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The opposite of success is not failure, it’s overwork (and here’s why)

Overwork messes up your goals and hinders your purpose, thereby obstructing your short-term aspirations and your vision for the future.

[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Subconsciously popularized by social media and hustle culture, the glamorization of overwork as a measure of success has plagued the professional industry with unrealistic standards and psycho-emotional strain in recent years. But as our burnout-ridden generation becomes more aware of its drastic consequences, a new notion of success emerges among MENA professionals, gradually dragging overwork into failure ground.

Here’s why the opposite of success today is not failure but rather its famous frenemy: overwork.

Success is no longer the same (failure isn’t either).

Fueled by post-pandemic existential reassessments and the newly-coined Great Resignation crisis, whereby individuals have been leaving their jobs at unprecedented rates due to collective burnout, the 2022 version of success is less about working non-stop and more about work-life balance. 

“What makes overwork a toxic phenomenon is a belief that working hard, too much, too long is productive as well as seen as the only way to be recognized. Therefore, it is rationalized, normalized, promoted and glorified,” says Lebanese-born certified career, employment, and work-life strategist Rita Kamel. 

Therefore, a more successful life has become rooted in balance, burnout prevention, and mental health awareness. “One’s career is not and must not be their identity,” an Arab diplomacy and communications specialist at one of the world’s most prominent financial institutions, quoted here under the alias Rami, started his anonymous testimony.

“I strongly believe in the need to achieve a balance between work life and personal life for healthy and happy living,” he continued. “Remote work resulting from the pandemic has nevertheless blurred the lines between the two and led me to experience burnout more often than ever before in my life.”

Your swamped self can never be your best self.

Success has a lot to do with you being at your best. On the other hand, overwork directly hinders your capacity to perform to the best of your ability, thereby equating itself with failure by alienating you from your optimal self.

“Professionals need to live up to management’s expectations to grow inside the organization. Therefore, if they are contacted outside working hours, professionals are pressured to respond to show that they are available,” Kamel explained when asked about existing factors that are likely to push the MENA workforce towards swamping itself with work.

This brings us to our second anonymous testimony by 25-year-old Lebanese creative Fatima. She was recruited as a fashion designer but was surprised to see her tasks shift towards accounting and marketing upon starting the job, both of which fall outside her speciality. “What is frustrating me the most is that I am learning all by myself how to do tasks that do not fall under my job description nor have to do with what I studied,” she noted.

Besides finding herself swamped and unable to think straight, Fatima’s added responsibilities are not reflected in her pay, which remains the same despite her taking on three different roles instead of one. “Even my overnights are not paid,” she added. “I would say thank God I have a job but is that a job for me? I’m not happy, I have breakdowns from time to time, and I’m just trying my best to stay sane.”

Failing at your job is temporary; failing your body isn’t.

There is no bigger failure than failing your own body because all forms of success emanate from it. Through constant physical and mental strain, you are putting yourself at risk of irreparable damage. Beware of constantly pushing your body to the limit because at the end of the day, you need it to last you as long as possible for you to continue doing what you set out to do.

Sleep disorders, depression, and heart attacks are only a few of the manifold severe overwork consequences Kamel has observed among burned-out MENA professionals throughout her long stance in the career and recruitment industry. “I have seen some professionals do the work of five people and sleep two hours a day for over a decade,” she noted.

Lucy, a 23-year-old Arab scuba diving instructor, who also shared his testimony anonymously to protect his identity and avoid employer scrutiny, emphasized the extreme physical and mental strain of working extended hours to make ends meet amid a harsh economic climate. “Working for extended hours in a physically demanding job environment has exerted an immense impact on my health and sleep schedule,” he said. “But the scariest part has to do with its psychological effects; it feels like being trapped in an endless loop that slowly suffocates you from inside.”

Overwork is passivity disguised as productivity.

Besides its numerous health hazards, the good old “work smarter not harder” cliché is the simplest expression of why overwork can never be an intelligent business practice. Instead of being productive, you are passively caught in a robotic loop.

But the question is: can one ever reach a target by constantly running around? You can hardly ever focus on achieving specific targets, professional or otherwise when you are busy being dispersed in a hundred different directions. Constantly running around does not equal being productive. Overwork is more like running aimlessly while disqualified from the race to start with due to low visibility stemming from an overcrowded vision.

“Overwork leads to more error, resentment at work, and turnover,” Kamel observed. Some MENA professionals tend to do the work of many people at the expense of their well-being for years on end, while others are bullied into setting unrealistic expectations for their teams with no clear understanding of leadership.

“Burnout does not necessarily mean higher productivity. Some tend to associate it with overworking alone without accounting for the impact it has on the quality of said work,” Rami noted. “My main burnout symptoms were lack of focus and loss of motivation, which has extended my screen time overall to be able to achieve the same deliverables at my current job.” 

Losing yourself (to work) is your biggest loss in the long run.

There is no bigger loss than losing yourself. Overwork jam-packs your thoughts, messes up your perception of your goals, and hinders your purpose, thereby obstructing both your short-term aspirations and your vision for the future.

It is nevertheless important to note that overwork stems from the nature of the job itself and can also be triggered by prevalent personal workplace tendencies. “Some professionals suffer from economic instability and fear losing their job, and others have certain beliefs about themselves. They need to prove that they are essential,” Kamel explained.

In both cases, overwork leads its victims to gradually lose key aspects of themselves by pushing them towards leaving behind special activities and interests on the one hand and shutting the door on personal development opportunities, on the other hand, both due to lack of time and motivation.

Preventing overwork, therefore, comes in many layers. “In my practice, I invite clients to ask about a workplace before signing a contract and to reflect not only on their understanding of stress, boundaries, coping mechanisms and how to say ‘no’ but also on having a clear response and emergency plans to protect themselves,” Kamel advised.

Institutionalized success is not the only form of non-failure.

Finally, particularity is a prime factor in assessing success, and MENA professionals have come to understand that success is not only institutionalized by definition but can also come in many different forms, better evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Overwork, however, is destructive on all fronts regardless of age, industry, or professional background.

“I think that this must be addressed both top-down and bottom-up,” Kamel noted. “Management should dismantle this toxic culture and have clear systems in place to protect employees at any level from promoting or engaging in overwork, such as agreeing on realistic outputs of what success looks like and respecting breaks and working hours.”

Modern success can be the conscious act of slowing down in the age of FOMO and moderation in the era of excess. It has come a long way, far beyond glitzy titles, empty employee awards, and ostentatious offices, and further into its most abstract/subjective era yet.

Almost every day on LinkedIn, MENA professionals from all industries are daring to share their stories of failure as never seen before and speaking out about burnout to encourage and inspire others while also offering a more realistic account of the ups and downs of professional life.


Christina is a Beirut-based freelance journalist, content consultant and senior agency creative with extensive experience in the media and communication industry. Her professional journey spans across online, print and broadcast outlets. She heads one of the earliest digital-themed magazine sections in the region and has contributed articles, features and op-eds to a number of publications, besides formerly working as a television host and panellist. More

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