604: Identifying and Overcoming Burnout | Rahaf Harfoush

Podcast Cover Image: Identifying and Overcoming Burnout Culture Featuring Rahaf Harfoush
Podcast Cover Image: Identifying and Overcoming Burnout Culture Featuring Rahaf Harfoush

Powered by RedCircle

Let’s discuss overcoming burnout with Rahaf Harfoush, a Digital Anthropologist and Best-Selling Author researching the impacts of emerging technologies on our society. Rahaf focuses on understanding the hidden behavioral shifts that are taking place as global digital infrastructures enable the unprecedented exchange of ideas, information, and opinions. She teaches “Innovation and Disruptive Business Models” at  SciencePo’s School of Management & Innovation in Paris. Her third book, “Hustle & Float: Reclaim Your Creativity in a World Obsessed with Work,” was published in February 2019.

Rahaf is the Executive Director of the Red Thread Institute of Digital Culture, leading a team of researchers in exploring the implications of the first global digital culture on how we live our lives. Rahaf is a member of the German Marshall Fund’s Young Transatlantic Network of Leaders. She was named a top future thinker by the Hay Literary Festival and a Young Global Changer at the G20 Think Tank Summit. In 2018, Rahaf was nominated as one of the most innovative people in France by the prestigious “Les Napoleons.”

Rahaf supports organizations in navigating our new constantly connected reality to strengthen their innovation, talent management, and foresight strategies to ensure they are on top of the latest trends and best practices. Her clients include Starwood Capital Group, Estée Lauder, L’Oreal, UNESCO, The OECD, Cross Knowledge, A1, ING Direct, EuroRSG, and more. Her other books include “The Decoded Company: Know Your Talent Better Than You Know Your Customers”, and “Yes We Did: An Insider’s look at how Social Media Built the Obama Brand.” Previously, she was the Associate Director of the Technology Pioneer Program at the World Economic Forum.

Conquer Local is presented by Vendasta. We have proudly served 5.5+ million local businesses through 60,000+ channel partners. Learn more about Vendasta and we can help your organization or learn more about Vendasta’s Affiliate Program and how our listeners (like yourself) are making up to $10,000 off referrals.

Are you an entrepreneur, salesperson, or marketer? Keep the learning going in the Conquer Local Academy.

Identifying and Overcoming Burnout Culture


George: This is “The Conquer Local Podcast”, a show about billion-dollar sales leaders, marketers leading local economic growth, and entrepreneurs that have created their dream organizations. They want to share their secrets, giving you the distilled version of their extraordinary feats. Our hope is with the tangible takeaways from each episode, you can rewire, rework, and reimagine your business. I’m George Leith, and on this episode, we welcome Rahaf Harfoush. Rahaf is a Digital Anthropologist and bestselling author, researching the impacts of emerging technologies on our society. She is the Executive Director of the Red Thread Institute of Digital Culture, where she leads a team of researchers in exploring the implications of the first global digital culture in how we live our lives. Rahaf teaches innovation and disruptive business models at the Sciences PO School of Management and Innovation in Paris. Her focus is on understanding the hidden behavioral shifts taking place as global digital infrastructures enable the unprecedented exchange of ideas, information, and opinions. She is the author of three books, her third book, “Hustle And Float, Reclaim Your Creativity In A World Obsessed With Work”, was published in February of 2019. She has an upcoming book, “Humane Productivity”, to be released this year in 2023. Get ready conquerors for Rahaf Harfoush coming up next on this week’s episode of “The Conquer Local Podcast”. 

George: Very excited to have Rahaf with us on the show today. Welcome, all the way from Paris, France.

Rahaf: Thanks for having me, a fellow Canadian living abroad.

