The Big Tired: Reflections on work hibernation. Why are we so tired and how the hell do we wake up?

There’s no beating around the bush, people’s relationship with work is in crisis. We’re tired of hustle and grind culture and some of us are even feeling physically exhausted from doing the bare minimum at work. As spring has officially sprung, I’m wondering, are we slowly coming out of hibernation or do we need more than a season change to get over 'The Big Tired’?

Words by Anna Lena Götzmann

Complaints about work aren't anything new, but the discourse around them is changing and hard to escape these days. The buzzwords du jour ‘Quiet Quitting’ and ‘The Great Resignation’, are all over news articles and trending on social media. Bleak portrayals of the illusion that is the work/life balance are running themes in our favourite TV shows (I’m talking about Severance and The Bear). And recently in politics, New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern stepped down stating she “no longer has enough in the tank to do the work justice. It's that simple."

These conversations about work fatigue centre on the overall role and capacity that work takes up in people's lives, from wanting to have more boundaries through to carving out more time for non-career oriented things. It’s as though we realise that there’s more to us than our jobs and we put work back into its place - as far as we’re privileged enough to be able to. In essence, we’re moving away from achievement narratives, towards self fulfilment narratives.

The Big Tired also interacts with the buzz around the latest AI advancements (DALL-E, Chat GTP and Co.) Whilst there are mixed reactions and a lot of bugs to be fixed, there is enthusiasm for the potential of the technology in helping us realign our relationship with work, taking some of our load off.

Why is this happening now?

We’ve been having a lot of reflections on both our internal worlds and external environments. Internally, we’re in an era of higher self reflection and awareness, which is helping us understand and articulate our internal worlds better. The pandemic made us reflect on who we are as individuals, not employees, we’re taking more accountability for our actions, and setting more boundaries around our personal happiness. Therapy is heavily trending in pop culture. Just take the popularity of Jonah Hill’s Netflix documentary Stutz as an example, and then musicians like Kendrick Lamar and Stormzy speaking about going on journeys inwards on their latest albums.

Externally, an obvious biggie, the world is f*cked and we feel increasingly icky to keep working for companies that don't do anything to change that. Something we recently touched upon in our latest Dirty Words report on Ownership.

So, What do we do now? How do we deal with our work fatigue?

One option is doing what Meta employee Simon Berens did and hire people to literally sit behind you to make you productive, which not only sounds awkward but will also cost you about 5 grand.

A more sensible approach might be acceptance. Accepting that the hustle and grind lifestyle of the 2010s is no longer aspirational and embracing the new, slower and softer energy. In response to this, employers could offer personal development trajectories that aren’t related to climbing the ladder and give employees opportunities to spend more time with their out-of-office self.

Think sabbaticals or introducing the four-day work week not only for productivity but personal fulfilment benefits. The biggest 4-day work week pilot to date just wrapped in the UK [ in which 61 companies and 2,900 employees took part] and the results were promising, with 46% of participants claiming they felt less fatigue and 71% stating they felt less workplace burnout.

And whilst there are some quick fixes that might make working in the day to day more pleasant, The Big Tired also raises some more uncomfortable questions, calling for bigger flexes. If people have moral reservations about their jobs or workplace, we must take a look at our flawed system and business practices.

The Big Tired is ultimately revealing that the current climate of continuously striving for more capital gains is not only no longer sustainable from an ecological perspective, but also from a psychological one. A mindset shift that German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm already advocated for in “To Have or To Be”, his 1976  book that critiques the capitalist motivations that drive us to tunnel vision on “having” when we should just “be” and how the former is in fact alienating us from personal fulfilment.

One can only hope that we’re not in for another 50 years of business as usual, but that we’re responding to these actively felt impacts by taking steps towards recalibrating our relationship with growth, one that our planet and we as humans urgently need.

As an agency, this shift also poses challenges for us. How can we take pressure off the team whilst meeting demands and timelines of our clients? How can we resolve the cognitive dissonance of wanting to be advocates for responsible growth in a profit-oriented system? It is our role to critically reflect on cultural change and help our clients identify if and how to respond to these shifts.

And the uncomfortable wake up call might be that in order to stay relevant in the long run is to recognise that endless exponential growth is not sustainable for anybody. If people ultimately want less, they should be allowed to feel complete without striving.

On the flipside, this means we can seek out new opportunities for people, culture and organisations to thrive without leaning into metrics that centre on continual growth and epic success narratives. Redirecting our energy this way, might just be the thing that energises us in return.