Anna Schultz-Girl On Computer Stress

Being Overworked and Sleep-deprived Is Not Cool...so Let’s Stop Pretending It Is!

Here’s a new drinking game idea: Take a shot every time someone says, “I’m pulling another all-nighter today, and all I’ve had is coffee,” or something to that effect. If your social circle is anything like mine, chances are you’ll pass out within the hour. I wish I was exaggerating but the truth is, this downright toxic culture surrounds us all and it’s ugly. In fact, it’s so damaging that in Japanese, there’s a word for people dying from being overworked: Karoshi. And admittedly, I’m one of its worst perpetrators.

Right since high school, I’ve found myself practically bragging about the chronic sleep deprivation and reliance on black coffee to make it through the day — a trend that’s only amplified after coming to college. Especially at a school like UC Berkeley, stress culture isn’t just normal; it’s glamorized. We pride ourselves on achievement while neglecting our health and wellbeing, eventually turning to “self-care” like acai and green juice to replace our fundamental needs as humans: sleep and nutrition. Nothing wrong with acai or green juice, but it’s ludicrous to expect those things to make up for ignoring your body’s basic needs.

Woman Sitting on Chair While Leaning on Laptop

Worse, this isn’t just a trend among college students. The tendency to glorify our overworked schedules persists in older adults, and several studies such as one from the Harvard Business Review have found that the stress from being overworked “can lead to all sorts of health problems, including impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease.” These side effects from working countless hours a week aren’t exactly rocket science, so one might ask, “Why do we do this in the first place? Why do we feel proud when we tell someone how tired, busy, and stressed we are?”

Those are great questions, and like so many lifestyle choices, the answer is a complex mix of factors. One of the largest contributors is our psychological insecurity and need for validation. We all want to do a good job, we want our bosses, managers, and teachers to respect us. We want to make them happy, and in the rat race of demonstrating our commitment, we don’t give any thought to our own peace of mind. We also want validation from those we love, like our friends and family. It feels much more fulfilling to say, “I can’t make it today because I’m in meetings all day,” than to say, “I’m taking some time for myself today.” In the world we live in, the former is respectable and flattering, the latter lazy and irresponsible.

notes pinned to a board

That’s probably the single most devastating part of this phenomenon. We’ve reached a point where it’s unacceptable and “work-shy” to focus on ourselves and our health. Glamorizing being overworked and making unhealthy lifestyles seem attractive contributes to that mindset — and it needs to stop. It can be difficult to break that train of thought when we’ve internalized all that “good work ethic” rhetoric, but there are some simple changes that can make a huge difference. Here are some tips that may help:

#1: Changing your inner dialogue: Instead of punishing yourself for every hour you’re “unproductive,” remind yourself that you’re taking the time to take care of yourself. You need this time to work better and be the best version of yourself, so tell yourself how important this time is in the long run, both for your work as well as your health.

#2: Remember that “self-care” doesn’t need to be anything fancy: No, you don’t need an expensive face mask (though they are kinda nice!) to consider it self-care. You could do something as simple as taking a walk or playing with your dog — whatever makes you feel good and frees your mind of work is just as effective as a form of self-care.

#3: Consider picking up a hobby: It may seem like the last thing you want to do, to have another time commitment when you’re trying to destress, but finding a fulfilling hobby can be a powerful mental tool. If you’ve always wanted to paint or get back to playing the piano, go for it — it’s cathartic and a wonderful way to relax and unwind.

#4: Seek help if you think you need it: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with reaching out. It doesn’t mean you’re weak or anything of the sort; if anything, having the self-awareness to reach out when you know you need it is a sign of strength and maturity. Call a friend or family member, and if you think you would benefit from more support, consider therapy or counseling. Ultimately, it’s about doing whatever you need to do to make sure your needs are met so that you can function as well as possible, in and out of the workplace. 

men sitting on bench

Remember, we’re not perfect. We often make grand plans, but then life gets in the way. There will absolutely be times when you need to pull those all-nighters or stay inside studying instead of having a good time (looking at you, midterm season). There will be times when you are swamped with work and have to be in three time zones a week. You may be unable to see family and friends for a while, and you might go weeks without socializing or working out sometimes. That's OK. What’s not OK is to normalize and glamorize these scenarios and to accept that it is a way of life. It’s all about finding that balance, which means realizing that while there are times when we need to burn the midnight oil, those times shouldn’t become the narrative of our daily lives. 

Ultimately, we don’t want to count the days we lost due to burnout and chronic exhaustion; we want to count and cherish every memory we make doing what we love with the people we love. And that can’t happen while we proudly live on endless amounts of caffeine and sleep deprivation, so let’s stop pretending we want to. Let’s accept that we deserve better and take time to make that change happen so that we can look back with pride — not because of how we were working all the time, but because we came away feeling empowered, recharged, and ready for anything.