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From working in TV to becoming an entrepreneur – what I’ve learned about burnout culture and success

by Staff GBAF Publications Ltd
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George Hughes - Entrepreneur Tribune | Entrepreneur | Technology


By George Hughes, Author of “Resonance: Unleash your brand’s potential with video”, Founder and Creative Director of Small Films

From filming witchdoctors in the Amazon and heroin dealers in Chicago’s slums, to tarantula hunting and extreme fishing in Costa Rica, its fair to say that my 14 years spent working in the TV industry were eventful.

My first break in the business came when I was hired to book audiences for the first series of Celebrity Big Brother in 2002. From this, I went onto produce and direct for most of the major networks, including BBC, Channel 4, Discovery Channel, and National Geographic. 

While the breadth of experience that working in TV has given me has certainly been invaluable, and I am hugely grateful for the opportunities that were made available to me, there are many misgivings that I have about the industry and how it is set up. For one, I was made to adopt a mentality that, in order to get ahead in the business, I would have to work all the hours that God sends. This would often lead to feelings of burnout, and at times there would be little or no reward for my efforts. In fact, I regularly found myself taking orders from individuals I deemed to be toxic, and who seemed to revel in making other people’s lives a misery.

Ultimately, the toxic culture that I experienced working in TV was one of the reasons why I decided to leave the industry and establish my own video production agency. Six years on from that point, however, it is clear that there are certain parallels between burnout culture in TV and the world of business.

Top businesspeople are helping to perpetuate burnout culture

It is regrettable that, in a day and age when so much progress has been made around mental health in the workplace, there is still a large number of business leaders who are propping up the notion that success can only come by sacrificing your time and happiness. 

People like Apple CEO Tim Cook, who begins his morning routine at 3.45am, and General Motors CEO Mary Barra, who gets to the office at 6am, are contributing – inadvertently or otherwise – to this perception. As highly successful, high-profile businesspeople, these individuals should recognise their power to inspire and influence aspiring entrepreneurs. By following a daily routine that leaves so little time for sleep, socialising, or much else besides work, Cook, Barra, and their peers are normalising the false narrative that success is reliant on working all hours, and giving up your free time to achieve your goals.

While these may be extreme examples, it strikes me that this mentality is not dissimilar to my experience of working in TV. It seems, therefore, that many in the industry and the wider business world believe that overworking is likely to produce stronger outcomes. However, this notion flies in the face of a study conducted by Erin Reid, a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, which found that managers could not tell the difference between employees who actually worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to. While managers did penalise those workers who were transparent about working less, Reid was unable to find any evidence that those employees actually accomplished less, or any indication that overworking employees accomplished more. 

This suggests that many people are ascribing to the idea that overworking leads to success simply because it is so commonly practiced, when in reality the opposite is just as – if not more – likely. Indeed, a 2011 study published in Cognition highlights that continuous work means you are far more likely to lose focus and get lost in the weeds. Contrastingly, the study found that picking up where you left off after a break forces you to take time to think about the bigger picture.

Don’t buy into the overwork mentality

As someone who runs their own business, I have certainly found this to be true. I have full control over my schedule and routine, and as such, I have the freedom to decide how and when I work. This helps me to avoid falling into adopting unhealthy practices like overworking that can lead to burnout, and gives me the chance to take a step back and look at what I’m trying to achieve as a whole without losing sight of my goals. All of this is a far cry from what I grew accustomed to when working in TV, and has proven to me that success doesn’t actually have to come at great personal cost. 

What concerns me, however, is that many entrepreneurs who are just starting out will buy into the mentality that they need to overwork in order to get ahead. To be clear, this is simply untrue, and is much likely to lead to burnout and the business’ collapse than it is to success.

True success is more than just about your bank balance

True success isn’t just about your bank balance – it’s about building something that you not only can take pride in and that has a genuine impact, but also leaves you enough time to enjoy life away from work. Ultimately, that is one of the very reasons why you decided to be an entrepreneur in the first place – to have some level of control over your work life, and the choices you make as a businessperson. By not making time for friends, family, or simply to recharge your batteries, you’re effectively becoming a slave to your work, which is by no means a measure of success.

Becoming successful is not easy, but it is possible without sacrificing having a good life, or losing sight of why you decided to pack up your job and start out by yourself in the first place. After all, what’s the point of being a success if you can’t enjoy the fruits of your labour?