Today, we live in a burnout culture. I have mentioned this phenomenon before in previous posts and no wonder, because it is has such a pervasive, damaging effect on how we work and live our lives in the 21st century. This ‘burnout’ may manifest itself in different ways i.e. stress, fatigue or anxiety, though what is clear is that the primary offender is often one’s work life.
When trying to juggle and manage a demanding schedule and unrelenting work commitments, the first sacrifice to be made is almost always sleep. The clinical psychologist Vicki Culpin writes in The Business of Sleep that we are currently suffering from a “sleep epidemic”; Denis Campbell draws attention to the findings of The National Sleep Foundation in an article for The Guardian, which indicates that 16% of adults in the UK sleep for less that 6 hours a night. Inevitably, people often turn to artificial stimulants to compensate for the consequences of a lack of sleep with energy drinks, strong coffee and even caffeine tablets presenting themselves as a way to continue to function throughout the working day. Never mind leisure time, any spare moment throughout the week or even the weekend is precious and to be used to catch up on all things that pile up outside of work, such as doctors appointments, laundry, shopping or cleaning. When one has an unhealthy work/life balance, all other areas of life become marginalized so that life has little purpose outside an office cubicle.
It is abundantly clear that this emphasis on overwork and the idea that salary and career should come first has a hugely detrimental impact on the psyche of workers and society as a whole. A recent study shows that when people feel a degree of power after, say, after a promotion or a salary increase, they are less likely to be empathetic towards others – in indication that the philosophy our work culture is based on favors an unhealthy breed of individualism over collective social well being.Christopher Harvey’s article for GQ calls attention to the urgency and gravity of the issue, hilighting that
Half of all employees do not feel their workplace is an emotionally healthy environment, with 55 per cent of organisations having no formal strategy for handling employee wellbeing. Absenteeism increased 25 per cent over the course of the past year in the UK, highlighting that burnout is set to get worse, not better.
Overwork and burnout have become badges of honor that employees wear with pride, many people familiar with the routine smug moaning bragging of their colleagues over how little sleep they’ve had or how many hours overtime they just had to put in the night before. How much one works has morphed into a way to judge others on their work ethic, with colleagues routinely battling it out to be the most assiduous worker, a phenomenon known as “busy bragging”.
Though this might appear to work in the favour of employers, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that work-related stress and sleep deprivation, however dedicated employees may be, leads to a less productive and efficient work force. When companies exert too much pressure on their employees, it becomes harder and harder to retain staff, leading to a high staff turnover. A Forbes article calls attention to the fact that
Paradoxically, overwork does not equate to higher levels of productivity but instead only to those of work-related mental and physical health issues such as depression, anxiety and high blood pressure.
Perhaps, to curb the effects of this dangerous trend, we should re-envision what it means to be a working man or woman in 2018. Though it may sound naive and idealistic, this should be the year that we change our workplace culture so that the well being and mental health of employees comes before profit at all costs. In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle sets out how he believes the ideal state should be constituted, happiness the central idea behind a functioning, flourishing society. For Aristotle, all actions have ends though some are subordinate to others, the ultimate end being that of ‘eudaimonia’ or human flourishing, essentially “doing and living well”. Moreover, while individual happiness is of value, it again is subordinate to the happiness and flourishing of a community, a philosophy we would do well to incorporate into our profit-driven modern society. Work is a means to an end – that being the happiness or flourishing of ourselves and our community – rather than an end in itself.
More and more, we are seeing corporate wellness programmes enter the workplace which give staff the opportunity to engage in activities such as mindfulness, yoga and exercise to improve their mental and physical health, though admittedly these are the companies that can afford such expenditure on their staff – often not the case for the majority of businesses. Instead, then, perhaps employers could be encouraged to try to engage with staff more on a personal basis, give them more credit for the work they put in and cease to encourage employees to work until breaking point by removing the individual pressure placed on them. It is becoming abundantly clear that businesses need to start putting people before profit not only because it is the right thing to do but also because a happy, healthy workforce is crucial to a well-functioning economy.
