing well, but everyone is interested when a person reveals how busy and stressed they are. Maybe it’s an effort to gauge what the competition is doing in order to assess our level of social status by comparison. Or maybe misery just loves company.

Many jobs demand long days that turn into late nights, and most employees are aware of the fact that if they don't meet these requirements, another candidate will swiftly and happily replace them. This creates a negative feedback loop of anxiety that causes us to believe that we’re not doing our jobs well if there are any gaps in our calendars, and the cycle is exacerbated.

It’s foolish to think we must unnecessarily burden ourselves in order to be effective, important, or relevant. Our time management skills should be adapted to include time for work and leisure, although doing so in the digital age seems nearly impossible. Studies have suggested those who overwork themselves are more prone to myriad health issues that include mental illness, which ought to force us to question our system of values.

At the end of the 2008 Pew report, the authors warn that in 2020 “People will not take the time to enjoy nurture or nature.” Welcome to the future.

By Erin Coulehan

Erin Coulehan is a freelance journalist with work in Rolling Stone, Elle, Slate and others. Follow her on Twitter @miss_coulehan

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Overworked Stress Technology Work-life Balance