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It’s Time For Our Culture Of Overwork To Be Over

How to live with less stress and greater meaning—at work and beyond

​We may talk a good game about how we want to achieve the ever-elusive work/life balance—but what do we do about it? How many of us approach it with the kind of profound urgency that marks the conundrums we attempt to solve at work?

I had the chance recently to sit down with Brigid Schulte, author of the bestseller Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. Schulte’s book addresses how to live with less stress and greater meaning. When I spoke with her, she revealed that her research was initially disheartening. There seemed to be only one solution for professionals looking to reduce their ballooning sense of overwhelm: “’Drop out of life,’ because if you're going to stay engaged with the business world, you're just going to be miserable.”

For Schulte, unplugging from the matrix wasn’t an option. For many of us, it isn’t either, even if it dangles a tantalizing chimera of blissed out living. So Schulte set out to find concrete, practical answers. She wanted to know: how can we bridge our “public sphere” (work) and our private one (non-work) in order to experience greater “love, connection, and a sense of play and lightness?”

It’s easy to forget what it’s like to not feel overwhelmed

It’s a subject that is near and dear to my heart because I am a Business Romantic, after all, and an advocate for more enchantment on the job as a cure for the recurring discontentment so many people experience with their work. I’ve written before that in our unending quest for efficiency, productivity, and career advancement, our humanity has been on the losing end. We may bemoan this phenomenon from time to time during happy hour with co-workers, but then we move on…to the next thing. We’re so busy we actually forget how busy we are—our busyness has morphed from a cyclical state to a constant one. It’s easy to forget what it’s like to not feel overwhelmed.

Silicon Valley’s technology startups and Wall Street’s big banks, in particular, offer up extreme examples of industries that notoriously engage in overwork, promoting it almost as a badge of honor. But the tide is turning, even if progress is not at the clip those of us championing change would like.

We can see change, for example, in the impact that mindfulness is having on company cultures, most notably in Silicon Valley. Ellen Langley, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and an expert on mindfulness, describes it like this: “Mindfulness is the process of actively noticing new things. When you do that, it puts you in the present. It makes you more sensitive to context and perspective. It’s the essence of engagement. And it’s energy-begetting, not energy-consuming.”

It’s no surprise that it has become trendy for businesses to incorporate mindfulness in their work cultures, while also offering greater access to activities—from yoga to meditation—to help employees manage their levels of stress. It helps in other ways, too: creativity and innovation bloom when anxiety levels aren’t overwhelming, and employees don’t feel a lasting fatigue that is bone-deep.

Long hours—for what exactly?

Schulte also raised the point that in Silicon Valley people often forget—or simply disregard—the rather weighty statistic that startups face a failure rate of 95%. The question to ask, then, is: are all those incredibly long hours—including the personal sacrifices—worth it? Schulte thinks it’s a question more businesses need to ask. "When you really look at [the long hours], a lot of it is bad management. You have this crazy work, and then it fails, and you've killed yourself. For what?"

Asking questions about the ways we work does not imply that businesses need to alter their most fundamental goal—to make money. In fact, when we replace unhealthy elements of our work culture with practices that address our foundational needs as human beings, we essentially infuse our jobs with a dual purpose: we generate meaning where there was none, and we pave a smoother path to profitability because we are no longer in our own way. We just have to be clear, said Schulte: “When you've got the chase for money, sometimes it's not the same as the chase for meaning.”

"Love, connection, and a sense of play and lightness"

Since her book was published, Schulte has observed that more people—from Millennials to Baby Boomers—are resisting a work environment that requires long hours and tolerates high levels of stress. Such a culture no longer signals the badge of honor it once did, nor does it provide a surefire path to career success. It can’t—not when so many people experience burnout, become sick more often than they should, and struggle to recall the last time they felt even a semblance of joy. Our quest should be, as Schulte has suggested, the pursuit of a greater degree of “love, connection, and a sense of play and lightness.”

We’ve paid a hefty price for our increased efficiency, productivity, and career advancement. And now, the clarion call for change is too loud to ignore. We can learn how to be better managers of our own stress, but we should be more ambitious than that. Let’s build a work culture in which employees don’t merely perform to the best of their abilities, but thrive—both on the job and off.

To learn more, please see my book The Business Romantic: Give Everything, Quantify Nothing, and Create Something Greater Than Yourself (HarperCollins).