How Did Work Stress Get So Sexy?
10.04.17

This might sound like a weird question, but do you think work stress has gotten a little too romantic?

I’d never thought about attaching the words “stress” and “romance” until a few months ago when I spoke with a 23-year-old woman named Ellis who works in the tech industry in Boston. “I’m pretty embarrassed to admit (but would probably find some consensus among my friends) that I love work stress,” she told me, during a conversation about why she never takes vacation. “I love the fact that I won’t take all my vacation days because I am out here grinding.”

She also referenced this tweet by social psychologist Amy Cuddy:

“Before I saw that, I didn’t realize work stress was romantic,” she said. “But now I know and I confess I am smitten.”

I confessed I was, too. Couched in the implications of a broader cultural movement, the logic behind my own experience with work-related stress started to crystallize in a way it hadn’t before. It wasn’t me, it was you — you being the invisible marionette strings of a socially-reinforced phenomenon.

I understood exactly what Cuddy meant. These days, work stress is kind of…well…chic. It’s more than just a byproduct of the “peak busy” shtick or an excuse to get out of a social commitment. It’s a point of pride. It means you care. It means you’re passionate. It fuels your ability to strive further and work harder.

The only catch is an obvious one: stress is stress, romantic or not, and the glamorization of it is a textbook recipe for burnout.

Once I acknowledged this strange reality, I spoke with psychologist Kenneth Feiner about why work stress seems to be idealized and even encouraged while other types of stress are seen as anathema.

“It’s more acceptable to talk about work stress than it is to talk about social stress because people’s social difficulties tend to be experienced privately,” he said. “There’s a sense of camaraderie work-related stress tends to generate, so it can be a mechanism for bonding, whereas other kinds of stress are often more personal and therefore can be alienating.”

This distinction rang true when I considered the various types of stress I personally experience and how I process them. I tend to talk openly with my friends about work-related stress because it feels good — cathartic in some ways and, if I’m being honest, it can also be a socially acceptable mechanism for bragging. When I do, I’ve found that my friends generally chime in with their own work-related stresses, and it does feel kind of like bonding.

Other kinds of stress though, (i.e. if I’m having a bad body image day or I’m convinced I said the wrong thing in a social setting), I tend to keep to myself. Instead of being a point of pride, these things feel like embarrassments.

According to Lauren McGoodwin, Founder and CEO of Career Contessa, this distinction stems from the fact that work-related stress has become a status symbol. “It’s a badge of honor,” she told me. “If your plate is overloaded, it’s because your work is valued. And if your work is valued, you’re successful.”

There is nothing wrong with working hard and striving for career success, but an overloaded plate will always be on the verge of cracking. That’s the danger in fanning the flames of work stress too frequently. It’s not sustainable.

“If you are motivated by stress and the feeling of accomplishing things, use your hands, go build something, take a pottery class,” said McGoodwin. “If you can break the pattern of using work stress as fuel by physically interrupting it, that’s a really good start. All patterns are kind of like muscles. If you don’t use them, you lose them.”

I’m not sure if I’m ready to lose my work stress muscle quite yet. Stressful as it is at times, I’m still wooed by the romance — the thrill of having too much I want to do at once, the adrenaline rush of a balancing act I’m still learning to navigate — it’s anxiety-riddled at worst, seductive at best, and often a little of both simultaneously.

Then again, I’m not opposed to trying pottery. Where do you fall in this relationship?

Photos by Kourken Pakchanian/Condé Nast and Ernst Beadle/Condé Nast via Getty Images.

