E-Notes: On Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and the Cult of Busy

Last week, The Wall Street Journal published a report about Tiktok’s work culture. I’m not a WSJ subscriber so I haven’t read the full article, but the Morning Brew cited a statistic that blew me away. Former Tiktok employees told reporters they averaged 85 hours of meetings per week. What?! Why?!

Exhaustion as a Status Symbol

In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown shares ten guideposts for wholehearted living. (I highly recommend the book and her podcast series discussing the book with her sisters is also fun.) One of those guideposts is “Cultivating Play and Rest: Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self-Worth.” I’ve listened to the book twice and this guidepost is still one of the hardest for me.

I’ve spent my life almost entirely focused on work (or juggling work and school, and extensive hours driving to both, in order to be prepared for future work opportunities.) Before my first job, I juggled clubs and organizations with school like they were a full-time job beginning in elementary school…there’s a reason this guidepost is hard.

At times, I sacrificed my mind, body, and spirit for previous jobs. Often impacting my physical and mental health and the amount of attention I contributed to my marriage, friendships, and community.

I no longer want to define my self-worth by my productivity. When someone asks how I’m doing, and I answer honestly (instead of “Busy!” or “Doing great!”), I no longer want to describe myself as “drowning but still getting sips of air through a straw” or “feeling frayed” as if someone could unravel me at any moment.

Photo by Daisa TJ on Pexels.com

I am an extremely productive and efficient worker. I don’t have to be exhausted or work constantly to be productive. I am a hard-working, resilient leader who gives the utmost dedication to my job, my employer, and my team. I am not going to stop pushing an organization forward, meeting deadlines, or being highly effective. However, I will no longer sacrifice relationships with my husband, family, friends, or colleagues for work. I will be vigilant about my time and very conscious about whether a project, meeting, or email is necessary, then set boundaries around when I will get the work done.

I know I will be a better leader for my next team because of the reflection and learning I’ve done around this topic in the past year. I apologize to anyone in the past who did not get my full attention/whose idea could not be implemented because I only had so much bandwidth. If it makes you feel any better, I remember those moments, they haunt me, and I will do better in the future.

I will no longer book my calendar so full of meetings that I can barely go the bathroom and arrive late to every meeting out of breath. I will slow down and swivel my chair. I will create space in my day for conversations about you, what you need, and how I can help you. I have worked for and been mentored by college presidents who model this type of focused attention very well. After meeting with them, I always feel heard, valued, and supported and I must do a better job of doing this for others.

As John Amaechi OBE says,

“You cannot hope to effectively lead others to sustained success if you are neglecting the needs of your own wellbeing.”

From The Promises of Giants by John Amaechi OBE

Brené is certainly practicing what she preaches. Check out today’s announcement about the Brené Brown Research Group’s summer sabbatical. In the post, Brené shares her reasons and the plans for not only her, but the organization too. Here’s an excerpt:

“And, to make sure we have a critical mass of restorative time in our organization, we’re closing the offices every Friday for paid time off, and everyone in the organization has been asked to take four weeks of paid vacation time this summer, in addition to their normal vacation time.

To make this work across our organization, we are going dark on social media effective today. We are also going on a podcast hiatus over the summer. We will be back on social and return to podcasting again after Labor Day.”

“Creating Space” by Brené Brown

If you want to read a very informative article about how you can evaluate the policies driving the work culture at the individual, team, and organizational level, please read “Exhaustion is Not a Status Symbol” by Melissa Boggs.

One organizational change not mentioned in Melissa’s article is replacing employees when they leave. As mentioned in “To Those Who Have Stayed” in The Repository last week, in higher education when someone leaves, that person’s duties are absorbed by the remaining staff. This is one practice that greatly impacts a person’s ability to avoid exhaustion and be effective, as they are now doing the jobs of two and sometimes three people. And yes, we will voluntarily agree to take on the duties because we want to “make ourselves valuable” and help the organization. Doing one job…the one you were hired for, should be enough.

When someone leaves, reflect on what positions and duties are now needed based on the skills of the remaining team. Update the remaining team’s job descriptions including the removal of some duties in exchange for new duties. Then identify the duties that will be covered by the new hire…because there should be a new hire to replace the person who left. Do not only pile on more. Everyone benefits if employees aren’t overextended and overworked.

If any of this resonates with you, I encourage you to join me in letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth. We will be better, healthier leaders leading healthier organizations with healthier employees, if we can embrace this guidepost.

The Cult of Busy

In The Promises of Giants, John Amaechi describes the trouble created when we know our jobs but are so busy we can’t see the forest for the trees.

“As we become more skilled in the technical demands of our work and more familiar with the routines of our workplaces, there is a natural tendency towards desensitization. It becomes easier to put on blinders and to operate on autopilot when carrying out responsibilities that have become habitual. Add to this toxic stew, the cult of busy, which mandates that all serious professionals look and sound like they have no time to breathe and you have a recipe for disaster.”

You better believe Seth Godin has some things to say about the topic of being busy.

Seth Godin’s post “Business/busyness” includes a good quote,

“Busy is not your job. Busy doesn’t get you what you seek. Busy isn’t the point. Value creation is.

You only get today once. Your team does too. How will you spend it?”

From “Business/busyness” by Seth Godin

In another post, “Busy is not the point,” he emphasizes there are no points for busy.

There’s a common safe place: Being busy.

We’re supposed to give you a pass because you were full on, all day. Frantically moving from one thing to the other, never pausing to catch your breath, and now you’re exhausted.

No points for busy.

Points for successful prioritization. Points for efficiency and productivity. Points for doing work that matters.

No points for busy.

Seth Godin’s “Busy is not the point”

How can we work together to remove the emphasis placed on exhaustion, overwork, and busyness? What commitments can we make to model healthy workloads, to protect our teams, and to change how we answer the question “How are things going?” I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below and as always thank you for reading.

Interested in digging into The Gifts of Imperfection? Check out The Whole Hearted Inventory and catch up on the 6-part series on Unlocking Us while the podcasts are on hiatus.

2 thoughts on “E-Notes: On Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and the Cult of Busy

  1. I wish more people would hear your message. When I was in a study group for my certification exam, one speaker talked to us about unhealthy work practice and ignoring oneself. He learned the hard way when he had a heart attack. Excellent blog this week.


    1. Thanks for reading! Making changes before it is too late is possible but it does take a mindset shift. Hopefully the momentum currently growing around employee health and well-being will keep spreading.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s