Identifying Burnout

George: It was interesting, I was reading through the notes, and you are a Canadian, and you actually know where Saskatchewan is, which, most people that we get overseas, we got to kind of explain where it is on the map and everything else. So, it’s great. And, I also was looking through, you are our first guest to be located in Paris, France. We’ve had folks all over the world, but now we can put a pin in Paris, France. So, really excited to have you on the show, and congratulations on all your success. We kind of covered the book titles in the intro and we’ll get into them in a moment, but first I have to, I’m going to lay my soul bare here that I am suffering from burnout, and that’s hard for me to say because I was kind of raised that you just suck it up and put some dirt on it and carry on. I’m wondering if that is a common thing that you are seeing through your expertise, that more and more of us are actually admitting it, that we’re reaching a point of burnout, or we’re able to identify it. Are you seeing that?

Rahaf: Yes, absolutely I’m seeing that. I think that for so many people, the past two years, the pandemic, everything that has been going on, has pushed a lot of us to our mental and physical limits. We had to navigate school closures and working from home in a very last-minute environment and places that maybe weren’t conducive to working at home. We had to navigate an unknown virus. There’s so many things that kind of happened that I think, in many ways, we were forced to bring what was hidden into the light. And, the reality is many people have been suffering from burnout since before the pandemic, the pandemic just took those sorts of cracks and split them wide open.

Burnout Culture: What is it?

George: Yeah. That does line up with the way that I’ve kind of been feeling. So, then some advice for an old sales war horse like myself, admitting it might be the first part to solving some of the challenges. Is that… Is that a fair statement?

Rahaf: Yeah, I mean, we have to remember that burnout culture is the opposite of hustle culture, which we are all very obsessed with, or at least were. Maybe, we’re starting to become a little more deprogrammed of it. So, not only is it, as you said, a generational thing, where we have an entire generation of people that were raised to not complain and to sort of just stick, put their heads down, and get to work. But, we also have an entire generation of people, the generation that came after you, that was sort of taught that if you are not glorifying your busyness, if you are not proving with your sweat and your tears that you are devoted to your job, then you must not really want it. So, we’ve actually been taught that the signals that would normally get us, that should get us, to stop, and take a rest, and recover, we’re told that those signals are actually indicators of our devotion and our deservingness of our success. So, you end up having people that push themselves to the brink, that ruin their health, in the pursuit of some sort of unrealistic definition of success that is actually doing more harm than good.

Acknowledging the Signs of Burnout

George: Well, it’s interesting because it sounds like my daughters speaking to me, because they both are the people that have watched me throughout my career, and they’re saying, you’re gonna burn out. And, I also have noticed that they don’t wanna work 16 hours a day, because they probably watched me do it and saw it be a detriment. What are some of the signals that we could share with our audience around you might be suffering from burnout?

Rahaf: Sure. So, burnout is actually felt in three major ways. The first way is one that I think most of us are familiar with, which is physical depletion and exhaustion. This is when you just do not have the energy to do your job. You’re tired, you aren’t sleeping well, you aren’t resting well, you feel it in your body, even sometimes headaches from eye strain or back aches from sitting in a chair for too long. This is a very sort of physical and on an energetic level. The second impact is actually negativity and cynicism. So, if you start noticing you’re getting a bit short with your colleagues, you are taking tones more personally, you’re not giving people the benefit of the doubt, you’re not extending grace to them, if you find yourself complaining about coworkers, getting into more conflicts, or being more irritated, or more judgmental, those are all actually signs of burnout. And, then the third and final impact is called lack of personal efficacy. And, that just means you start to doubt yourself. You have sort of a crisis of self-confidence. So, in a way, burnout ends up stealing your energy, it ends up stealing your empathy, it ends up stealing your confidence, and it is in and of itself a result of chronic depletion. So, what people don’t understand about burnout is they think, oh, well, sometimes you have to work hard or sometimes you’re gonna be stressed, and no one is saying, don’t work hard, and no one is saying, don’t get stressed. What we’re saying is that you cannot maintain those two states – overwork and stress for a prolonged period of time without starting to see some breakdowns in your body. It is just not possible. So, the idea here is that you’re repeatedly, over the course of weeks or months, putting yourself in a state where you are running yourself all the way to empty and you are never giving yourself, or your body, or your brain the chance to fully recharge. So, you just keep going on empty day, after day, after day. And, eventually that inability to recharge ends up really compromising the foundations of your health and mental wellbeing.