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  • Morgan Jenkins

    I find this piece all too relatable, but have mixed emotions about my personal relationship with work stress. I mean, who hasn’t had that full-calendar imposed adrenaline rush? I do find the glorification of “busy” self righteous to a certain extent though. Who isn’t busy in their own right? It’s all relative. I am personally familiar with several people who are first degree offenders of having too much work stress-related pride. People who, out of nowhere, proclaim things like “No worries guys, I just have 175 emails in my inbox”, to which my mental response is always, “Well, you’re probably subscribed to too many promos… Ever heard of Unroll.me? You should try it…” I’m still one of the dwindling believers that a work:life balance can exist and that the glorification of “busy” is hackneyed at this point. Still, I do get that endorphin rush of having a lot to do. I think the line of where I get aggravated is when people feel the need to publicly declare it. Again, super mixed emotions.

    • Mellisa Scarlett

      TOTALLY agree. I’m all for the rush of having a full calendar of things that will ultimately be an addition to my success, however the constant need to declare busyness as if the world stops when your not doing it all is annoying AF. & overly self righteous but hey. lol

    • gracesface

      I have mixed emotions too. Mostly because I think the people that are talking about this the most are millennial. I’ve been struck lately how my parents generation (Gen Xers) had issues and expressed them but never as indepth or to the extent that myself and my millennial peers do. I think that working too much is a problem and that it has real ramifications – but were people 20 or 30 years ago even talking about it?

  • Arden

    As a (relatively) recent college grad, this reminds me so strongly of the weird atmosphere of competitive work-related stress at school. At my college, everyone constantly talked about how much reading they were doing, how late they stayed up writing a paper, how long they were at rehearsal for a department play – and how stressed they were about all of it! At the time, it did seem sort of romantic to be in the library until 4 or 5am. But now, looking back at how little I slept, how hard I worked and the level of stress that caused me, I don’t know if the *~aesthetic~* of being a totally stressed out college student balanced out the damage it did to my mental and physical health. It’s interesting (and a little distressing) to learn that this environment doesn’t go away once you leave college and enter the workplace.

    • Samantha Kohl

      I read this comment and thought to myself, “wow. so true. this sounds exactly like my own college experience and I’m so over it.” And then I looked and saw that this commenter did in fact go to my college! Hello Arden!! Beautifully articulated point. I too am struggling to create more peace for myself since graduating, which is so hard in New York. Hm.

      • Arden

        lmaaaoooooo hey samantha

        • Harling Ross

          haha now i’m curious what college you guys went to

          • Arden

            hint: same college as Catherine on Veep

          • Julia

            I was thinking the same thing the entire time I was reading this article. My college is one of the most preprofessional colleges in the country where people are constantly striving to do more than everyone else. And it has really caused a toxic campus culture where a large number of students suffer with mental health problems yet the university does nothing to change it. Students constantly complain about how much they have to do yet half of the things they do are just to pad their resume and seem busier than everyone else. It really bothers me because stress is definitely romanticized and it’s unhealthy.

    • Lucy

      couldn’t agree more! in this case, stress is definitely used to indicate passion or care – if someone made a point of being stressed about an essay or exam, you feel bad if you’re not so outwardly stressed because it somehow suggests you don’t care about your degree as much as they do. i even remember conversations like ‘i’m way too stressed to wear make up at the moment’, as if you need to prove it has an outward manifestation..

  • Sarah Bauer

    It all plays in to this illusion of celebrity, which has been thoroughly harvested on Instagram in how we present ourselves to our ‘followers’. There is a self-importance in believing oneself to have a full plate of obligations, of places we need to be and people who ‘need’ us in order to keep the organizational bodies around us running smoothly.

    We just all want to feel needed and desired, right?

  • Emily

    Work stress is so romanticized, especially in nyc. When I moved to the city for the first time two summers ago, my cousin told me if I wasn’t busy working all the time, or didn’t want to be, I wasn’t going to like new york. As someone who values relaxation time as well as work, I do think a balance is more prevalent in ca, where I’m from. But the downside: people are overall less ambitious, and often less driven in terms of their careers. So, it’s a mixed bag. I love the idea of all of us loving our jobs and careers and putting in tons of effort, but I think ideally we should also be able to take breaks and leave at a reasonable hour and have time for our lives and self care. Those two things should be able to co-exist!

