I read on the news today that Anthony Bourdain has committed suicide. Just a few days ago, Kate Spade also took her life due to prolong depression. Avicii, the talented musician, did not see the silver lining of his life either. These are all tragedies related to depression and inability to find a positive thing about their lives. It could be the pressure of producing art pieces or content; it could be non-stopping prying of personal life; it could also be the in-born weak mental ability to handle stress. Whatever the reason, it is clear that career success does not translate to happiness.
While I have never been in the limelight to understand how lonely it is to be there, I have seen cases of normal people achieving greatness in their profession and still fall into serious depression. The rate of suicide is astounding in Japan where the work culture is absolutely insane. People are falling a street on the street due to work exhaustion.
Admittedly, it is unfair to consider Japan as a statistic because it is too bizarre in every aspects there. However, Asia in overall is much more workaholic than other regions of the world. Our deeply rooted needs to prove our self-worth through academic achievements, owning cars and houses, having a successful career all by the time we are 25 years old seem reasonable in the eyes of family members and society at large.
As a young Asian, since I am already failing in having a family at my age, I have only my work to put my focus in. Starting out in an agency, I’m accustomed to working 12 hours a day to chase the deadline by clients. Even when that life is behind me, different companies here still demand a fast response time which requires employees to be nimble and available on demand.
Asia economy is moving so quickly, especially in fast developing country like mine. It is not surprising to see an email ending with “appreciate your response ASAP”. Everything is ‘today’, ‘be quick’ or ‘right now’ as if my life depends on it. Well, it kinda is, simply because if we do not be quick, competitors will jump in at the blink of an eye. If this employee doesn’t do it, he can be quickly replaced by someone else since there are so many out there.
Let’s not discuss about the quality of employees who can be easily replaced because the skill sets are limited so they are easily replaceable. Even for skilled workers at high level, the pressure is even bigger to produce miracles transformation at the cost of personal time and relaxation. We are ALWAYS available through emails, phone calls and Whatsapps. Even more so, I am frequently contacting and being contacted via Facebook Messengers, Viber, Line or whatever channel there are. When I am on holiday, there is a constant thought at the back of my head that my work can reach me anytime to ask about anything (which has always happened). It seems to be industry-wide practice to end your holiday auto reply message with “I’m reachable via…”. Even after-hour when you are not required to work, our brain is still wired to think about all the bullshit happening at work and how to solve them. We are never truly disconnected from work anymore.
I used to think my work defines who I am. It has a nice ring to it when you introduce yourself to someone the first time with your title or work place next to it. The world glorifies people whose job is at prestigious place or with a respectable title. You can see the proud look of mothers to her envious friends when her child is some sort of big shot at a company.
With family, friends envy a good job, my adrenaline skyrockets with pride. So in order retain that sensation self-worth, I throw myself at work like a moth. With my dedication, nobody tells me to stop. No company would stop a workaholic. Even at my off time, I cannot seem to get detached from work. It is my work is my life. The pressure of feeding oneself constraint a person from daring to think about something else rather than work. Maybe we have been taught to approach work in a very unhealthy way.
The solution to this work over-exhaustion seems to be the famed work-life balance mantra. All the Scandinavian countries are famous to be happy because of this balance. But it seems unsuitable to this region of aggressive competition in the world. You can have work-life balance but what feed your mouth? If you stop working without a back up, how can you ensure a reasonably comfortable lifestyle. You have to show your friends and family you can travel too, you can have fine dining too and you can take your kids to good school too.
This is why so many have a side jobs to work around the system. This creates a kind of compartmentalization where you can put your brain and energy in one thing at a time. It frees yourself up from over-indulged in one place. There is also a practice of detachment where you actively remind yourself to stop thinking about work outside official hours. This involves taking up hobbies, finding people to hang out with or having something else to get distracted from thinking about work. The method feels similar to the way someone learns to forget about an ex after a break-up. It is tempting to think about, to over work your mental with details. But it is unhealthy.
Of course feeling depressed over work can be made better if we have a “work-spouse”. This person is someone you can vent about work with. It is your best friend at work who understand work issues and bitch along when the time comes. Work is always stressful but a “work-spouse” can make it better by helping you let off some steam. You can share inside jokes, juicy gossips or mutual hatred with someone. I am fortunate to have found people I can click with at work. It makes the stressful times because hilarious and it is useful. You can laugh it it with someone understanding next to you. If you can find everything at work funny, you have got a great place to be in.
While it is such a long way to go in order for me to fully learn coping with work place exhaustion, it is a good start learning to compartmentalize my thinking. Help start with your inner self and the realization that you have to take an active step in ensuring your happiness at work.