• Huong Bui

3 cultural forces that feed the flame of burnout

This article concludes my mini series about burnout, where I explore the three key players that contribute to the burnout epidemic that we’re witnessing: individuals, organizations, and culture. If you haven’t read them yet, check out the first article, where I discussed how we contribute to our own burnout as individuals; and the second article, where I shared 5 ways that organizations can help combat burnout amongst their team. In this third and final article, I want to talk about 3 cultural forces that create the perfect breeding ground for burnout to take root and flourish.


  1. Hustle culture.


Rise and Grind.

Don’t Stop When You’re Tired. Stop When You’re Done.

Tough Time Doesn't Last. Tough People Do.


To me, these slogans aren’t inspiring, they are toxic. They perpetuate the false belief that all it takes to be successful is your ambition and grit. In other words, if you’re not successful or wealthy, you only have yourself to blame, and you’d better put your nose to the grindstone if you want to make your way to the top.


This exploitative narrative goes against research that has proven time and time again that long hours improve neither productivity nor creativity. It also glosses over the systemic barriers that people of colour, people with disabilities, women, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community have been battling for decades.


The hustle culture that inspires those slogans also takes advantage of people’s desire for meaningful work to keep them working longer, in the name of passion and purpose. It peddles this twisted belief that overworking proves that you are passionate, driven, and committed. And who wants to be the opposite of passionate, driven, and committed to their work?


Well, I call bullshit on all of it.


Being passionate about something doesn’t mean it has to consume your life. Being tough has nothing to do with how hard you can “grind”. And working hard doesn’t mean working around the clock.


  1. Productivity.


When we talk about productivity, many of us still think of it from an industrial standpoint. During the industrial revolution, we operated in a manufacturing-based economy, where our productivity is measured by the things that we physically produce. Any time spent not actively producing something tangible is considered wasted. An inefficiency.


But that’s not the economy that we are operating in anymore. Most of us live and work in a knowledge-based economy, where the product of our work is no longer a tangible thing. What we produce are ideas, relationships, and solutions. In other words, it’s not the slide deck you created that matters, it’s the ideas you’re communicating through that slide deck that truly matters.


And ideas, relationships, and innovation need time and space to form and grow. In that sense, when I stood at my window and pondered the ideas that I wanted to communicate in this article, I was being just as productive as when I sat down and typed out these words.


But we don’t operate this way in the workplace. How many of us feel okay sitting at our desk staring into the distance to think about a problem? How many of us would reject a meeting invite because it conflicts with time that we’ve set aside to think through a complex problem? How many of us regularly spend a part of our work week reading and reflecting on the work that we do?


If we truly care about optimizing the way we work, we would never book over a colleague’s focus time unless it’s an absolute emergency. We would give ourselves and our team time to rest, to learn, and to connect with each other as part of our workday. And we would stop letting our calendar fill up with back-to-back meetings.


  1. Mom guilt.


A few years ago, a P&G ad campaign conducted interviews for a fake job called Director of Operations. In the interview, they shared ridiculous job expectations such as unlimited working hours with no breaks, a chaotic and physically straining work environment, increased workload and stress over the holidays, and absolutely no pay (because the meaningful connections that you get to make on the job is more than enough). After each interviewee expressed how inhumane, illegal, and cruel the job sounded, the interviewer revealed that billions of people happily hold that job currently: they’re moms. With this reveal, everyone broke into relief laughter and acknowledged how true it was.


The campaign went viral and brought in approximately 500 millions in sales for P&G that year. Can you imagine a similar ad campaign featuring dads instead of moms? I doubt it would have experienced the same level of success. The success of this ad underscores a problematic yet deep-rooted belief: we expect women to put themselves last in service of her family. And cue the mom guilt.


Considering the intense workload associated with raising children, especially in the first 3-4 years of a child’s life, it is ridiculous that we provide such little support to make this easier on working parents. Childcare is expensive, if you can find a spot. When your child is sick, most employers don’t give more than 3 sick days a year (if any) that you can use for family illness. Do you know any kid that’s sick only 3 days a year? I don’t. When you consider that women tend to start their family around the same time they enter middle management positions in their career, you can see why we have a broken rung that limits the number of women who progress onto executive level.


Now, before anyone wants to pin this problem on the individuals (the typical “if you can’t manage the responsibilities, then don’t have kids!” argument) let me stop you. It is in the best interest of every country and economy that women continue to have children. If they don’t, there will be no workers and consumers in the future, which means the economy as we currently know it will collapse. In fact, the global birth rates have been falling and many countries are scrambling to reverse that trend by experimenting with different social and economic policies.


So, stop putting mom on a pedestal. We don’t want to be called heroes. We want strong childcare infrastructure. We want alternative work arrangements that allow us to progress in our career without burning the candles at both ends as we take on the additional task of raising the next generation. We want hiring and promotion practices that do not penalize those who need to step away temporarily to do caregiving work. And we want a fair share of the domestic labour. That’s all we ask for this Mother’s Day. Also, can you make it snappy? We’ve waited long enough.


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