    • Emily

      another thought: it creates a competitive atmosphere, even in totally unrelated situations! for ex, my boyfriend’s mom is a stay at home mom, yet will always talk about how ‘busy,’ ‘tired,’ or ‘stressed’ she is. being overworked, it really irks me!!! i feel like this is the other side of the romanticization of work stress – I feel at once self important and resentful because of my work stress, and can’t handle anyone who doesn’t also have it. am I the only one?

  • Lizzie

    This article popped up right as I’m in the middle of skipping my lunch break because I’m having stomach spasms over a client project. This project isn’t life or death and is in excellent shape. However, I am verbally beating myself up for a minor error our accounting team made that the client is taking out on me. While making it a huge deal to my friends and family, in part, I think so they know how much I value being a good worker.

    I am so OVER this culture of being SO dedicated to your work that everything else not only has to take a backseat but deserves too because it’s not WORK.

    It’s so ironic to me that millennials are considered work shy, self-absorbed, lazy, etc. when everyone I know in that age range works so hard they are often sick over it. I wonder if the cultural pressure to prove you are not “lazy” has become so embedded in our mindset that the primary focus is to show we work harder then anyone and will work through the flu, colds, severe depression, you name it to prove it. I realize for many companies employees personal health is at the bottom of the priority list, but I imagine prioritizing it at least somewhat closer to profitability on the list would easily translate into more productive, valuable workers.

    The wellness movement has a bit of an annoying reputation and has some ridiculous trends. However, the overall idea of valuing yourself and taking care of yourself is essential and not championed enough.

    How different would things be that instead of being celebrated and commiserated with for staying until 8 PM working, one was given tons of positive feedback for leaving work early to go to a fitness class or psychiatrist appointment? There are other things in the world besides working, even if you love your job and I worry I’m so focused on being the hardest worker I’m missing out on what other joys there are in life.

    Anywho, rant over. Harling excellent, thoughtful piece per usual. You brighten my day so regularly I feel like I should send you a thank you note.

    • Harling Ross

      that’s a really interesting point about the wellness movement — it’s ironic that that universe exists alongside the work stress industrial complex but also makes perfect sense that it would be born out it.

      P.S. your comment brightens my day. you’ve given me lots to think about!

  • S

    Life in America sounds absolutely exhausting

    • Harling Ross

      this comment made me smile

    • ihaveacooch

      it is

    • silla

      I’m in Australia, which is meant to have a super laid back culture, and it is EXACTLY the same here!

  • work stress is OVERRATED. What about being so on top of your work you take a full hour break to drink coffee and read??? Fika in the middle of the work day is what its all about: http://www.bestisabella.com/2017/08/the-importance-of-fika-in-my-daily-life.html

    • I haven’t been able to take a fika recently, because I’ve been so swamped (there it is again!) but I can feel that it is already taking a negative toll on my happiness levels at work and after work. Breaks are necessary people! Get outside and get some sun!

      • Harling Ross

        what’s a fika?!! i know I could google it but this feels like a more fun search engine

        • Janet

          It’s coffee in Sweden.

        • Anna

          Fika is a social institution in Sweden. This means taking a break from an activity to drink coffee, tea or any other drink, with or without snacks, with friends, family or acquaintances.

          A coffee can range from 15 minutes to 45 minutes. This tradition of a coffee break with some snacks is central to Swedish culture, with Swedes as one of the world’s largest coffee consumers.

          • Modupe Oloruntoba

            I need to know more! Where can I read about this?

          • Now I know why black coffee and cheese sandwiches feature so prominently in the girl with the dragon tattoo. Always confused me til now.

          • This sounds heavenly.

  • Ann P

    I can’t emphasise how much we need to stop doing this! Work stress will burn you out and fuck you up (relationships, physical and metal health) and unless you are extremely lucky it’s unlikely that the company you work for will care. They’ll just go and find someone else to break. Some industries will do this more than others.