What with the internet and social media, the society we are currently living in nurses a culture of oversharing. We now share everything, including our bodies, tastes, habits and histories; nothing really is taboo. Without a second thought, we let those we know, our ‘friends’ or followers, what we’re reading, eating, where we’re going and what we’re buying. At face value, this may seem harmless though there is plainly a sinister undercurrent to this seemingly innocuous habit.
More and more, we offer up our personal information to be consumed by others, the essence of the issue lying in the fact that all of our actions have become performative and about marketing, be it a service, product or most often ourselves. Though this fascination with the intimate details of people’s lives is nothing new, this “narcissism epidemic”, as The Guardian refers to it, can be traced to the rise in popularity of reality TV, from shows like The Real World to Big Brother to Keeping Up With The Kardashians which glamorized the minutae of the everyday and gave audiences a taste for ever more in-depth access to peoples’ lives.
Effectively, sharing everything about ourselves on social media creates a ‘cult of the self’ where the ordinary and banal is made exciting with the automatic assumption that others are interested to hear about it. Scrolling through my Facebook feed, I see incredibly personal posts about chronic illnesses, people opening up about their sexuality and generally filling us in on almost everything, even what they had for lunch. Though there are undeniably positive aspects to this honestdirect approach to sharing, my first impression is that it indicates a fundamental insecurity, a fragility where we look outwards for affirmation and approval rather than inwards.
This apparent self-confidence actually masquerades as insecurity as we are totally dependent on others in how we see ourselves. Though we might share some good news that we are excited about, such as a pregnancy or a promotion at work, by putting it on social media we are also seeking approval from our audiences. So often is it the case that someone will share a photo of themselves that they feel confident about, only to remove it days later because it hasn’t accumulated the right amount of likes to justify its being on their profile. The phenomenon is entirely different to self-love as rather than looking inwards and being content with oneself one must look outwards to achieve a similar degree of satisfaction.
Earlier this month, Anna Freedman wrote an interesting piece for Dazed and Confused magazine about the Kylie Jenner’s decision to delay releasing news of her pregnancy until after the birth of her daughter Stormi. Freedman writes of how the young woman’s decision was “a masterclass in how to publicly strategise the private and intimate phenomenon of motherhood”. Much like the oversharing that has proved so profitable for her family, Kylie Jenner has now shown how “privacy and intimacy can be employed as skillful marketing tactics”. Even privacy is now a marketing tool, though it is important to remember that this ‘privacy’ swiftly came to an end after the birth when an 11 minute video was shared chronicling her journey through pregnancy to mollify fans who felt they had been kept in the dark. Kylie Jenner is only one of many who have shown that online performance now knows no bounds, promoting the idea that the key to success lies in the ‘share’ button.
Like all things, though, it’s not all bad; undeniably, there are some positives to this direct approach to social media. Things that were once taboo, such as medical or mental health conditions, for example, are more widely discussed. Similarly, sharing platforms can be used to find like-minded people or those that you identify with, the internet often acting as a space for marginalized groups, such as the LGBT community, to come together. We are becoming more and more confident with expressing ourselves and, in this way, wearing our hearts on our sleeve, though while this approach may be direct it is not necessarily honest. Though we might share a lot about ourselves, we share carefully and choose exactly what we want people to know or to see to align with how we want to be perceived.
In sharing intimate details of our everyday lives, it is no surprise that studies show that narcissistic traits are becoming more common and more pronounced, particularly among young people who are the principal users of these sharing platforms.
The graph shows the Narcissistic Personality Inventory score set against the year, gleaned from an online self-test, it being clear that there has been a definite rise in narcissistic traits in recent years. This trend is clearly only likely to continue in a society that tells us that everything we do is fascinating and that everyone would like to hear about it. Zoe Williams again puts it well writing for The Guardian as she sums up the belief as “once you are important enough, nothing is mundane”. In sharing everything about our lives, we are hoping – consciously or not – to obtain some kind of approval or reassurance about ourselves that is undoubtedly a hugely unhealthy habit. TIME magazine recently ran an article that links poor mental health to social media usage, particularly of Instagram, accounting for higher levels of depression and anxiety based on poor self-esteem. When we log in to our social media accounts, we are bombarded with stories of our friends going out or on holiday, news of their successes and photos showing just how attractive they are, inevitably leading to negative comparison making about ourselves.
