Have we Traded our Mental Health for Successful Careers?
I wake up in my bedroom in Kochi to the sound of my sister explaining a presentation via video call. It is 9 am and her work calls do not cease till 10 hours later. She spends her day planted in front of her laptop, and I realize that she has brought Mumbai with her to our bedroom. She tells me repeatedly that she loves her work and this is what having a successful career entails. I tell her repeatedly that I don’t think it’s worth it.
My sister is not alone in her view of success and the road to getting there. I came across the term ‘performative workaholism’ and it explained a lot. It was a description of what I’d been seeing around me for so long. It wasn’t just a culture telling us to overwork ourselves; it also reiterated that we must pretend to like it.
The concept of working abnormal hours and devoting all our time and energy to ambitious careers has been glamorized. Be it successful celebrities, sprawling corporations, self-help books, or the ever-positive influencers I follow, the message is constantly pushed at me. Hustle. Hustle harder, stick to the grind, work yourself to the bone, and don’t get left behind. It does occur to me that the phenomenon may have begun as a pure thought. ‘Never give up because you can do it!’
What it has evolved into, has become a space where my resume is constantly ticking in my head. I am told, time and again of the opportunities available to me and why I must chase them. Every inch of my time must be spent on growing my skillset and being productive. Productivity, it seems, only counts when it is related to my career or ambition. But every now and then, a question pops into my head amidst all the productive hustle. If this way of life is what I must adopt to be successful and happy, why am I anything but?
The words of a song called ‘Happy Man’ come to mind. ‘Buy yourself a dream, how's it looking? Buy yourself a car and a house to live in. Buy yourself a dream and it won't mean nothing.’
Materialistic goals are where we look for happiness. Time and again, I have felt that my self-worth was defined by my ability to earn money. It is, after all, the only way I can achieve these goals I am being sold. But these goals don’t allow me to feel human. Productivity feels like a struggle, rather than a natural path. My job may give me a lot, but it cannot give me the joy that I derive from love, companionship, and creativity.
Materialistic gratification does not leave me content. Rather it does the opposite and leaves me in a constant state of restlessness. It takes me on a spiral that circles back to money and plants me right back in front of a laptop for a 10-hour workday. The loop continues and soon enough, the days start blending into each other. By keeping to such hollow and fleeting moments of satisfaction, our minds are susceptible to disorders like depression.
The prevalence of depression in the workplace has been documented for years now. Studies back in 2016 have revealed staggering statistics of one in two people in corporate India suffering from depression. However, these facts get buried under the much louder microphone of ‘love what you do’, and ‘the hustle waits for no one'.
Allowing work to dominate our lives has left many people stressed, anxious, and dependent on constant action. In 2020, urban cities were happily housing stressed and depressed working adults while claiming the title ‘City of Dreams’. And like all else, the pandemic swept in and knocked every dreamer to the ground.
Studies revealed that 43% of Indians were suffering from depression post lockdown. We talked about the pandemic being a time of self-reflection. But where did this take us? Leaving these stressed-out adults to actually stop and take a look at themselves and their lives created a wave of deteriorating mental health states. The shift to work from home went on to worsen things as the already blurred lines between home and work disappeared.
As the pandemic continued with no clear end in sight, a buried question began to surface over and over in my mind. Is it actually necessary to work this hard to succeed?
I found that to answer the question there was perhaps a need to redefine success. Maybe I don’t want just the happiness that comes with a dream I can buy. Maybe sometimes, I can give up and take a breath.
A year after the pandemic began, I am at my sister’s flat in Mumbai and I take a look at her decorated fridge. ‘Born to party, forced to work.’ ‘I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.’ It appears that buried under the facade of performative workaholism, is our real dream to get away from this ambitious life. But the truth only makes it onto kitchen magnets.