    Also Harling I think you’ve raised an interesting point. Having too much you ‘want’ to do at once is I think different from having too much you ‘need’ to do at once. ‘Wanting’ to do something places it within your control. It’s when it all gets into the ‘need’ space, and beyond your control, that it gets problematic.

  • This makes me think of how people who are messy are often seen as free and easy going while people who are neater are seen as uptight. If you finish work at a reasonable hour you’re somehow slacking off more than someone who is really stressed? Sometimes the workloads are difficult and time consuming but if you’re consistently stressed out and working late then something is off either at the office or with time management.

  • Mimi Moss

    Ugh. As someone who owns my own business and worked 12 hour days, seven days a week for YEARS, I am so over “work stress.” I don’t believe that not vacationing is in any way admirable or healthy. I think American culture is super lame in this regard. Why did I stop working so much? Oh, because I got metastatic breast cancer in my early thirties – no family history and my Dr told me in no uncertain terms that it was time to change my lifestyle. So when people say dumb shit like “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” I usually think “Yes, yes you will.” I almost went on permanent vacation at age 34 from “work stress.” And it wasn’t romantic, glamorous or a cute bonding experience.

  • This phenomenon is not for me. It somehow seems like something for people who constantly need approval from the outside. Like someone down there said, life in America sounds exhausting. 😀

  • Modupe Oloruntoba

    Add all of this to the paranoia created by working in a fairly chill city and wondering if you only seem hard working by comparison to peers and would actually be considered a little lazy/slow if you moved somewhere with a faster pace… SO MUCH UNNECESSARY STRESS.

  • Michelle

    I think a lot of our stress is around how we manage our internal stress levels. Whenever I’m starting to feel work stress I take a deep breath and tell myself “we aren’t brain surgeons, if this or this doesn’t happen today, no one is going to die”. This really helps me. I felt a terrible amount of work stress 1.5 years back. I was sick constantly and really struggling with work internally. I still get my moments, but its 10 times better.

    • gracesface

      I agree. My husband struggles with this a lot and I always encourage him to try and manage his emotions best he can. I know a few months ago I was in a HORRIBLE place about my job – I did the best I could but I was anxious as hell about it (and working overnight which really fucks w/ you). I knew it wouldn’t REALLY get better until I went back to a daytime schedule but I did my best to make it okay for where I was right then and there.

  • As a naturally anxious person, I have always taken certain measures to try to avoid stress of all kinds, and I find it really hard to empathise with people who get off on feeling overloaded, though I know some people do.

    What I find most annoying about the fetishisation of overworking (which is deffo a thing here in the UK too, though nowhere near as much as the sates – you guys are absurd) is that it leads to rampant inefficiency, sleep deprivation, reduced creativity and poor decision making. Businesses that measure employee dedication by willingness to overwork are indulging in bucketloads of bias and bad science and my goodness do I hate bad science. Happy employees are efficient employees. We figured this out during the industrial revolution but for some reason we still can’t get over ourselves.

  • Theory: a lot of people who brag about being overworked are unaware that they are not coming across as successful.

    I met an old colleague of mine at leaving do recently. She just started working for a very well known affordable fashion site (yes, probably the one you’re thinking of), and had left my place of work partly due to burnout. Anyway the first thing she told me was that she had written her to do list before leaving work that day and it was 3 pages long. I’m sure she intended for this to convey her irreplacability to her new employer, but I just thought she was an idiot. If you’re senior(ish) delegating is a vital skill. If your ego is so huge you insist you need to do every tiny task yourself with no help you are actually a hindrance to the business you work for.

    Also: not the most scintillating party chat.

    (Double comment sorry! I just found this article so thought-provoking)

    • Jay

      Oh, Maddie, you are so right. Like though I do crazy hours – see my post on my „healthy work life balance“ – sometimes…

      I have a bunch of colleagues – and I am not in fashion – who seem to think the one who is at work first and leaves last gets the most credit.

