When my New York-based job sent me to London for a few months last year, I envisioned a cheery jaunt across the pond. I’d ride double-decker buses, graze on Sunday roasts at the local pub, and take advantage of all those cheap flights to various European locales. Happily, I got to experience those things. But I also experienced something I hadn’t planned on—a lesson in the dangers of burnout.
Almost immediately upon moving to London, I fell into a pattern of working late into the night. There were a lot of contributing factors behind my descent into full-blown workaholism: Time-zone differences, juggling multiple responsibilities, a particularly busy time of year. But ultimately, the problem was rooted in my own mindset. I was working late most weeknights in part because I didn’t have anyone waiting on me to call it quits.
In the wake of a viral BuzzFeed essay by Anne Helen Peterson identifying a burnout pandemic, the perennially popular topic of the perils of overwork is back in the cultural spotlight. This is very much a good thing: Elon Musk may claim that it’s necessary to work 80 hours a week or more if you want to change the world, but research shows that putting in long hours not only damages our productivity and the quality of our work, it also hurts our mental and physical health.
But there’s an important blind spot in the public discourse about the importance of work-life balance. As Laura Carroll notes for Fortune: “When it comes to work-life balance, the ‘life’ part has often been synonymous with personal time related to parenting.” When employers and the media talk about work-life balance, they’re often referring to “family-friendly,” flexible policies that allow people to get home in time to eat dinner with their kids, work remotely when a child is home sick, or duck out of the office to pick up children after school.
There’s no doubt that parents deserve to have work cultures that accommodate their families. The problem lies in the implication that the only reason anyone would want to ever stop working is because they’ve got tiny humans at home. In making the need for work-life balance appear contingent upon caretaking responsibilities, we inadvertently suggest that people need to justify their right to prioritize a life outside of work—a mindset that’s bound to perpetuate burnout culture, hurting parents and non-parents alike.
Do the hustle
The idea that ambitious young people should push themselves hard to advance their careers, particularly before they start families, is ingrained in American culture. Consider author Danielle Steel’s recent comments on the work habits of her twentysomething son, who leaves work at a set time every day: “I think your 20s and a good part of your 30s are about working hard so that you have a better quality of life later on,” Steel told Glamour. “I mean, I never expected that quality of life at 25. I had three jobs at the same time, and after work I wrote.”
Young people who score jobs at elite banks and law firms famously commit themselves to insanely long hours, to the point that Wall Street titans like Goldman Sachs pat themselves on the back for kicking summer interns out of the office between midnight and 7 am. Meanwhile, the fetishization of the entrepreneurial spirit in the tech and startup worlds means that many people in their 20s and early 30s have convinced themselves that if they’re lucky enough to do what they love, there’s no need to stop working to eat regular meals (just drink Soylent!) or even leave the office at all. Writing for The New York Times, Erin Griffiths suggests that “hustle culture” has led many young people to think of work as the primary thing that gives their lives meaning. San Francisco tech workers, she writes, “have internalized the idea—rooted in the Protestant work ethic—that work is not something you do to get what you want; the work itself is all.”
Who gets to have a life?
Once you’ve grown accustomed to the idea that the only way to succeed is to work nonstop, it can be hard to step off the treadmill even as your career advances. But parenthood prompts a lot of people to reassess the way they work, leading them to at least attempt drawing firmer boundaries to protect their time with their families.
In a response to Peterson’s essay on burnout, Quartz’s Jessanne Collins writes that before she had a child, “I thought nothing of frittering away untold hours at my desk, or aimlessly attending industry events.” After she became a parent, however, “It became easy to rouse myself to leave the office now that I had daycare pickup.” Similarly, Quartz’s Khe Hy describes how the birth of his first child changed the way that he worked: While he was prone to nonstop hustle during his 20s, parenthood led him to “focus my productivity on the urgent things so that I can get to the open spaces—the joyous stretches of time when I’m just with my family, not trying to achieve anything at all.”
Given the many competing priorities that working parents have to juggle, this kind of attitude is laudable. But it’s not just parents who should be feeling empowered to detach from work; everyone else ought to feel that this is an option for them, too.
Unfortunately, that’s not the way things often shake out. In a 2016 article for The New York Times, Susan Dominus describes how the accounting firm BDO discovered that employees weren’t taking advantage of its flexible policies: “A study the firm conducted early on found that men and single people without children were the people who felt least able to manage their work-life fit, presumably because they felt least entitled to take the leave offered to them.”