So much of this oversharing is borne out of the need to market oneself – so telling about the society that we live in. Nowadays, the individual is king, a philosophy that breeds the need to market oneself to succeed. According to Jean Twenge, joint author of The Narcissism Epidemic, “Economic prosperity does seem to be linked to individualism” partly explaining the boom in sales of products marketed and advertised over social media and sharing platforms, particularly Facebook, Instagram and Youtube. On sites such as these, people become a highly lucrative brand, the Kardashian sisters evidently a case in point. On Friday, he BBC reported that Kylie Jenner’s decision to tweet that she no longer uses Snapchat regularly “wiped $1.3bn (£1bn) off Snap’s stock market value”, an indication of how interlinked the personal and financial are in our heavily digitized modern society. Zoe Williams writes insightfully of how the careful curation of our social media accounts creates “a competitive culture in which asserting one’s difference, one’s specialness, is the bare minimum for being market-ready.”
Oversharing and self-branding is now an ingrained a part of our everyday, bleeding into our all aspects of our lives including our personal relationships and work life; suffice it to say, it is difficult to know how to adopt healthy digital habits that preserve and promote mental well-being for the future. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, recently announced that the site would be working to prioritize “more meaningful social interactions” over paid-content like media articles or advertising as “We[they] feel a responsibility to make sure our services aren’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being”. TIME mentions a report on social media usage conducted by the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health which “recommends the introduction of a pop-up “heavy usage” warning within these apps or website” which seems to have considerable popular support.
Regrettably, neither of these proposed solutions adequately seem to tackle the multifaceted and vastly complex underlying issue, though this is hardly surprising. Perhaps, along with policy changes and the actions of major corporations and civic bodies, it will really take the will of the people who use these platforms for any meaningful change to take place. Maybe rather than living our lives as open books, privacy might replace oversharing as the new social media trend, as unlikely as the prospect may seem. With all this uncertainty, it seems that all we can really do is think before we share and wait and see.
The other day, I was stacking shelves where I work and was shocked at the conversation I overheard between two young girls popping in for a post-workout snack which went something like this: “I want to buy something healthy – what about these gluten-free dairy-free brownies? Or the vegan wheat-free flapjacks?” “Oh but look at the price” “Oh yeah *groan* it’s so hard to eat healthy – it’s all so expensive”. The girls left the shop with only a small pot of melon slices each – apparently it was the only ‘healthy’ food on offer that they could afford. I was left rather confused and disgusted, having been confronted with the inescapable force of the food trend that everyday shows itself to be more and more problematic, that being the ‘clean’ eating phenomenon that seems to have stealthily taken over attitudes towards food in recent years.
The link between poor mental health and ‘clean’ eating is undeniable, particularly when in is exacerbated by the pressure and strains of social media. The subject has been well documented by health organizations, the eating disorder charity Beat recording a rise in the number of calls to its hotline over the past few years linked to anxiety overly restrictive food rules. Documentaries such as the BBC’S Clean Eating’s Dirty Secrets and Clean Eating – The Dirty Truth have exposed the fragility of many of the claims being made and the impact they have on those exposed to them. Eating disorders are serious mental conditions that can have devastating consequences – anorexia having the highest mortality rate of any mental illness – and affect all age groups, ethnicities and genders. Recently, the phenomena of orthorexia, defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy”, has come to popular attention, though it cannot currently be clinically diagnosed. Social media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook alongside other sharing platforms like Youtube act like a petri dish, facilitating the growth of myriad restrictive and absolutist diet trends that often overlap and contradict one another, flying in the face of well-researched evidence on what a truly healthy diet for body and mind might actually look like.
To make matters worse, food becomes a moral issue with a hugely negative impact on the mental health of vulnerable young people. What one eats comes to be placed in to two categories, namely foods that are ‘good’ and those that are ‘bad’. This black and white thinking generates a lot of anxiety for people who feel that they are failing if they do not meet these exacting standards. As mentioned earlier, the emergence of orthorexia nervosa points to a serious problem with our attitude towards food, orthorexia also translated as a “fixation on riteous eating”. This could not be more telling, food not only being a way to fuel our bodies on a daily basis but a means to improve our moral character, to become a “righteous” individual by proxy. Eating the ‘wrong’ food triggers self-loathing and acute anxiety, the message behind the moralism being that we are intrinsically unworthy and it is only through eating the ‘right’ way that we can somehow vindicate ourselves.
