Careers

What is career FOMO and how can we reclaim our work-life balance?

Posted by
Lydia Smith
Published

A psychotherapist and a careers expert explain…

It’s a feeling many of us have had at some point when scrolling through Facebook. One friend is travelling the world. Another is at a festival. And one has scored a promotion and climbed even further up the career ladder.

FOMO, or fear of missing out, is the worry that everyone else is having more fun, more success and generally more rewarding experiences than you.

We know it affects our social lives, which is why we say yes to going out when we want to stay in, or endlessly check social media so we’re kept “in the loop”.

But FOMO is impacting our work lives, too - and it has the potential to reduce our job satisfaction and overall happiness, while leaving us burned out.

“We endlessly check social media so we’re kept ‘in the loop’.”

Erin*, 30, works in publishing and often heads to evening events which stretch into the early hours of the morning. The opportunity to network with bosses puts pressure on her to stay out late - and competition in the industry means she fears saying no will lead her to miss out on promotions.

“Because of the nature of my job, there are a number of events outside of work that I feel compelled to attend, like book signings, dinners and drinks events,” she says.

“There’s pressure to be charming, talkative and fun. I know I’ll be tired the next day, but it seems to be the only way to get noticed in an office full of really high-performing people.”

Erin, like many others, suffers from career FOMO. It manifests itself in a number of different ways – from taking on too much, to endlessly worrying about being in the wrong profession because other people’s jobs seem so more impressive.

“FOMO is to do with how we compare ourselves to others and, importantly at work, how we think other people compare us to others,” says Karen Meager, a psychotherapist who co-founded Monkey Puzzle Training & Consultancy.

“People assume - sometimes correctly - that if they are not present at that meeting, or staying late at that social event, then they will be overlooked or forgotten, or other people will undermine them in some way.”

FOMO is even more understandable because we can all point to a situation where someone else got a promotion or better recognition because they were in the right place at the right time, Meager says. Women can also miss out due to unconscious gender bias or the grim reality of the motherhood penalty, should they choose to have children.

“The problem arises when this becomes an obsession and people become exhausted or burnout with trying to keep up with an unlimited amount of things they could go to,” Meager says.

Unsurprisingly, social media plays a key part, too. A 2015 study by the Australian Psychology Society found that FOMO triggered by high levels of social media use can lead to mental health problems, such as anxiety.

Lisa Forde, a careers and work-life balance expert, warns this can be triggered by something as simple as missing an office party, which may make you feel like less of the team.

“It could also be triggered by something that causes resentment,” Forde adds. “For example, a colleague books an all-inclusive holiday, or buys a new car, and you begin to question their salary and how they can afford it. Then you begin to question your own job and efforts, which can be incredibly detrimental.”

Career FOMO is difficult to shake off, but it can be toxic. It can lead people to avoid taking time off when it’s needed, and this can cause health problems, such as stress and, again, anxiety. Those with FOMO might be tempted to overwork, disrupting their work-life balance and impacting their relationships. Ironically, spreading yourself too thin can take its toll on your work, too.

Kat, a 31-year-old writer, says career FOMO directly affected her mental wellbeing. “I’ve definitely found myself stressing out after seeing other friends getting ahead, particularly in the world of freelancing. I watched their careers racing ahead of mine, and swa them getting published in bigger and better outlets,” she says.

“It made me feel anxious that I’m not as good at them. In my lowest moments it’s made me doubt my own skills, given me a bout of depression, and even consider giving up my writing career altogether.”

Luckily, it’s not all bad news. If you’re struggling with career FOMO, there are some steps you can take to tackle it.

It’s worth noting that people on social media mainly post about positive experiences, rather than negative ones, so you rarely get the full picture. The colleague with the promotion will rarely brag about being landed with more paperwork and being stuck in the office until 8pm.

“The key with FOMO – and it’s a fear, after all - is to not give into the ‘fear’ part but instead rely more on your thinking,” Meager advises. “Would this be sensible to attend? Ask a non-dramatic friend or colleague if you’re not sure.”

“Remember that by saying yes to one thing, you are automatically saying no to a whole host of other things,” she adds. “In the big scheme of things, is this really more important than meeting up with your friends, doing bedtime with the kids or going to the yoga class that always restores your serenity?”

“Is that work event really more important than meeting up with your friends?”

It’s also crucial to research as much as possible to find out what the work, meeting or event is about, who is going and what the real - not perceived - opportunities are.

Forde advises being more proactive. “If you know you are going on holiday, or you’re going to be away for a period of time, organise a team event or building exercise for when you get back so that you can rebond with colleagues, and catch up with everything going on at work,” she says.

For Erin, beating FOMO means saying no when necessary and not dwelling on it. “It’s difficult to come in the next day and have people talking about how great the party was, or how much they spoke with a director, or discussed a new work initiative after hours,” she says.

“You really just need to suck it up and tell yourself it doesn’t matter - because you can’t be at everything and it isn’t worth sacrificing your health just to be present at every function.”

*some names have been changed

Images: Annie Spratt, Priscilla Du Preez, Kinga Cichewicz, Alicia Steels, Unsplash