Blackout to Wake Up

It is hard to estimate how many of us are suffering the impacts of stress and fatigue from living in an always on 24/7 world and trying to deliver to all the demands and expectations of our work, life, family and …if we still have the energy… ourselves.

The cost to business of workplace health and stress related issues is rising at an alarming rate. In the US the cost of workplace illnesses is $58 billion a year and burnout alone, is estimated to cost Germany 10 billion Euro a year. Unfortunately, our current wellness paradigm is stuck measuring the cost of various degrees of illness, the impact of when we break down physically and mentally, rather than calculating the value of higher levels of wellness and proactively supporting us to thrive.

As a baby boomer, I grew up in a time where sharing any feeling of pressure and strain was seen as letting others down and not being good enough for the task, or at least that is what I perceived the world around me to expect of me, so for far too long I delivered and often exceeded all those expectations around me at great cost to my personal wellness and work life balance. In order to do so, I have become highly skilled at shutting out the noise from my body and spirit and compensating by the adrenaline of achieving one more goal. The high of yet another challenge conquered has become so much more satisfying than the physical pain, emotional drain and endless jet lag.

A wise friend once told me, that we teach the lessons that we ourselves need to learn and I for one have done a great job of advising organizations on how to help use their workplace to support their employees work life balance, by giving them choices of how, when and where they work and trusting them to do great work as well as live a fulfilled life of physical, social and emotional wellness. Whilst I am very successful at what I do, recently a client unknowingly held a mirror up to, who I was really being, whilst I was helping them change who they were trying to become.

Awareness of who we are being is directly linked to our behaviors, the use of the physical environment, our bodies and our wellness. We mostly operate in the world in a state of autopilot where learned behaviors override our awareness and we just keep doing, getting things done with no awareness of who we are being and what impact our behaviors have on ourselves and those around us.

One of the key messages I give clients is that actions speak louder than words and I have long believed that the physical environment is a powerful tool that both reflects the culture of an organisation and actively shapes behaviors and the culture of an organization. I had been right, the environment did indeed transform behavior and in this instance mine was being altered day by day…Whilst I was inspired by the people I was working with, I was shocked to realize that the workplace experience I was tasked with transforming was actually transforming my own behavior instead. I was expected to be in the office every day to be effective and for the first time in my career I started to feel that being present (commuting 3 hrs a day) and being busy, having a back to back diary, never getting up from my desk or meeting room, taking no breaks and arriving earlier and leaving later…etc, was part of demonstrating my value.

Several months in I was feeling stressed and I had gained a lot of weight, whilst increasingly getting further stuck in the destructive autopilot pattern of the corporate status quo. As I was changing the environment and behaviors of the organisation, my own were slipping backward into the dysfunctional patterns that needed changing in the first place. Finally one morning I ended up in an ambulance with a black out. It is a strange feeling having the lights go out, one minute you are discussing the weather over breakfast and the next a nurse is asking if you know your name…’Of course I do and I am late for a meeting’, was my response.

After weeks of tests, I was told that I should try to lose weight, but there was nothing to worry about, it was … ‘just stress’ and I was fine! I ordinarily would have gone back and continued on the autopilot but something happened, a moment of awareness that indicated something was not right with the world I was busy constructing, that having a black out and being fine did not make sense, maybe, just maybe my body was trying to communicate something and it might just be worthwhile to take notice. So I stepped back and have been trying to figure out how to best balance the awareness of being present with the autopilot of doing and achieving. It is very hard to do and sadly I keep finding that I am not alone.

I recently shared my autopilot induced blackout experience at a client round table dinner, on the importance of wellness at the workplace and shockingly a number of people at the table shared similar experiences. It seemed that for that moment, we all had been granted permission to acknowledge our vulnerability and share that all was not well, we were not super human and maybe we had been doing too much to try to prove otherwise. Someone said that maybe the new trend is ‘have a blackout to be cool’. How very sad it would be that having pushed our bodies to shut down in order to get our attention, rather than wake up we keep going.

The cost of our lack of awareness is catching up with us in unfortunate ways and we need to proactively wake up and begin to view wellness not as lacking illness but as thriving.

Arianna Huffington shared her own blackout experience and subsequent awakening in her book Thrive and introduced wellness as the much needed Third Metric of success. She reinforces the message that there is no work life balance. We have only one life and a company culture that does not expect employees to be wired and responsive 24/7 needs to become the norm to make our workplaces truly sustainable.

Healthy employees are significant factors to a healthy bottom line but our entire approach to workplace requires transformation. It is not a simple solution; a gym, or a standing desk, but it is an ongoing process that requires an integrated approach by leadership, space, technology and HR policies to deliver effective people focused change.

The process is equally complex for us as individuals. Whilst the organization might give us choices of how we work, we ourselves need to become aware of of how we choose to experience life and take responsibility for our own wellness. We tend to want an easy answer that will deliver the result but the answer lies in the complexity and constant change of life, by embracing the the choice of who we are being at every moment.

My own continuing quest for personal balance has been a difficult paradigm shift, from always doing, anxious to control the events around me to becoming aware, letting go and starting to integrate my own functional silos of body, mind and spirit and recognize my freedom to choose how to experience the journey!

Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on April 6, 2015.