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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