The Stress of Being Constantly “Switched On”

I recently rewatched an old episode of scrubs – one called “My Nickname”, which aired in 2001 – and I noticed something interesting. The storyline concerns a young patient, Jill, who is admitted to hospital. Following multiple tests, it turns out there’s nothing wrong with her – she is just stressed and exhausted. On seeing how much she needs to take some time out, and realising how similar they are, her doctor, Elliot, decides to admit her for a few extra days in order to give her some much-needed time to rest and recover.

We see this stress and exhaustion in the form of her being constantly “connected”, emailing people from her bed and arranging to have food delivered to the hospital. The reason this interested me is that in her era, she is unusual. She owns these modern gadgets where she can email people from a device she holds *in her hand* (whaaaat?), and she can talk on the phone *shock horror* without actually holding the phone up to her ear.

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Take a look at the transcript:

Patient’s Room

The patient, Jill Tracy, is sitting up in her bed, talking on her cell phone.

Jill: [into phone] I don’t care if it wasn’t ‘good first-date conversation’ — Michael deserved to know what I think about circumcising babies. I mean, over my dead body! What? … Actually, no…no, it wasn’t, which is surprising because he’s Jewish.

Elliot: I gave her two Valium.

Jill: [into phone] Okay, I’m e-mailing you as we’re talking — HOW COOL IS THAT!!

Dr. Cox: So, she’s actually sedated as we speak?

Elliot: Mm-hmm!

Jill: [into phone] Okay, bye.

She hangs up.

Jill: Hey, Elliot! Okay, first impression: Did I scare Michael off?

Elliot: No!

Dr. Cox: No…. Not if he enjoys a big, fat cup-a crazy!

He laughs and she giggles politely.

Dr. Cox: Miss Tracey, we’re all extremely busy, so if we could get down to business, that would be—

Elliot: [giggling excitedly] Oh, my God! I have the exact same e-mailing–pagey thingie!

Jill: [giggling also] Oh, get out!

They giggle together as they look at the e-mailing–pagey thingie.

Dr. Cox: [mimicking the glee] Ahahaha! Oh!

Fed up, he leaves.

Jill: Oh, my God. My “H” sticks a little bit; does your “H” stick?

Elliot: It does, it does, it does!

They continue chattering about the thingie.

I noticed a similar thing on an episode of Friends titled “The One That Could Have Been”, which aired in 2000. In this episode, Phoebe works as a stockbroker. She is depicted as being so stressed that she gives herself two heart attacks. How is this extreme pressure depicted? Well, she’s always on the phone for one thing, even when she’s hanging out with her friends at the coffee house or in a hospital bed.

The Devil Wears Prada (2006) also displays this trope, and she also ends up in hospital.

What’s interesting to me is what this “constantly connected” stereotype looked like in the early 2000s. Often a woman, she represents the height of corporate success. She’s often depicted as all work, no play, and stresses herself out to the point of damaging her health.

Nowadays, of course, everyone is constantly connected. All the time. In fact, not only is everyone always online – we’re expected to always be online, because everyone else is. What was once reserved for an elite subset of the workaholic corporate sector is now expected of everyone, all the time.

Let’s think about that for a second.

An entire generation is expected to be as “switched on” and available as the “most unhealthily work-obsessed people in the world” 20 years ago.

What’s more, we don’t have the bonus of having the high salaries typically associated with these jobs. We don’t even get to see ourselves as “work obsessed workaholics who love work and who represent the epitome of success”. It’s just the norm now – the ordinary level of basic communication that is expected of everyone. In fact, many people operate on this level on a daily basis, and yet because they don’t work in a traditional high-earning corporate field, they’re almost seen as lazy. They should get a real job; they should work harder. What do they even do all day? Can’t they grow up?

What sort of effect could this way of thinking have on society as a whole?

Millennials are the most stressed generation, and I strongly suspect a correlation. According to Business Insider, millennials suffer higher rates of burnout than previous generations, as well as more mental health issues overall. We are also the loneliest generation.