Indeed, a narrow view of what constitutes the “life” part of the work-life equation often means that people without kids feel that their needs are perceived as less legitimate, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Work, Employment, and Society, which included interviews with 36 UK professionals who live alone. “Not only did they feel unable to request working-time flexibility, they also felt unable to refuse requests to work over and above their contracted hours,” the authors of the paper explain. A 2018 article from the Canadian Broadcasting Company supports this characterization, noting research from York University showing that “child-free folks had less access to preferential shifts or holiday time.” All this stacks up to form cultures in which parenthood becomes the only reasonable excuse to unplug.
That’s a difficult illusion to fight against—not just on the part of employers, but for people like me, who find it easier to make positive changes in our lives when we’re accountable to others but struggle to adopt better habits for our own sake. In her book The Four Tendencies, author Gretchen Rubin identifies this personality type as that of The Obliger. “The defining fact about Obligers is that they readily meet outer expectations, but they struggle to meet inner expectation,” Rubin explains in a blog post. “For instance, they wouldn’t miss a work deadline, but they’d find it hard to find time to exercise on their own.”
This was the problem that I encountered in London. In my New York life, although I didn’t have kids, I’d often had an external reason to leave work at a reasonable hour—a volunteer commitment or a dinner date or tickets to a play. In London, however, I was too new to have much of a social life. And because I’d internalized the idea that working should be my default mode unless I had some explicit reason to stop, somehow it seemed to make sense to just keep plugging away. That way of thinking ensured that I wasn’t out meeting people, which in turn perpetuated a cycle in which I was endlessly, hopelessly logged on.
Breaking the burnout cycle
When non-parents make a habit of burning the midnight oil, it’s bad news for parents as well. That’s because it establishes an office culture of overwork, in which people with kids feel guilty about extraordinary feats like leaving work on time or declining to answer emails sent in the evening hours. Lawyer Christy Lilley, a working mom, describes this anxiety for NPR: “All the other attorneys in my office are men. Of those who have kids, all of their wives stay home. They never have to leave early, come in late, or stay home because their kids are sick. They look at me disapprovingly when I’m rushing out the door at five o’clock to make it to daycare on time.”
The expectation that non-parents put in extraordinarily long hours and exhibit a single-minded focus on their jobs also means that working parents are more likely to get sidelined at the office. And because women still wind up shouldering a disproportionate amount of childcare responsibilities compared to men, working moms are the ones who get disproportionately affected by cultures that normalize overwork. Indeed, anti-mom bias is rampant at the workplace. As just one example, Bloomberg reports that within Amazon’s notoriously demanding work culture, some women “don’t mention having children or display family photos on desks in fear of being labeled a ‘distracted mom’ unable to tackle important projects.”
Ultimately, office cultures that make working parents feel anxious or unwelcome are simply places that expect work to be the default, No. 1 priority for everyone. In that kind of environment, we all lose out.
So what’s to be done?
Employers that want to encourage work-life balance can start by reframing the goal in ways that are less connected to gender and familial identities. That doesn’t mean withdrawing benefits specifically aimed at working parents, like paid leave for new parents or, less commonly, on-site childcare. Rather, it means employers should clarify that benefits like remote-work options or flexible start times are meant to be accessible to everyone. Managers can also set an example by leaving work at a reasonable hour themselves and resisting the urge to send messages in the evening or on weekends, which assures employees that it’s fine to log off.
On a personal level, there are also things individuals who have trouble drawing work-life boundaries can do to force themselves to step away from their computer screens. One option might be to get a dog who needs you to leave the office and walk him already, or to sign up for a yoga class that starts at 6 pm sharp. Those with partners who are also prone to late nights could consider making a mutual pact to cook dinner together in the evenings.
For the achievement-oriented, it may help to set personal goals that are unrelated to work. If you know you want to make a scrapbook for your sister’s birthday, read a book a week, or run a half-marathon, you’ve given yourself a clear reason and an external pressure to power down at the end of the day and devote your energy to something other than work.
I wish I’d tried some of these techniques in London. But I was trapped in the burnout mindset identified by author and artist Jonny Sun, in which the only relief from work stress seems to be doing more work. You won’t be surprised to know that no matter how hard or how late I worked, there was always more work to be done. I wound up crashing in London and returned to New York feeling depressed, anxious, and burned-out as a potato chip left roasting in the oven overnight, ready to crumble at the slightest touch.
The upside of burning out was that it forced me to change my ways. I know now that it’s not only acceptable but healthy to make my nights and weekends work-free—whether that’s to make room for family, friends, exercise, entertainment, or for no reason at all.
This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.