More than one employee around the table had the same confession to make. Yes, they were taking their smartphones to bed. Talk about an unrequited love.
I wasn’t surprised by this news at a work-life balance training I led for a large consulting firm in New York. More and more of us don’t know when to shut it down anymore, and the result is soaring medical bills and shoddy work.
In the course of doing trainings and workshops at organizations large and small across the country, I meet people who have pushed hours and work well beyond what their bodies are capable of handling.
One entrepreneur had a heart attack at 29.
I meet folks in their thirties who are on more meds than some on geriatric wards. And it’s all completely counter to the research on what makes us productive in the knowledge economy:
A refreshed and energized brain.
Any engineer can tell you. We have structural limits. Even the strongest materials pull apart, subjected to the right amount of force and load. We’re being pulled apart, because we’re not making adjustments to the increased load and pace coming down on us.
Chronic long hours can trigger a cascade of health problems.
A study at the University of California, Irvine found that a steady diet of workweeks of more than 51 hours can triple the risk of hypertension. British researchers in a 2010 study documented that people who work more than 11 or 12 hours a day have a 60% increased chance of coronary incidents, from heart attacks to angina.
Stress is the culprit, triggering the release of hormones that contribute to plaque buildup inside arteries.
Think you’re not stressed?
That’s the adrenaline, masking the effect of your immune system being suppressed by stress. Long days have also been linked to sleep problems and depression.
Death By Overwork
The Japanese have known for a long time where excessive workweeks can lead, to what they call “karoshi” — death by overwork. Researchers there have found a link between long hours, high blood pressure, heart disease and an unhealthy lifestyle — no exercise, sleeplessness, poor eating habits, fewer medical visits, and increased anxiety and strain.
We’re working ourselves to death.
Many of us have become so fused with our work that we have become our jobs.
One woman told me she has zero identity outside her work.
We create the self through labor in this land, unlike in other countries, where your family or regional background give you a sense of who you are. We’re a young land, we move around a lot, and wind up defining ourselves by our jobs. Performance becomes the sole source of identity and value. Step away from it, and you have no value. You hear the nag in your head bellowing, “Get busy” — even if you’re at home on a Sunday morning.
Like all external yardsticks, performance is a flimsy source of worth, so you have to keep doing more of it to prop the pseudo self-esteem up.
A government employee I coached told me she hadn’t had 10 minutes to herself in five months. Digging deeper, I found that almost all of it was self-inflicted. She had a talk with her supervisor, who asked her why in the world she was working all these weekends.
Entrepreneurs put in Herculean hours and believe they can never step away, or they’re deserting their businesses. That’s bogus. As the old line goes:
If you haven’t had a day off, you haven’t had a day on.
Fear of layoffs drives “defensive overworking,” as some go to extreme hours to avoid pink slips. But those who work on weekends and skip vacations get laid off like everyone else. A tech worker who limited her vacation to a long weekend — instead of the four weeks she had coming to her because she had worked at the firm two decades — got laid off like everyone else.
“Now I’m wondering where my life went,” she told me.
Set Your Limits
Life is usually the first thing to go with overwork — exercise, hobbies, social outlets — all the things that reduce stress and provide proof that there is another realm of value and meaning, while also ensuring that you make time for it.
It turns out that where we think all the gratification comes from — performance, status, stuff — is way off base. The research shows that the best predictor of personal satisfaction is satisfaction in your non-professional life.
The more active leisure life you have, the higher your life satisfaction.
In the course of doing a book on this topic, Don’t Miss Your Life, I met a host of badminton, aikido, kayaking, and dancing enthusiasts who know what the researchers have confirmed, that recreational activities reduce stress, increase positive mood and creativity, build mastery and risk-taking and connect us with our true aspirations and selves like nothing else. That creates lasting gratification, since these pursuits pump us up with internal satisfaction, not the mercurial approval of others.
This anti-burnout tonic is available to all of us when we rediscover the most basic self and life-management tool — boundaries.
You have to know when to say when.
One Harvard study found that boundaries are a success tool.
“The key trait of successful businesspeople who have true satisfaction in their lives is the deliberate imposition of limits,” said Laura Nash and Howard Stevenson.
People who are good at setting limits are able to find the “just enough” point, the authors say, when they had done just enough for a given project or the day.
Boundaries are a productivity tool. They prevent the colossal drop-off in performance that comes from excess hours (25% to 50% and more), plus the fatigue and stress that come out of your hide the next day and the next.
MRI scans of fatigued brains look exactly like ones that are sound asleep.
Boundaries also happen to produce a little thing called life, a realm in which beds can actually be Blackberry-free zones.
Joe Robinson is a work-life balance and stress management trainer and coach. He is the author of Don’t Miss Your Life, Work to Live, and The Email Overload Survival Kit. Visit his site for more info on his trainings and seminars. He has written for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Adventure, Fast Company, and Entrepreneur. He has a blog, has contributed to the Huffington Post, and has appeared on CNN, the Today Show, All Things Considered, and many other media outlets. Follow Joe on Twitter and on Facebook.