Hustle & Float: Reclaim Your Creativity in a World Obsessed with Work

George: So, when we look at… I did watch your Ted Talk explainer video. Absolutely amazing. So, thank you for that. I took a lot away from that because I’ve noticed a lack of creativity, all the things, it’s like, check, check, check. But, now I’d like to kind of push into the books. In “Hustle And Float”, you really talked about that a little earlier, where burnout is the flip side of a hustle culture. I even have a pin that I put on my lapel that says hustle all the time. So, if you’re gonna push that hard, it’s pretty… It makes sense. And, when you come at it rationally, you’re like, that just makes sense that those three things might be something that you need to take a look at. So, what was the… When you released that book in February of 2019, what led you to feel that you had to put together that work of literacy?

Rahaf: Well, I came at it from my own personal experience. Like I’ve always been somebody who has previously, not anymore, but I’ve always really bought into hustle culture. I’m a former workaholic. I was somebody who defined my identity through, not just my professional accomplishments, but by the fact that I was labeled as a hard worker. I used to celebrate having a full calendar. I also used to have different sorts of paraphernalia that used to talk about that. I think I had a sticker at one point on my computer that said, It said something like, I can… Living the dream means like not… Like having a lack of sleep. It was something about not sleeping and celebrating lack of sleep or something like hustle, grind, repeat, or whatever it was. And, what I realized was that as a knowledge worker, as somebody whose job it is to, at the time, research, analyze, collaborate, work with clients, solve problems, identify trends, that fundamentally that was a creative skill set. So, I had to sort of re-identify that a lot of the work that I was doing was creative. And, then I started thinking, okay, well, I’m getting burned out. My work is suffering. My health is suffering. The quality of my ideas are suffering. So, clearly, I’m not actually working in a way that is optimized for my skill sets and the type of work that I want to do. Why not? And, it’s just asking those questions. Why do I celebrate being busy? Where did that come from? Why is it so hard to take a break? Why do I feel guilty when I take a break? Why do I feel restless if I haven’t had a productive weekend? Once I started asking myself those questions, it ended up being, the book ended up being three years of almost like a cultural deep dive of unraveling the stories that we’ve been telling each other about work and success. And, I did that because I realized that the systems that were being put into place were harming us. They were actually undermining our ability to be high performing. They were undermining our ability to be creative. They were undermining our abilities to have good ideas. So, we were stuck in this endless loop where it was like, I’m tired, I can’t come up with a good idea, I have to work longer, I’m tired, I can’t come up with a good idea, and the whole cycle continues, and the missing piece was recovery. So, I wanted other people to know that it wasn’t them, that the reason they were not producing their best work, or living their best lives or feeling aligned with how they wanted to spend their time wasn’t just because they weren’t waking up early enough, or weren’t hustling, or weren’t trying hard enough. It was a system and a story that had more to gain by getting people exhausted and sick than by actually saying, hey, what would it look like if we actually built a way of working that would empower people for the type of work that they did? Not some legacy ideologies that were left over from the industrial revolution when people used to work on assembly lines instead of the jobs that most of us have today, which is problem-solving, collaborating, cooperating, writing, reading, comprehension, and figuring stuff out.

Deprogramming and Overcoming Burnout

George: I remember the moment that we realized we were gonna have to shut things down and go home because nobody knew what COVID was going to be, and we were petrified as a society, and I remember having a conversation with a coworker, and jokingly, but not jokingly saying, we’re not gonna let something like a worldwide pandemic hurt what we built here. We’ll just work harder. And, then, so we did, and then we went back to normal ways of working, whatever this is, if this is the new normal, and it wasn’t like we slowed down. You’re still pushing hard. So, what I guess my long-winded way of asking this question by giving some real-world examples is, how long is it gonna take me to deprogram the fact that I find my self-worth from that packed calendar, from saying all the stuff that I did all week, from saying, oh, and I worked all weekend, from saying, oh, and I worked last night ’til three in the morning, like, that’s where a lot of us, and I’m admitting it right here in front of the world on this podcast, I find that is what good looks like for me. So, how long is it gonna take me to deprogram that?

