Have you ever bragged about how little sleep you’ve had because of work? Complained that you haven’t taken a vacation in years? Ignored family during dinner because you needed to send another email?
I’ll bet there’s a fairly good chance that the answer to all three is yes.
I don’t blame you. That’s certainly how I was. I let my job cannibalize my personal life. Little by little, I gave more and more of my time — until 60–70 hour weeks with working weekends became normalized.
We do this for myriad reasons, like to get a promotion, earn a bonus, prevent work on a vacation and even catch up when we get back.
I like to call this corporate creep. A company is never going to tell you to work less. If you start to give more of your personal time willingly, they’ll gladly take it off your hands. And then managers will give you a look of surprise when one day you inevitably put your foot down.
“Many people consider being overworked and constantly stressed at work to be a normal condition over which they have little control,” writes Dr. Elizabeth Stanley in “Widen the Window,” a book that examines stress and trauma. “In our culture, we romanticize our stress, even as we whine about it with humblebrags.”
Until I read Stanley’s book I never really thought about all the work, stress and busyness as a badge, but it definitely was. If I was constantly needed in a ton of projects and back-to-back conference calls, then it somehow meant that I must be important, right?
Since then, I’ve slowed my life way down. It was like I slammed the brakes and stopped short. Scalding coffee went flying everywhere and riders hit their heads on the dash. “Why?” you might ask.
My body and my mind finally couldn’t take any more stress or anxiety. I’d built up so much internal stress that my whole body was dysregulated. My stress had become distress (bad stress). And I’m writing this to open your eyes to the severity of the problem.
Overworking in America
Did you know that the vast majority of industrialized nations require employers to grant a minimum of 20 paid vacation days every year?
Well, here in the U.S. there is no legal minimum number of vacation days or holidays. In fact, nearly one in four U.S. workers have no paid time off at all. The average U.S. worker gets 10 vacation days and six holidays, with low-wage workers receiving substantially less than high-wage workers.
Of the vacation that we do get, as recently as 2016, more than half of American workers (54%) don’t use all their vacation. The employees most likely to forfeit their vacation days are: low-wage workers, executives, millennials age 18–35 and employees who log more than 50 hours each week.
“Two-thirds of employees believed their company culture is ‘ambivalent, discouraging or sends mixed messages about time off,’” writes Stanley.
In addition, of the 20% of employees working more than 50 hours a week, more than half report that their job has a negative effect on their stress-levels. Nearly two in three (63%) of U.S. workers regularly work overtime and weekends, and one-third work a “significant amount” while on vacation.
While these numbers are fairly disturbing, I can say that they ring true for me and many of my friends in the professional or financial services industries. It’s actually no surprise that anxiety disorder is now the most common mental illness in America, affecting nearly one in three adults. Substance abuse is also on the rise with nearly one-third of Americans having either abused or been dependent on alcohol.
“Powerful, high-achieving, and successful people — and the high-stress institutions where they work — have no problem acknowledging ‘stress.’ Indeed, we tend to consider ‘being stressed’ to be a badge of honor — the evidence that we’re successful and accomplished,” writes Stanley. “In our collective understanding, ‘being stressed’ means being overworked, overscheduled, extremely busy and definitely important. It’s just a necessary byproduct of being a Master of the Universe.”
(All of this research is cited in “Widen the Window.”)
Why Do We Do It?
If I’m really being honest, somewhere inside I did actually believe that my work commitments were evidence of my importance and success. At the time, I would never have admitted that. Looking back, however, I realize how I pointed to my unmanageable challenges as evidence of my “unique” ability to overcome what few others could.
“You think you have it bad…I’ve only slept 15 hours since Monday because of this pitch,” I recall “casually” dropping to a coworker on Friday afternoon.
“We collectively engage in society-wide mixed messaging. Although we profess that health, relationships, families, communities and ‘work-life balance’ are important, we simultaneously reward and admire people for engaging in imbalanced behavior,” writes Stanley. “We reinforce this imbalance in the workplace by setting unrealistic deadlines for ourselves and our subordinates. Giving the bonus to the dysregulated workaholic or the anxious, micromanaging supervisor.”
This is exactly the message that I received over and over in my career. If you work harder, you make more money. If you handle the intolerable client that no one else can, then you get a promotion. The implicit message was that I would never climb the ladder or get ahead if I took time for myself and set healthy, appropriate boundaries.
“You ‘obviously’ must take care of yourself, but you really need to deliver exceptional results to this demanding client with an understaffed team.”
It was made to appear to be a bargain. As a dedicated corporate climber and habitual people pleaser, I bought this Faustian bargain hook, line and sinker. I set my sights on career success and began running as fast as I could.
Coping with the Stress
I used to “try” to make healthy commitments outside of the office. I was so mentally drained that the gym was never really a possibility in my mind. But I do remember racing uptown to make it to therapy every Thursday and then racing across Central Park to keep working until I hit the bed.
If I actually made it to therapy on time, which was rare, I wasn’t really cognitively there. I’d usually spend the first half hour of my 45-minute session complaining about the latest unfair experience at the office. It was the same for any personal engagement that I rushed from the office to make.
It was a dark period in my life, but I had become so used to the grind that it began to seem normal. While that’s what my thinking brain was telling me, underneath it all, my anxiety was in a state of constant overdrive, slowly doing damage to my body and my mind.
In attempt to recover from the constant onslaught of stress and anxiety, we can very easily seek quick fixes during our limited downtime — turning to alcohol, drugs, food or whatever else we can find to numb ourselves.
The problem is that these negative coping behaviors ultimately end up leaving our bodies in worse physical conditions and increasing our anxiety levels over time. I self-medicated for many years with alcohol, progressively increasing the regularity and volume. I had no idea that I was actually elevating my anxiety levels until it had long since stopped being effective.
“Success” Not Worth the Sacrifice
After breaking down and building myself back up, I can say that I am much wiser and more self-aware. My experiences were not a complete waste of my time. I learned many useful skills, and I learned what I’d like to avoid for the rest of my life.
I’m no longer willing to sacrifice my personal freedom, health and mental well-being for fancy titles or money. Neither of those things will bring me happiness anyway. Slowing down and giving myself time to make conscious, intentional decisions has done more for my happiness than anything else.
The badge of busyness as an indicator of success is frankly just false. It’s part of a narrative we are sold growing up — one that many companies are all too willing to exploit for their own gain.
If you’re too busy all the time and you feel like you never have time to breathe, it’s not a sign of deficiency or weakness. It’s a warning signal to slow down. It’s an indication that you’re not happy managing your responsibilities as they currently stand.
As we begin to come out of our various quarantine restrictions and return to semi-regular life, do yourself a favor and, just this once, don’t push through the pain. Don’t swallow down the stress, as though you’re overreacting.
Take the time to ask yourself honestly whether or not the frantic pace of life is doing you any good. When we’re always busy worrying about everyone else, it can be very hard to listen to ourselves.
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