Ed Sheeran has recently been outspoken about his mental health, including his experience with an eating disorder. In his latest project, the Grammy Award–winning singer-songwriter made another vulnerable confession: At times, his drive to pump out song after song was actually a coping mechanism to deal with the chaos going on in his life.
“Anytime in my life where things are going badly, I tend to work more, because it’s a distraction,” Sheeran said in his new four-part Disney+ docuseries, Ed Sheeran: The Sum of It All, which explores the personal struggles that inspired his new music. Behind the scenes of performing and working on his upcoming album “-,” Sheeran said he grappled with his wife Cherry Seaborn’s tumor diagnosis (which she had learned about while pregnant); a stressful copyright lawsuit; and the death of a close friend, music entrepreneur Jamal Edwards—a loss he admits he was never able to fully process. “The moment you find out that the worst thing in the world has happened to someone that you truly love with all your heart, you feel like you’re drowning and can’t get out from under,” he said in the series.
In response to so much stress all at once, Sheeran said he noticed that immersing himself in his music helped him forget the pain temporarily. There wasn’t a single day in 2022 when he wasn’t working, performing, writing, or doing promo, Seaborn recalled in The Sum of It All. While this workload was normal for Sheeran, she saw the toll it was taking on his mental health: “He hasn’t had the time to just sit with his thoughts,” she said.
She was right to be concerned: Pressuring yourself to keep working can signify what some mental health experts call “toxic productivity.” There isn’t an agreed-upon definition, but the phenomenon is often associated with guilt for not constantly doing something, failure to recognize your accomplishments, and using work to avoid uncomfortable feelings, as SELF previously reported. It’s also often associated with anxiety, trouble sleeping, and irritability (which can also be signs of burnout), Rheeda Walker, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Houston, previously told SELF.
Even if you don’t reach full-blown depletion or, like Sheeran, you’re still high-functioning, overworking yourself—without taking the time to really, truly rest—can still take a toll on your health and relationships over time. Research has linked burnout with physical health problems, including an increased risk for cardiovascular diseases, psychological consequences like depression, as well as insomnia.
“I think you have to be honest about where your life is,” Sheeran said, which he realized after unexpectedly breaking down about Edwards’s death on stage. That moment, he said, was the wake-up call that he needed in order to sit with those uncomfortable feelings and confront them head-on, which meant taking a step back from his rigorous work schedule and learning to slowly process the trauma he spent months ignoring. Through this, Sheeran said he learned an invaluable life lesson that topped any career high: “Nothing matters more than health and time with people [you love].”