It is ironic, then, this obsession with restrictive diets often proves to be unhealthy, not only mentally but physically. Much of the ‘clean’ eating movement is based on pseudoscience concocted by individuals financially invested in this lucrative lie. Restrictive food rules are dressed up as science and packaged seductively, be it in a beautiful and slim food vlogger, an expensive new cookbook or a new range of pricey products in the supermarket. Often, these companies make dubious claims about what their products can do, some saying that they reverse disease, aid weight loss or garuntee an overall ‘healthy glow’. Many, if not most, of these corporations rely on a kernel of truth which they exaggerate and capitalize upon. A significant number of these ‘clean’ celebrities do not have the appropriate medical qualifications to be touting such advice, taking advantage on the vulnerability and ignorance of their customers to turn a profit. In a piece featured in The Guardian, Bee Wilson insightfully points out how
clean eating confirms how vulnerable and lost millions of us feel about diet – which really means how lost we feel about our own bodies. We are so unmoored that we will put our faith in any master who promises us that we, too, can become pure and good.
The promise of wellness is, however, a mirage.
Crucially, this trend is also having a sinister effect on society as a whole, particularly in regards to class and elitism, food offering yet another way to divide and segregate. These so-called ‘health’ foods are marketed at inordinately high prices in full awareness that their affluent target market are willing to pay extra to opt into the ‘clean’ eating club. Food is an accessory, a statement of class, completely inaccessible to those who cannot afford to participate. Only the wealthy can afford to pay £3.99 for Deliciously Ella’s Original Granola when Tesco’s own is under half the price, or £2 for Rude Health’s organic oat milk when cows milk costs just £1.50 for more than triple the amount.
The clean, healthy eating movement is essentially a vanity project for the middle class, food being just one more way to distinguish the haves from the have-nots.
This movement is the perfect money-spinner, as where diets or eating trends used to be temporary, this trend is permanent and necessitates a complete and sustained lifestyle overhaul.Despite what the advertising industry would like you to believe, it is entirely possible to lead a healthy lifestyle without emptying your savings account.
Similarly, this same movement is contributing to the divorce of food from its social and historical context; once deeply embedded in a collective culture, certain foods turn into trivialized fads in the western world. Matcha green tea -an integral part of the ancient Japanese tea ceremony – has been adopted and can now be consumed as a latte, ice-cream or even a ‘chocolate matcha butter cup’. Quinoa, once an obscure crop from South America to many in the west has become as basic a grain as pasta. Foods that are integral to a culture heritage are taken and commercialized as the next ‘it’ food, only to be dropped and forgotten to make way for the next trend. Food is often imbued with cultural significance so the idea that a middle-class young food vlogger in Shoreditch has just ‘discovered’ the versatility and health benefits of sorghum when it has been growing in Africa for centuries and is the fifth most popular crop in the world is not only arrogant but demeaning too.
The myths of the ‘clean’ eating movement – essentially ‘fake news’ – could be debunked with proper education about the reality of what constitutes a healthy diet. No, eating only alkaline foods will not reverse cancer. No, you do not need to blow your next paycheck on the most expensive products in the supermarket to be well. No, cutting out gluten when you are not coeliac or even intolerant will not necessarily make you feel ‘energised’, neither will it make you a better person. With proper education, many of the ‘truths’ of the industry would be exposed as lies. Yet this would not solve the other equally if not more important issue of the sense of moral superiority associated with ‘clean’ eating.
Until we stop feeling the need to make ourselves feel better at the expense of others and by appealing to the standards set by the advertising industry, this distinctly unhealthy trend and accompanying mindset is here to stay.
It was only after a friend pointed out that my wardrobe was slowly beginning to look like a collection of cast-offs from from Clueless that I really considered how much I love the colour pink. Dusky, pale and delicate, I can safely say that I am going through my pink phase now as an adult, having missed out on one as a so-called ‘tomboy’ child.Though it is arguably a much misunderstood colour, I would like to come to its defence against popular opinion to maintain that the colour pink is an empowering symbol of the feminine that I, as a female, am proud to show off. In abstract, pink has far more positive connotations than one might originally think; psychologically speaking, for instance, it is associated with tenderness, love and compassion, hugely important and valuable characteristics for anyone to possess. We are doing ourselves a disservice by disassociating these qualities with masculinity, carelessly conceiving of gender in binary categories with little thought to the effect on the mental health of those exposed, young children being particularly vulnerable to such black-and-white thinking.