Rahaf: I mean, I wish I could give you an answer. I wish it could be like six weeks, but it really depends on how many of those conversations you’re willing to have with yourself, with your family, and with your friends. I think just the fact that you’re asking, just the fact that you can articulate, very bravely by the way, because it goes against so much of what we’re taught, just the fact that you can say, I identify so much of my validation and my self-worth comes from this way of working and how hard I work. That is already a first step. That tells me you’re at least willing to open the door to have those conversations. Some people are so entrenched in this mindset that they won’t even acknowledge that there’s a problem. So, I think instead of saying, how long will it take? I think you should just start having the conversations because it could just happen in the snap of a finger. It could happen in 10 seconds, it could happen in 10 months, I don’t know. What I do know is the second you start asking yourself, where did I get these stories? And, two, do these stories actually serve me, or do these narratives that I have about who I am, and my worth, and my work ethic, and what it takes to be successful, are these beliefs generating behaviors that are actually helping me live a life I want to live? Am I energetic at work? Am I taking care of my body in the way that I want? Am I spending time with the people of my life in the way that I want? Am I prioritizing things in a way that I won’t regret in 10, 20, 30, or 40 years? ‘Cause, if the answer is yes, then just keep doing you. I’m not here to tell you what to do, keep doing you. But, in most cases, what we find is that people start to say, this way of working, and this way of living, and this way of being is not enabling me to live in a way that’s in alignment with my real values. And, it’s not allowing me to build a life where I’m prioritizing the things that matter. And, as soon as you make that connection, then you start to say, okay, well, then what does a life that is aligned with my creative cycles actually look like? And, that’s when the real fun starts.

Rewritting the Narrative on Burnout

George: It’s interesting. I was having lunch with a mentor here a couple of weeks back who’s been very successful in their business, known them for a long time, and we got into the conversation of, whatever happened to offering advice or asking for advice. I think this whole thing of don’t tell me what to do, it’s my life, I get to do what I want, and, I, now that I look back at it with hindsight, recognizing that I was in a burnout stage, there were signals. The one signal was two years ago when my wife said, we’re going on a holiday, which she’s never done before. She’s never booked a holiday before, she’s never picked a place that we were going. And, it wasn’t that she needed a holiday, although she probably did. What she was saying was, you need a holiday. And, that was a signal. There’s other signals inside work where you have individuals come to you and they say, are you okay? And, then you get mad, of course, I’m okay. But, those were the signals to me where that something’s going on here, or you seem to be a lot more angry than you normally are. And, you brought that up earlier a few minutes ago, that that is one of those telltale signs. So, what happened to us as a society? Because it used to be, I’m going to give my friend advice, and it was accepted and trusted, but I find that people are less likely to offer that today than maybe they were 10, 15, or 20 years ago. Are you seeing that too?

Rahaf: I mean, I think the difference is that when you give somebody advice about like a job they’re gonna take or a decision that they’re going to make, that’s very different than giving somebody advice on a belief system. And, the problem with a lot of hustle culture is that it is embedded in our fundamental belief systems of how we see ourselves and how we see ourself worth. If you imagine for a minute that being busy has become a religion of sorts that we worship at the altar of being busy, we worship at the altar of productivity, if I came in, if I came to you and I said, I wanna give you some advice about how to stop doing that, you are going to interpret that not as advice. You are going to interpret that as an attack on your values and on your beliefs. And, as we’ve seen on the internet, people don’t take too kindly to having their values or their beliefs sort of questioned. So, it’s not about giving advice, it’s about you understanding that you as an individual, you are the only person who could open this door for yourself. You have to be willing to look inside yourself and be like, what are my beliefs really? And, do they serve me? Because, if you do not believe that, if you in your heart and in your soul genuinely believe that in order for you to survive, to succeed, in order for you to get what you want out of life, you have to work yourself to the bone, if that is just something that you feel to be true, I can talk to you for 6 million hours and tell you take a break, sleep, exercise, and you won’t do it, because it’s not aligned with your beliefs. And, furthermore, from a neurological perspective, what’s so fascinating is that when we start hearing things that contradict our beliefs, our brain will just shut that down. You will just not believe it. So, I think it’s about taking accountability for ourselves and saying, hey, am I willing to feel uncomfortable and to face some things about myself, about the decisions that I’ve made that, maybe in hindsight weren’t the best? Am I willing to face up to that in order to understand the narratives and the belief systems that got me here? And, if I am, then you can rewrite the script, but you’re the only one that can rewrite your script. I can tell you all the things that you can do. People told me for years, take a break, do yoga, go for a walk. And, it wasn’t until I had such a severe episode of burnout that I really compromised my health and got scared that the light bulb turned on in my brain and I was like, wow, this really isn’t working for me. I can’t keep working this way anymore. And, that was the only thing, unfortunately, that sort of got me to be like, I need to make some changes and I need to understand how I got here in the first place.