Anecdotally, I’ve seen many people regularly feel stress over seemingly “simple” tasks such as replying to emails, answering messages, and making phone calls. Buzzfeed writer Anne Helen Petersen coined the term “errand paralysis“:

My partner was so stymied by the multistep, incredibly (and purposefully) confusing process of submitting insurance reimbursement forms for every single week of therapy that for months he just didn’t send them — and ate over $1,000. Another woman told me she had a package sitting unmailed in the corner of her room for over a year. A friend admitted he’s absorbed hundreds of dollars in clothes that don’t fit because he couldn’t manage to return them. Errand paralysis, post office anxiety — they’re different manifestations of the same affliction.

For the past two years, I’ve refused cautions — from editors, from family, from peers — that I might be edging into burnout. To my mind, burnout was something aid workers, or high-powered lawyers, or investigative journalists dealt with.

This showcases the exact same mindset as the TV shows listed above; the idea that burnout is something only high-powered lawyers deal with is outdated. Being married to a high-powered lawyer, I can tell you that many of the factors that cause him stress are similar to most people’s everyday stresses, in a way that wasn’t necessarily the case historically.

She goes on to say the following:

Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it — explicitly and implicitly — since I was young.

This is made worse by the wonders of modern technology. Now, when someone sends you a message, they can also see when you’ve read it, adding to the urgency that everyone needs to reply to everything as soon as they see it. Sure, you can just leave it unread, but then you don’t actually know what that person wants – which can also be stressful.

Articles such as this one, claiming that millennials are simply worse at managing stress than previous generations, are missing the bigger picture. This isn’t an issue that can be solved by every individual “learning to manage their stress”, because expectations have changed. We are expected to be available 24/7 in a way previous generations simply weren’t, and from the very start of our careers – not just for a year or two on our way to the very top.

So what can we do?

Something needs to change on a societal level. For one thing, we need to stop expecting constant availability from everyone. We need to stop branding people as “lazy” because they need time off occasionally. And we need to recognise value in the hard work people are doing, even if they’re not working in the corporate sector.

As individuals, the best we can do is to give ourselves a break. To have realistic expectations of what we are and aren’t capable of, and to take regular, forced time off. This is something I’ve dealt with a lot recently, and I’ve written about the importance of unplanned time off in my Why We Should Embrace Boredom post, my Ph.D. Lockdown Tips post, my How To Be Unproductive in Lockdown post, and my Road To Self-Care post.

Avoiding burnout is at the absolute top of my priority list, as burnout is something I’m particularly familiar with. Seeing yourself as this lazy layabout who isn’t working hard enough is a surefire way to give yourself burnout. And ironically, of course, burnout makes you less productive – meaning that trying to work harder can actually make you achieve less by being less efficient with your time. My top tip would be to work (no pun intended) on “switching off”.

Throughout lockdown, I’ve been pretty consistently switching off every weekend. I spend my time playing games, reading, sometimes baking or taking photos – but the point is, it’s not planned time. I try to avoid giving myself deadlines on weekends. I try to avoid posting on instagram stories, or replying to emails. In fact, I’ve turned off notifications on my phone altogether. And it really has helped. In fact, the times in lockdown I’ve felt overwhelmingly stressed out were on weeks where I didn’t take that “time off” over the weekend.

But just as important as organising our own time is changing the general narrative. We can open up a discussion about how, in this era of technology and constant availability and notifications interrupting every interaction in our daily lives, we can manage our expectations, not just of our own success, but of what we expect of others. As an example, we can assume that not just emails, but instant messages as well, will only be answered from 9-5 on weekdays. We can be more aware of the current gig economy, and the fact that millennials are likely to have portfolio careers with multiple projects and side-hustles, as well as working on their personal brand. We can be more understanding of the need for people to spend time with family and loved ones, particularly given the loneliness statistics above. Most importantly, we should update our work culture and our ideas of what it means to be hardworking, in order to fit with the current times.

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