How we define success at work, and what this means for our mental health

How we define success at work

A topic that’s been on my mind for a while is our definition of success, particularly when it comes to our professional lives. Ultimately, I believe it’s the source of a lot of stress, and can end up being the cause of burnout and other mental health issues we experience at work.

The definition of success starts at school

Let’s take a step back and look at what children learn in school… Bear with me, this is relevant.

From a very early age, we are learning new skills at school which is great. Children are naturally curious and have only spent a limited amount of time on the planet so there is tons for them to learn.

BUT and here comes the but… from a very early stage they are also graded. Children learn to work for a grade, and to go for above average. In some cases, they are pushed to work for no less than excellent, and in other cases they might even be pushed to compete with one another. I’m not saying schools and parents encourage competition (though that may be the case), but it’s also only natural that when you see your peers, you want to belong or out perform them…

Naturally our childhood years are also very formative for us, meaning that the behaviours we learn in school impact us, and we carry them through life, all the way to the workplace. So how does this affect our definition of professional success?

The traditional career path

Let’s start by looking at the “traditional” career path: how careers used to play out, and what that meant for success. For the purpose of this article, I’m talking about “office careers” for knowledge-based workers, not manual professions that are learned via an apprenticeship and are more practical in their application.

Traditionally you would get out of higher education degree in hand, and get a job. It could be related to your field of study, though not necessarily. You would start in a Junior position (internships only really started in the 60s), and you would work your way up the ladder. At the time when people spent 20 or even 30 years at the same company, the path for career progression was pretty linear.

This meant that in order to succeed, you needed to show consistent results in your job, and when the time came for the annual performance review, if you had done well you might be considered for promotion. Naturally over the course of 20 years, people had time to make it from Junior to Director level, perhaps even to the boardroom. Basically success meant climbing the corporate ladder, rising through the ranks.

Viewed like that, it meant people were striving to achieve results, practically to get “good grades” during the annual performance review in order to progress to the next level. In a sense, this is very much aligned with how children are taught in school.

And while this might have worked early on, it also has its downfalls. It doesn’t account much for how people evolve in the workplace outside of their direct tasks. And if you imagine this framework in a toxic environment, it could soon get as bad as people competing and climbing over each other to get the top, made even worse by practices like Stack Ranking for example.

The contemporary career path

Now let’s compare this to the modern career path, which is completely different. It’s no longer linear, instead it’s more like a zig zag or a squiggly line. People are no longer staying in jobs for a lifetime. On the contrary, according to the Bureau of Labour and Statistics people stay in their jobs for an average of 4.4 years, while millennials are expected to stay in a job for less than three years.

Lateral career moves are also becoming more popular, with some people having several careers over a lifetime. It’s no longer strange to see people changing fields completely or studying again in their late 30s early 40s to support a career change.

Last but not least, with the arrival of millennials on the job market – the number of people searching for purpose-driven jobs has increased. Millennials are not satisfied with a job for life, instead they want to do work that is meaningful to them and are more demanding of employers. Rightly so, as they are affecting positive change in the workplace, forcing companies to take a closer look at company culture.

Interestingly enough however, the way we measure performance hasn’t changed much despite this new outlook on careers. Even though some companies are pioneering change, for example by introducing real-time feedback, for the most part performance is still evaluated in the same way.

Our definition of professional success

So let’s get back to what this means when it comes to success…

Looking at the model we are taught in school, we arrive young and fresh in the world of work without knowing any different We are looking for ways we can achieve and get our good grades so we think success is determined by others and is linear. This is also influenced by the generations before us who act as a reference point, so we assume the only way is up. Confronted with the way performance is evaluated in most workplaces, we get stuck in the linear career progression model.

It’s also important to remember that for the longest time, our careers were very much tied to status and identity. If you think about it, one of the first questions people always ask you is “what do you do?”.

Put all this together, and even though the paradigm is starting to shift, there are still many people striving to reach the top and climb their way up the corporate ladder. Striving for promotions, for seniority, and for the important titles. This often comes with status: a better salary, increased purchasing power, a nice house etc.

And this is when our mental health starts to be affected.

How success affects our mental health

It’s no wonder then, to see people put themselves under intense amounts of stress in order to succeed and get that promotion. Particularly in today’s always-on world where people are increasingly expected to always be available, the commitment to work starts to exceed boundaries. You can be called upon at weekends, evenings, during holidays, and due to mobile phones well… there’s no reason why you shouldn’t answer, right? Employers have placed unrealistic expectations on employees, and we have responded by helping them set the bar even higher.

In addition to our always-on work ethic, the competition has increased in certain fields of work, with many more qualified people being available on the job market. This means you have to work harder in order to be noticed and stand out from the competition.

So combine high expectations from employers with the pressure to succeed, and that’s when you start to experience mental health issues: burnout, anxiety, depression… and more. People sometimes push themselves so far that burnout can reach extreme proportions, to the point where it can take people years to recover and claw their way back to a place where they’re able to rejoin the workforce.

In addition, the problem associated with burnout that isn’t talked about a lot is that people don’t even feel happy achieving this surface level “success”. They work hard, put in the hours, only to realize they’re exhausted and perhaps even overlooked another part of their life for months or years…

Two very interesting episodes of the Sanctus podcast on mental health cover this:

  1. Will Young: fame, fortune and mental health
  2. Preventing burnout

In both episodes, guests talk about their pursuit of what they thought was success. In both cases, they achieve “success”, and yet they end up suffering from some sort of mental health issue caused by a disconnect. This causes me to think that we need to redefine how we view success in the workplace.


I’m not going to preach and tell you you need to find a job that makes you happy, follow your passion or any of that. But I do want to urge us to rethink how we define professional success.

Particularly when it comes to our mental health, we need to make sure we are taking care of ourselves and not driving ourselves into the ground. Here are some questions you can ask yourself as it relates to work:

  • Do you enjoy the work you’re doing?
  • If you are working extra hard, why are you putting in the effort? Is it because you believe it will make you successful, or because you are genuinely committed to the “cause”?
    • Do you think that working long hours makes you seem committed and shows that you are more willing than others?
    • Do you believe that working harder and longer makes you more successful or seem more dedicated than others around you?
  • Have you defined what success means to you?
    • If so, have you considered what you will do once you achieve success?
  • Do you know how you want to progress your career path and what you should do to get there?
    • Is what you’re currently doing contributing to that?
  • Do you feel overwhelmed or under pressure without feeling fulfilled?
  • Do you feel that you are following your own path, or upholding external standards?

These can help you consider whether you are pushing yourself for the right reasons, or whether you might be driving yourself to burnout. Success is subjective and will look different for everyone. The most important thing is to pursue the success you want, and not the one that’s been prescribed to you.

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Currently working in marketing and comms in Amsterdam. Passionate about all things digital, writing, dancing, travelling and much more. Mental health blogger and advocate.

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