What is Digital Anthropology?

George: I was so excited when I was reading through the pre-interview notes and that you agreed to come on the show because I knew that I was gonna be able to learn some things. And, to your point earlier, that’s a hard thing to admit, that it took me a long time to get to the point where I could admit that maybe this whole workaholic thing that had led my career for 30-some-odd years might not be the way that I wanna move in the next 30 years. I always think of the Tim McGraw song, “My Next 30 years”. There’s one other thing that I wanted to talk about and then we’ll walk through your upcoming book, and what people can expect from that. But, digital anthropology, I’d love to understand from you, what is that all about. Like what is it?

Rahaf: So, digital anthropology is the study of technology on culture and culture on technology. It’s basically how the tools that we use end up creating rituals, belief systems, norms, and expectations that then inform how we move and think about things in the world. And, so for example, something as simple as how do notifications on our phone change our relationship with immediacy, interruptions, and distractions, to how do dating apps and the over availability in some cases of partners, or options, or potential options change our understanding of monogamy. So, it’s all the different ways that new tools kind of challenge these old ideas of being and how and what it means to live in a connected world.

Humane Productivity

George: It’s interesting, we talk a lot in this organization about Amara’s Law, and our CEO kind of educated us on it years ago, that we overestimate technology in the short term and underestimate it in the long term. And, with all this technology, like it is going to change the world, it’s gonna change everything, and then it didn’t right outta the gate. And, then we sit here and we go, no, it changed everything. And, I have been reading through your content and learning every minute of it. You’ve got some great stuff out there. We got “Hustle And Float”, and I love that, that work by the way. And, you are about to release “Humane Productivity” and thank you. I can’t wait for it, because I would like to be more humane in my productivity. So, looking forward to it. What was the catalyst for the book and what can readers expect when you release that early in 2023?

