“I regularly worked 400 hours a month as a lawyer,” Ellen Pao recently tweeted, reflecting on the extremely demanding workload she undertook as a corporate lawyer. The tech investor, diversity and inclusion activist, and cofounder of Project Include released a series of other anecdotes online, detailing the destructive, and often unhealthy characteristics of her former job in corporate law.
The burnout epidemic, which can take effect in almost any field, doesn’t just affect your job performance, but can also have serious effects on your mental and physical health. In a study conducted by the American Psychological Association last year, researchers found that burnout, defined as a “chronic syndrome including exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced professional efficacy,” is often a direct response to “prolonged stressors at work.”
The experience that emerged from Pao’s tweets gives voice to an epidemic that affects so many, but often goes unacknowledged because of society’s tacit acceptance of the hazardous pressure of corporate lifestyles.
In her first tweet, Pao recounted, “The firm I worked at prided itself on being ‘leanly staffed.’ That meant fewer lawyers on a project–but not fewer hours on a project, which meant many more hours per lawyer.” She even opened up about a specific project that required “2 all-nighters in a row” after a partner and an associate took the weekend off. “I ended up negotiating against 3 partners, 2 mid-level associates, and 2 junior-level associates,” Pao revealed. “I don’t think the client ever called me by name.”
After leaving corporate law, Pao faced “similar hours” in tech, where her body faced ultimate burnout symptoms as and threatened her physical health. In her tweets, she mentioned the cysts her body developed in response to the stress, her endometriosis diagnosis, and even a tragic miscarriage.
Pao recently authored her own book, Reset, in which she opens up about the workplace discrimination she faced at a powerhouse Silicon Valley venture capital firm. Referencing her experience at the firm on Twitter, she revealed her deep regret at “staying at a VC firm that worked me that hard without ever giving me a shot.” She tweeted, “I regret not taking my full maternity leave. I regret not getting regular physicals, skipping meals, texting/emailing while driving.”
As we listen to stories like Pao’s and talk more openly about the need to prioritize well-being, put mental health first, and create better relationships with technology, we can help accelerate a culture shift that allows for healthier work-life integration and leaves little room for the crippling burnout that Pao faced. As Pao concludes, “There has to be a better way.”