Why Boston’s Brightest Industry Stars Are Throwing in the Towel

Business in Boston is thriving. Are you?

Photo by C.J. Burton

Mike Healan had put in 15 years between two Boston law firms before his career finally broke him.

It was the day after Thanksgiving, and the attorney had spent the afternoon watching Black Friday bargain-hunters swarm Faneuil Hall from his desk 30 floors above, where he was stuck working on an emergency brief during what was supposed to be a holiday for the firm. Maybe it was the lonely quiet of the empty office, but when he returned home to his Victorian townhouse in Southie well after sundown, he slumped on the living room floor in tears.

On paper his job seemed perfect: Healan’s generous salary allowed him to splurge on fashion and travel, he liked his boss and coworkers, and he found much of his work in business litigation to be mentally invigorating. And while he had logged 60 to 65 hours a week early in his career (including always working at least one weekend day), Healan was now able to get away with 50- to 55-hour workweeks—“not an enormous workload by large law firm standards,” he says. But in another sense, the attorney was always on the clock. “It wasn’t so much the amount of time spent in the office that got to me,” he says. “It was the mental and emotional strain of feeling like it was never enough, and that I had to always be thinking about work.”

Eventually, Healan’s mental and physical health started to suffer. He began losing weight—lots of it—and developed a limp because the muscles in his lower back were so clenched that they constricted his sciatic nerve. With his mind constantly at work and his body in persistent pain, he barely slept four hours a night. Still, he kept going back for more—until one day he couldn’t. “People often say, ‘This job is killing me,’” Healan explains, “but mine really was.”

In many ways, Healan’s story may sound at odds with the happy highlights we hear daily about Boston’s job market. With the local unemployment rate near a 30-year low, inflation-adjusted household incomes in Massachusetts at their highest levels in at least three decades, and a new office building popping up on the skyline every time you blink, one could argue it’s a golden age for workers in Boston. But a lot of us, it seems, can’t stop hustling long enough to notice it. “We do have a cult of overwork,” confirms Ellen Ruppel Shell, author of The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change and a professor of science journalism at Boston University. A 2018 Gallup poll found that nearly half of American workers put in 45 hours or more a week—and there’s reason to believe Bostonians are particularly prone to this malady.

Some of our biggest local industries, after all—healthcare, finance, and technology among them—are notorious for long hours and grueling workloads. About a third of us, meanwhile, worry that taking a vacation will mean falling behind and returning to an even more stressful backlog. The average worker in Massachusetts let more than a week’s worth of vacation time go unused in 2017, amounting to nearly 15 million wasted vacation days—and billions of dollars in free labor for Bay State employers.

Then there’s our famous competitive streak: Winning matters around here. From top-tier institutions like Harvard and Mass General to our famously nose-to-the-grindstone football team fresh off its ninth Super Bowl appearance and sixth championship in 18 years, you could forgive Bostonians for pushing themselves too hard, trying to meet impossible career demands. But is our Dunkin’-fueled, Belichickian devotion to vocational victory a commendable, modern version of the Puritan work ethic, or an unhealthy obsession pointing our collective career trajectory toward burnout?

It takes a lot of physical and mental energy to power a city with this many bright ideas and breakthroughs. But we may be closer to blowing a circuit than we realize.

Photo by C.J. Burton

From her sunny, nautical-themed offices in the Back Bay and Cambridge, psychologist Janna Koretz has a window into the lives of Bostonians who push themselves too hard—and into what can happen when they overdo it. As the founder of Azimuth, which specializes in therapy for people with high-intensity jobs, she has seen burnout (a state of emotional exhaustion and disengagement) manifest itself in ways both obvious and less so: through irritability and impatience; increasing fatigue; and even the inability to complete simple tasks such as mailing a letter at the post office.

While the people who check in using an iPad at Koretz’s office each day work in fields as diverse as consulting, healthcare, and finance, many have one thing in common: They’re in pressure-cooker careers where the corporate culture promotes constant work. “They’re evaluated by how late they stay at the office, how many projects they take on, how little they take vacation,” she says. The ultimate status symbol in these offices? Twelve-hour days.

The motivation for overwork isn’t all external, however: Much of it comes from within, especially in Boston, a city with so many medical professionals and tech wizards vying to discover the Next Big Thing. “When you have a lot of brilliant people comparing themselves to other brilliant people, many of them tend to develop feelings of inferiority or ‘imposter syndrome,’” Koretz says—the mistaken belief that they aren’t as good at something as people think they are. She’s seen researchers who discovered world-changing medical breakthroughs yet feel like they don’t even deserve to be in the lab. These feelings, in turn, make them work even harder to vanquish any perceived inadequacies.

Then there’s what the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson recently called “workism”—the idea that in lieu of religion, people increasingly seek a sense of purpose from their career. “But a culture that funnels its dreams of self-actualization into salaried jobs is setting itself up for collective anxiety, mass disappointment, and inevitable burnout,” he argued. Shell, for her part, agrees that the modern expectation of fulfillment through work can be a recipe for disillusionment. Sometimes a job is just a job, and that’s okay. “There’s this myth that your job should be your passion,” she says. “That is, to my mind, for many people very damaging. They put in their 12-hour days, they’re exhausted, and they’re still not finding their passion. And they blame themselves.”