Rahaf: So, “Hustle And Float” was really about the why I needed to understand my own behavior. So, I spent all this time being like, why, where did this story come from? Where did this belief come from? And, so “Humane Productivity” was sort of like the follow-up. It’s like, okay, I know now that the old ways don’t work. What does the new way look like? How do I build? What does my work-life look like? What does my business look like? What does my day and my calendar look like if I started from a place that says I’m going to prioritize my recovery, my break time, I’m gonna prioritize my health, I’m gonna prioritize my creative, and mental, and physical well-being, what would that look like in tangible decisions that I’m making? And, I wanted to give people an alternative, because what we don’t realize is that so much of the decisions that we make today about how to work, and how hard to work, and being constantly connected, that’s based on just a set of assumptions. They’re not the end all be all of the assumptions. It’s just like one way to play the game. I wanna create a new set of rules to play the game, one that says our mental emotional well-being, our relationships are the most important thing. And, “Humane Productivity” is really based on sort of two major ideas. The first idea is that recovery and taking the time to rest is a part of high performance. So, how do you create high-performance systems that are designed to help you produce your best work? We can’t do that without recovery. And, then the second part is a bit more, I would say slightly more spiritual, where, in my reading, one of the books that I read was “The Five Regrets of the Dying” by hospice nurse Bronnie Ware. And, I never remember all of them, but I sort of have to paraphrase, she was a hospice nurse that was with people at the end of their lives. And, over the course of these years, she’d heard all of their regrets. And, she’d started noticing there were some themes. And, the ones that I always remember is, I wish I had worked less. I wish I had spent more time invested in my relationships with family and friends. I wish I had let myself be happy. I wish I had lived a life that looked more like me. And, so nowhere in those regrets was anybody like, I wish I spent more time on email. I wish I spent more hours on a Zoom call. I wish I spent more time at the office. And, so when I read that book, it really sort of drove home this idea, especially with the pandemic, that like, what actually matters here? And, how can you build a business or a practice, or how can you show up at work, if you work in a company, in a way where you’re bringing your A game, you’re bringing your best ideas, you’re producing great work, but you’re doing so in a way that honors your body, your energy, and your mind, and that honors the life that you’re trying to build, because one of the comparisons I make in the book is that the climate catastrophe that we’re witnessing right now, the climate crisis is very much what we’re witnessing with the burnout crisis, where in both of these situations, we’re taking systems, we’re pushing them to the limit, and we’re not giving the environment and people enough time to recover. Just like you can’t cut down forests infinitely without consequence, you can’t keep pushing people to the brink without consequence. And, so what would that recalibration look like?

George: So, “Humane Productivity” to be released sometime in 2023. Couple of other books that we didn’t get a chance to talk about, because of time, but, “Yes We Did: An Insider’s Look At How Social Media Built The Obama Brand.” You released that back in 2009. “The Decoded Company, Know Your Talent Better Than You Know Your Customers” back in March of 2014. And, then of course, “Hustle and Float”, which we spoke about in 2019. And, It’s super impressive, when you go through your website, those logos and the companies that you’ve worked with are a who’s who of the business community. Congratulations on all your success. We’re very privileged to have had you on the show here and with your learnings. Yeah, a bunch of it was pointed towards me, but what I was hoping to do was to share it with our audience as well, folks that our badge of honor is the brick or the pile of bricks in our calendar and maybe that might not be the best way to lead the most productive life. And, yeah, to your point, you’re longtime dead. So, it’s great to hear about this new book that you have coming forward that might be able to give us a blueprint for moving forward. So, thank you so much for joining us today on “The Conquer Local Podcast”. We’re gonna put all the links in the show notes so people can reach out to you. And, just one last item, I know you work with a lot of these organizations, if one of the companies that are listening to this show would like to get in touch with you, what’s the best way to reach out to you?

Getting in touch with Rahaf Harfoush

Rahaf: Just through my website, rahafharfoush.com. That would probably be the best and easiest way. And, I would love to hear what any of your listeners, what any of you guys think about the book or the researcher ideas. So, please get in touch. I’d love to hear from the community of people who are interested in this topic.

George: Rahaf, thank you very much for joining us, and enjoy your day. And, you are now a Conquer Local alumnus, so welcome to the club.

Rahaf: Yay. Thanks so much.


George: I really enjoyed chatting with Rahaf and there are some valuable learnings in this episode. I was not the test case, because I really am affected by burnout. And, you can see that it affects your energy, empathy, and confidence. For instance, the inability to recharge affects the foundation of our mental and emotional well-being. That’s what Rahaf said, and it’s up to us to rewrite the script. I wrote that down. I’m gonna start doing that after this episode. Conquerors, if there’s tips that we could leave you with to improve your mental and emotional well-being from today’s episode, it’s that recovery and taking the time to rest is what could lead to a higher performance level. If you liked Rahaf Harfoush’s episode discussing recovering from burnout, let’s continue this conversation and check out episode 528, “Mastering Your Meetings with Caroline Goider”, and episode 533, “Emotional Intelligence with Colleen Stanley”. Please, subscribe and leave us a review wherever you listen to your podcasts. And, thanks for joining us this week on “The Conquer Local Podcast”. My name is George Leith. I’ll see you when I see you.

Subscribe to podcast


Introducing Conquer Local podcast for marketers, sales experts