Admittedly, pink can indeed be representative of an unhealthy version of femininity, particularly in regards to the way that products and lifestyles are marketed to young people. It is no coincidence that pink gender-oriented products are intended for girls and often endorse a problematic interpretation of what it means to be feminine, the emphasis placed on passivity and unassertiveness, even fragility by implication. The industry is dominated by of princesses, unicorns and plastic babies, only furthering the promotion of the values listed above. In recent years, there has been much coverage of the issue of prescribing lifestyles and behaviours on the basis of biological sex, often to the detriment of mental health and self-image. Arguably, however, it is not pink that is the problem, but society’s perception of the nature of femininity, it being entirely possible to reclaim this misunderstood colour to be a symbol of empowerment and strength rather than humility and submissiveness.
Pink is the colour of Japan’s world famous cherry blossom or ‘sakura’ which draws visitors from all over the world to admire its beauty and transience. Pink is the colour that flooded my cheeks after my recovery from life-threatening anorexia, a signifier of my regained strength and health. Indeed, pink is the colour that the thousands of women chose to wear as hats at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, the largest single day rally in the history of the US that united women across boundaries of gender, race, sexuality and religion. In the past, even, pink was a colour intended for boys as it was the more ‘vibrant’ shade said to denote strength and vigour.
What symbols represent is relative and often determined by one’s cultural reference point, hence there a flexibility to them that allows for diversity of meaning. Contrary to Western ideas about the benevolent sun and the “jealous” moon, for example, the Bacongo of Angola believe, according to Jogn S. Mbiti, ”the moon is the place of coolness and happiness where good men go after death; and the sun is the place of punishment for the wicked”. Naturally, symbols often have a flipside, much like the colour pink as a symbol of femininity; yes, as a female I can be empathetic, I can be tender, I can be caring but I can also be vibrant, full of strength, love and self-belief.
It’s possible, then, that pink is so divisive a colour because it is a symbol of the conflicted and complex way women are viewed in society. Socially, pink has become representative of the feminine whether you like it or not, making the issue about how this symbol is to be interpreted. Yes, it can have a crippling and detrimental impact on the way women see themselves and their purpose in life when it is aligned with crippling and detrimental views about the role of women. In like manner, it becomes empowering then it is interpreted as encompassing all of the positive aspects of femininity.
As a start to the New Year, I hope to use this space to encourage myself and others to make more time for themselves and to be more aware of their mental health, the topic of evaluating one’s priorities right seeming appropriate to the way in which I would like to begin 2018. This was all sparked by a chance encounter I had the other day, when I happened to meet a man who had recently moved to the UK from India to study, a conversation that led me to reflect on the culture I am familiar with here in the UK. While fixing my phone, he described in detail his town and friends back home, it being clear that – however many positive aspects there are to the UK- there are certain crucial things that many in this country often neglect to the detriment of their quality of life. In India, so he said, his friends were up for a good time whereas in the UK. they had to be painfully persuaded before they might go out or relax. Newly arrived, he was keen to explore and sought to take a round trip to Scotland, asking his new flat mates to come along. Shockingly, they only agreed to come once he had offered to pay for them, later allowing him to shoulder the entire financial burden as they were too concerned about ‘wasting’ their precious time and money on such an excursion.
This is telling of the attitude that pervades society as I know it, the man aptly using the word ‘conservative’ to describe the British attitude to having a good time. It is important to point out, however, that this may have been because he was a student, hence money and time do become legitimate excuses for not going on lengthy, expensive trips around the country. Additionally, I should make clear that by ‘having a good time’ I am not referring to the culture of binge drinking and burnout that I and so many others, particularly young people, are so accustomed to. Instead, by that term I make reference to things that bring genuine and lasting pleasure, that are conducive to true satisfaction and mental well being, examples including going out (or in) to have dinner with close friends, visiting a museum or art gallery, going for a walk or out to see a movie or a musician perform live. These activities need not be expensive or even particularly time-consuming, encompassing anything that brings joy such as a casual coffee morning or trip to the cinema. Though these sound so simple, my own experience indicates that there are so many things that get in the way which make these practically impossible or even seem like overly indulgent ways to spend one’s time.