It’s not just white-collar workers pushing themselves to the brink in Greater Boston, either. When I reach out to Sue Jacobs-Marshalsea, owner of S Jacobs Plumbing, in Norwood, she’s working her fourth consecutive 20-hour day, fixing frozen pipes and restoring heat to shivering homeowners whose boilers seized up during a bitter cold spell. While this stretch is more extreme than usual, Jacobs-Marshalsea says she typically works 50 to 80 hours a week year-round, including most weekends. “I’m a 24-hour emergency service,” she says, “so there’s no start or end to my day.”

There simply aren’t enough licensed plumbers for all the work, Jacobs-Marshalsea says, and we’re not training enough new ones, either. “The shortage of tradespeople is severe and getting worse,” she says. “I know of a few local plumbers that aren’t even accepting new customers.” Jacobs-Marshalsea has to turn down jobs herself sometimes, referring people to bigger companies, and feels terrible when she does. She even started a DIY service on her website, PlumberSue On-Demand, to help customers fix some issues by themselves, or at least stabilize emergencies. The idea came to her after she spent nearly every morning of her vacation last year talking customers through their plumbing problems on the phone from Florida.

As the fifth-generation owner of a centuries-spanning family business, Jacobs-Marshalsea feels a devotion to her customers that, in her mind, makes up for the lack of sleep and downtime. But that kind of dedication is a lot to ask from rank-and-file employees who don’t have their name on the building. Pushed hard enough, many are finding their way to the emergency exit—which ought to sound an alarm for any company concerned with retaining key talent.

Photo by C.J. Burton

Beyond the personal toll, there’s evidence Bostonians’ propensity for overwork could be hurting the bottom lines of local companies—and, by extension, the city’s economy—as well. Missing sleep, for instance, makes us more likely to screw up on the job; what’s more, research shows that working longer hours boosts productivity only until you hit about 50 hours weekly—after that, we’re just spinning our wheels. In fact, in one study, managers couldn’t even discern which employees had actually worked 80-hour weeks and which ones had only pretended to. And then there’s the inevitable talent exodus.

Take Laura: After toiling away at a prominent educational publisher in Boston for almost a decade, she was seeing—and ignoring—the classic warning signs of burnout. She had survived multiple rounds of layoffs and constant restructuring, not to mention persistent rumors of more downsizing. “I was ‘lucky’ enough to weather the storm through these changes,” Laura says, but it quickly meant longer and longer hours, more projects, additional direct reports, and unreasonable expectations of late-night conference calls and weekend check-ins.

Laura began to get migraines and couldn’t unwind, even off the clock. Six days into a vacation, she found herself on the beach still thinking about work emails piling up. “I remember feeling like my heart was hurting,” she said. Soon afterward, she quit, without a new job lined up or even a plan; she just knew she couldn’t be there anymore. She ended up leaving the industry entirely.

She’s not the only one to abandon ship: Alex, an engineer in his early twenties, routinely worked 70 to 80 hours a week in his first job out of college, at a tech company west of Boston. A self-described conscientious person, he said his motivations for working so hard were mostly internal, but added that the company set up even its best employees for failure by assigning more work than could ever be completed. “You want to succeed at the things you’re doing,” he says, “and if you’re not given the opportunity to do so, people either give up or leave.”

A year in, Alex chose the latter. What ultimately drove him to throw in the towel was the frustration of being pulled off a project just as he was starting to see the results of all his hard work. “I was getting to the point where I finally felt like I was succeeding, and then…I was diverted to work 80 hours a week on a different project,” he says. “By the time I got back, there was so much residual work that had built up, it would have taken me years at 100 hours a week to overcome it all.”

These examples of brain drain represent one of the greatest consequences of overwork we collectively face as a city: In a robust job market like this one, employees who aren’t happy—with their career arc, their work/life balance, or their boss—can leave, and just recruiting a replacement can cost anywhere from half to twice their salary. The stakes are even higher in industries where skilled and experienced workers are already in short supply. Employers have tried to stem the tide with fancy office amenities designed to make employees’ lives easier inside and outside the office, but at the end of the day, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

If we keep up this pace, we risk driving more of our most dedicated workers from their fields and churning through our college graduates like they’re fresh logs to be tossed onto a hungry fire—rising stars reduced to a charred pile of smoldering frustrations. Maybe it’s time we slowed down, lest we flame out.

Healan, the attorney, did just that. He spent a year preparing to walk away from his law career, paying down bills and putting his house up for rent. He traveled for a few months, but still felt rudderless upon returning to Boston—until he drifted into his favorite cheese shop. “Kind of on a whim, I asked, ‘Do you ever hire anyone with no previous experience whatsoever in food or customer service?’” Healan says. They did, and he ended up working there for several years, followed by a stint at a small wine-import company. His life, he says, improved exponentially. “I enjoyed my work, and more important, I was able to mostly forget about it when I wasn’t on the job.”

Healan is keenly aware that most people suffering from burnout can’t afford to just toss their career into the trashcan to work as a cheesemonger for a tenth of their previous income. Still, he says, simplifying your life to whatever extent you’re able can open up new options. “You can live with a lot less than you think you can,” he says. “Take some chances. They may or may not work out, but it’s better than sticking with a job that’s detrimental to your health.

Read more from our Burnout City feature.