      Totally not.

      From what I experience, and what I think it should be like (though I know firms that have a policy of monitoring when your lights go out at night…), it should still be the people who get the job done?!

      And by that I mean their job. Like delegating is part of it. Priorities are another really important one. Not hanging out at the coffee bar all the time is one. And not spending your work hours calling your parents or sexting with your tinder dates.

      It‘s not about time. It‘s not about to do items. It‘s about doing what needs to be done when it needs to be done.

  • Lanatria Brackett Ellis

    I guess that could happen , if you remotely ‘like your’ job…lol Definitely not the case for me.I work at the ‘happiest’ place on Earth.(not Disney)

  • Jay

    Hm.

    Called in sick today with a cold.

    Sitting on my laptop finishing a chapter on the study I‘m working on.

    Was scared all day that I cant make the deadline next Wednesday. Really wanna make it. Cold come cold go.

    But… is that healthy?

    I am not sure.

  • lillian c.

    I’m honestly the happiest I’ve been in a long time NOT trying that hard at my professional life. I have a job that pays decently (not amazingly but I live in a very cheap city) and that is relatively low stress albeit monotonous. Am I going to be in this position forever? Hell no, but it’s kind of nuts how happy I’ve been just not worrying about “working harder” and just doing the non professional aspects of my life (home, fitness, hobbies etc)

  • Catherine Bugler

    Thank you Harling for this article – talking about work stress is absolutely as much of a form of catharsis as it is bragging.
    I also think the fetishisation of busyness has definitely worsened in the last couple of years – Why? I suspect it’s because the employment market is so much more competitive now – you have to be highly skilled & hardworking in order to not be replaced by a computer or by the 300 other people who want your job.

  • silla

    This has come at such an interesting time for me. I’m a criminal prosecutor, and the sheer nature of that is stressful (dealing with serious injuries, murders, sex offenders, child victims of sexual assault etc etc) (woah – just caught myself romancing!!) but in the last week I took on about three court matters which took my workload from pretty stressful to overwhelmingly impossible. AND I LOVED IT! I felt such adrenalin in the stress, and a suck sick sense of pride in the fact that I was smashing myself to get these done and done to a high standard. It’s fucked up! But it also kind of makes me happy…so I’m confused! Food for thought. Always perfectly on point MR!

  • Eliza

    Such a great piece, the comments are just as enriching as the article! I’m concerned that we’ve become so engaged in this work stress romance that we’re letting our actual romantic lives fall apart. And I mean romantic in the sense of living with beauty and love, not just relationship romance.

    I worked for a global business based in Australia that proudly values work-life balance, the CEO walks out at 5.30pm every day. Staff are interrogated if they work long hours, everyone gets a bonus day off each months… the business is built on productivity and efficiency. (It is probably interesting to note that the North American office completely ignored this business culture and were known for consistently sending work emails at 1am – makes my heart hurt if this is normal or necessary in NA.)

    I worked in Social Media though, in a kind of under-resourced ‘team of one’ managing four brands, and even though the work wasn’t super intellectually challenging, it was always on. I fell asleep checking the channels at midnight and awoke at 5am and checked again.

    The business was big hearted and good, my colleagues creative and kind, I felt like I was fighting the good fight, that the work was somehow meaningful. I always had my phone in my hand, and when it wasn’t in my hand I was thinking about it in my pocket. This goes against everything I value and respect in others. I didn’t realise the lingering anxiety I was living with until I quit the job to travel a few months ago. Suddenly I slept at night and didn’t feel creeping fear in my gut each morning.

    And it’s only now, with a little space, that I realize how much I let every other relationship in my life fall apart during that time. No fights or aggression, just a slow dissolve of everything that mattered to me (including a marriage – I’ll include that for impact). And the more they fell apart, the harder I worked to escape those painful realizations.

