How Does a ‘Never Enough’ Achievement Culture Impact Your Workforce’s Morale? Planning for 2024 With Journalist and Author Jennifer Breheny Wallace

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Jennifer Breheny Wallace, award-winning journalist and author, notes that C-Suite leaders should understand the financial risks of not taking action to address workplace burnout in 2024.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace is an award-winning journalist and author of The New York Times bestselling book Never Enough: When Achievement Pressure Becomes Toxic – and What We Can Do About It.

She is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, and a Journalism Fellow at The Center for Parent and Teen Communication at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She graduated with a BA from Harvard College.

Q. With a recent study that uncovered how 84% out of 1,000 respondents believed that “going above and beyond at work is a must to achieve a successful career,”1 is it any wonder that insecure overachievers might not only be working at leading professional services firms but also at Fortune 500 biopharmas as well? As Dr. Laura Empson (Senior Research Fellow at the Harvard Law School) shared with the readership last year, “In the past, firms such as McKinsey and Goldman Sachs have been explicit about their policy of recruiting and promoting insecure overachievers…”2 When does this culture begin and why does it seem to be so acceptable?

Jennifer Breheny Wallace: For the achievement-oriented people who join these prestigious firms, the drive to achieve generally begins in high school or even earlier, and it is not always a healthy journey. It seems counterintuitive, but students who attend what researchers call “high-achieving schools”—well, resourced public or private schools with high standardized test scores—are now officially “at risk” for negative health outcomes. In 2019, I wrote an article for The Washington Post about two national policy reports that found these high achieving students to be—officially—an “at risk” group, meaning they were two to six times more likely to suffer from clinical levels of anxiety, depression, and two to three times more likely to suffer from substance abuse disorder than the average American teen.3

These students often come from families in the top 20%-25% of HHI. Depending on where you live in America, that is a household income of approximately $130,000 a year. So, it is not only high school students of 1% earners but also upper-middle-class families where it could be a couple who are teachers at a public school.

Upon graduation, these students often pursue certain colleges and employers that have brand recognition in annual surveys like US News & World Report’s Best Colleges and Fortune’s Most Admired Companies’ rankings. And so it is not surprising that we continue to see individuals experiencing stress as Microsoft’s most recent Work Trend Index—a global survey of workers across multiple industries and companies—pointed to with their findings that 53% of managers reported feeling burned out at work.4 To help address these pain points where people believe they can never do enough, we need to help individuals understand how they matter, that their value as a person is not defined by one’s individual achievement but rather by who they are deep at their core.

Your C-Suite readers should understand the financial risks of not taking action in 2024. Specifically, Cigna conducted a survey and they found 65% of entry-level workers and 70% of senior executives reported that their coworkers did not really know them well, and consequently, they felt lonely and believed that their presence really did not matter at work. For the collective survey of participants’ employers, Cigna estimated an estimated $154 billion in stress-related absenteeism.5 The good news is that there is a mattering movement6 and members are taking action at work and home to address these long-standing challenges.

Q. With the potential value of introducing the power of mattering at work, what are your top recommendations for the readership to consider as they start 2024?

Breheny Wallace: Of course, it’s OK to be ambitious, to want to achieve, to be the valedictorian of your school or a partner in your consulting firm or a C-Suite officer at your Fortune 500-company. But research finds that when we overprioritize these extrinsic goals, we do so at the expense of intrinsic ones, like being a good friend and an invested and present parent.

This matters because extrinsic values are correlated with mental health struggles and substance abuse disorders, while intrinsic values are correlated with the well-being and close connections we crave. Values operate like a zero-sum game. There are only 24 hours in a day, so the more time you spend pursuing extrinsic goals, the less time you have in your life for intrinsic ones.

For very ambitious people, it will serve them well to be deliberate and mindful about their values and how they are impacting their well-being. As I shared with journalist Katie Couric a few months ago, it’s a challenge not to get caught up in our achievement-oriented society, but it can be done.7

The second piece of advice I have is to carve out time each week to invest in relationships. According to decades’ worth of resilience research, our resilience rests fundamentally on the depth and support of our relationships. Find one or two friends who you trust enough to open up to, people you can lean on for guidance. Given the nuances of each employer, be they a biopharma or consulting firm, try to invest in a friendship inside the office that can guide your decision-making, someone you can lean on through inevitable setbacks and challenges.

And make time in your calendar to check in on them, to be that source of support for them. If there’s no one within the office today that you feel you can open up to fully, perhaps there’s a recent alumnus of the firm who can provide insightful ideas grounded in reality, with a fresh “outsider” lens on your situation.

About the Author

Michael Wong is an emeritus board member of the Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association.

References

1. Robinson, Bryan, Mattering’ Is The Top Leadership Skill For Retaining Employees, According To Research, Forbes, November 1, 2022.

2. https://www.pharmaceuticalcommerce.com/view/succeeding-as-an-insecure-overachiever

3. Perfas, Samantha Lane, How achievement pressure is crushing kids and what to do about it, The Harvard Gazette, September 11, 2023

4. Klinghoffer, Dawn, and Kirkpatrick-Husk Katie, More Than 50% of Managers Feel Burned Out, Harvard Business Review, May 18, 2023

5. WorkProud® – The Power of Mattering at Work, at Home, and in Life, with Jennifer Wallace. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMjXNQCyTI8&t=1169s

6. https://www.thematteringmovement.com/about

7. Katie Couric in Conversation with Jennifer Wallace: Never Enough https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGE1FAWCJ1s&t=2654s

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