Burning the candle at both ends can (and likely will) have the opposite intended effect.
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: Being overworked doesn’t lead to increased productivity. In fact, it usually leads to a poorer quality of work to go along with a poorer quality of life.
You might think your risk of overworking is lower now that you’re working from home to stop the spread of coronavirus. You’d be wrong. Even though you have access to all the comforts of home—your pajamas, dog, and fridge for starters—you’re still incredibly prone to burnout. Maybe even more so.
Deluded and defiant
So what if you’re stuck at home? The world is really, actually in peril and you need to do something—anything!—to hinder its decline. Defy the coronavirus by being even more productive than ever before! If that means staying up until 2 a.m. to finish reports, answer emails, further your research, schedule 17 Zoom meetings, and draft memos, so be it!
The National Bureau of Economic Research surveyed 3.1 million people working at 21,000 companies in North America, Europe, and the Middle East to compare two eight-week periods of employee behavior—one before Covid-19 lockdowns, and one after. According to the study, the workday has increased by 48 minutes, meetings are up by 13%, and we're sending an average of 1.4 more emails per day.
In an op-ed for Bloomberg, writer Gianpiero Petriglieri lamented how miserable “panic-working” has made him. Petriglieri is an associate professor of organizational behavior, not to mention a medical doctor and psychiatrist by training, so he knows a thing or two about the havoc that stress can wreak. Petriglieri says our frenzied need to plow through our work is something psychoanalysts refer to as “a manic defense.”
“Like all defenses, the obsession with staying productive is a source of dubious comfort,” he writes. “It sustains the pretense that if we work hard enough, we can hold onto the world we once knew.”
That just isn’t how work, well, works. A manic defense deludes us into thinking we're building resilience, which in turn sabotages, rather than advances, any progress we hope to achieve. Overworked, we falsely believe that any momentum is good momentum. In truth, without a strategy, we’re just running in circles, not actually getting anywhere, and wearing the soles of our shoes perilously thin.
Work smarter, not harder
There are two options: One, continue panic-working toward an inevitable burnout. Two, work sensibly and accept reality even though reality sucks right now for a lot of people.
In this particular instance, fighting fire with fire just makes more fire. We all have to help each other, but nobody can be any source of help or comfort to others while buckling under burnout. That renders you rather useless, which, ironically, is exactly what you were trying to disprove by burning the candle at both ends.
Tame the flame. Breathe deep, go for walks, and keep to a realistic work schedule. Remember to check in on your co-workers and see how they’re coping.