Not meaning to make any generalizations, I would ask one to compare this mindset to the cafe culture of the continent or nightlife of central and southern America, where restaurants and bars are open till late and customers often sit chatting into the small hours. It is this that I perceive many in the UK to be lacking, this flexibility and openness to pleasure, particularly among those of my own generation. As cliched as it is, I would say that here we seem to have our priorities wrong, valuing productivity over pleasure, industriousness over indolence and wealth over well-being which we would do well to reevaluate and place more importance on making time and space for ourselves over the coming year.
“I can’t buy those flowers just for me – I don’t deserve them“; “I’m a failure – I don’t deserve his support“; “I’m tired but I don’t deserve to rest – I have work to do“. The way I see it, many people today partake in a ‘deserving culture’ where any positive thing in your life must come from graft, even from necessity, to justify its place there. We seem to project our ideas about right and wrong onto non-moral features of the world, which come to embody our vulnerability, our profound insecurity and leave us with a negative view of the self and our personal worth.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of women, who are praised for actively denying themselves things that bring them pleasure or joy, as this allegedly speaks of their strength of character. For decades, we have been living in a diet culture where the expectation is for women to cut out certain foods that might derail their progress in weight loss or fitness, the result being that the food you chooses to eat becomes an issue of personal virtue. It’s not difficult to see this if one is only to look at the way that so-called ‘bad’ foods are labelled and marketed, companies using words such as ‘indulgent’, ‘naughty’ and ‘sinful’ to attract guilt-ridden customers. The implication here is that people – particularly women – should generally be abstaining from such treats as they are one manifestation of a kind of moral weakness, that they might only be consumed as part of a ‘cheat day’ or if they go on to spend three hours at the gym. In a similar way, those that work excessively and leave little time for themselves or their personal life become the object of admiration, of approval, as the phenomenon of “busy bragging” clearly suggests. It is thought that these people have their priorities ‘right’, that choosing to eat a donut on the way home or have a couple of hours to yourself at the weekend is somehow a failing, a moral shortcoming. As far as I can see, this affects most people that I know and extends to all areas of life, money being only one other example. My personal philosophy is that I should save every penny, only spending anything when absolutely necessary or for the benefit of someone else, an attitude shared by many I know that is only conducive to guilt and self-punishment.
On the surface, it seems as though this lifestyle promotes hard-work, self-restraint and abstemiousness – undoubtedly a positive thing – though it’s not difficult to perceive how this might feed into an unhealthy outlook on life as well as the perception of your self-worth. If we are constantly telling people that they must deny themselves that which gives them pleasure, that which brings them joy – however fleeting or superficial – we instill them with the idea that they must deserve these things to justify having them, the implication being that they are intrinsically undeserving or unworthy.
This phenomenon is nothing new, however, discernible in many philosophies and religions of the past which have certainly had an impact on the attitudes of people today. Inscribed at the Ancient Greek Oracle of Delphi, however, is the phrase Meden Agan or ‘Nothing in excess’. Rather than punishing ourselves for feeling or desiring certain things, we ought to embrace these desires and cut ourselves a bit of slack, as long as we retain the right balance or equilibrium. This is when self-affirmation becomes so important in bolstering the way one feels about oneself, it being essential that this self-denial does not come to dominate the way we see ourselves. Rather than making ourselves feel lesser ornot good enough, we ought to treat ourselves with the respect and dignity that we would give to others, requiring both thought and action. Eat that donut if it’s what you fancy, as long as you have an otherwise balanced diet. Actively try to carve out a few hours jut for yourself within the week, whatever you can, as some respite from a hectic work life. Get enough sleep. Drink enough water. Sometimes, be selfish. Such an attitude is imperative to maintain a healthy and sustainable work/life balance as well as mental and physical health. Make an effort to incorporate small things into your life that oppose the mentality that you are undeserving and do things, however small, that bring you joy.