    People (friends, family) are what I value most in all the world and though I would still be physically there for them, still attending the event, still hosting the dinner, still supporting the band, still hugging, I was never actually present, never fully there, just a ghost in the room, with a crocodile smile. My mind scattered. I felt like my heart stopped working, my life stopped being romantic.

    The thing I’m trying to understand now is why is being ‘hard work’ has become so sexy? Why isn’t being creative or kind or well-read what we brag about? The people in my life who are the most interesting are certainly not the ones with the crazy work stress.

    Currently I’m half living in Toronto and people keep asking what I’m doing here, and my answer is ‘nothing really’. They consider me ‘very brave’ for moving across the world, for not having a plan, for taking time to work out what I want to do next, but probably most consider me directionless and lazy (it’s there in the strained inflection/ awkward eye-contact aversion). But the great thing that comes with living without stress, is how little you suddenly care what people think of you!

    Anyway, I clearly have too much time on my hands (thanks to aforementioned pursuit of nothingness), but in summary, I think we’ve built this fortress of emails and busy-ness to make us feel worthy, and also so we can run from those hard personal things you mentioned. Being busy makes us feel like we can get cut-through in a world that is shouting passion and success and entrepreneurialism at us. It also means we don’t have to sit with our discomfort, see our flaws, realize we’re sad or angry or disconnected.

    But, here’s the trick, we are inherently worthy, irrespective of how hard we work or how fiscally successful we are. Our work isn’t our identity. And the demons we’re running from are probably less frightening in the light of day, especially when we have to time to breathe and process them.

    Harling, you’re a dream, thank you for writing this and for allowing me this absurdly long comment.

  • Aydan

    THIS is what a certain someone in my life needs to read. This is oppressive. This is wrong.

  • Raphaëlle

    So interresting. And so glad to read and talk about this issue.
    And it’s note only a US problem. I’m French and work is sooo becoming our number 1 value. (which used to be bread and making love, so much cooler…)
    I’ve never been stressed out because of work. Not because I don’t care, just because my work has never been that stressfull. It has taken time and dedication but no stress so far. I was a fashion journalist and now a brand content editor and my day to day life at work was and still is really peacefull. (and i know i’m lucky)
    Therefore it seems that i don’t have anything to talk about with my friends regarding work beause they seem to have a whole lot more on their plate. If you’re stressed out, then you’re important and what you feel is important and your job is important. And if you leave work at 8 pm then you’re sooo much more important than someone leaving at 6. ( As Carrie would say : “YOU ARE SO BUSY”)
    Stress is wrong. Life is short. Vacationing and discovering the world that exists outside the open space (wrong appelation btw) is good. You can love your job and try to avoid everything that links this precious job to stress. I do not envy my friend that tells me at the end of the week that it has been difficult and exhausting.
    Work is good, living this bloody life is better.
    (Love your posts btw !) (and sorry about the grammar or spelling mistakes)

  • Amanda

    tbh this toxic work culture is why I’m moving next year! When I get really stressed from work or school, I get these massive muscle spasms all throughout my neck and back and when I was younger, i used to consider this to mean that I was more dedicated to my work but it really meant that I had no balance! I feel like in America we pride ourselves on being “too busy” to have lives outside of our work and we consider people who have found balance to be lazy or not as committed (we also praise the extrovert here so introverted people like me take on more stress trying to fit into a culture that we just aren’t wired for). Like if you’re not dying quicker from the stress of your job then you must not really care … that’s so toxic! When I lived in Europe and I was taking courses above my degree level and doing research, I actually had balance because no one expected me to break my back (or my bank account lol but that’s another conversation) for my classes. I lost all my stress weight, my skin cleared, my friends and family kept commenting on how I looked like I was glowing! So I’m finally moving again! Goodbye America, hello happiness!! Thanks for providing an outlet for my rant!