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The Toll of Rising Work Stress

When it comes to work-life, something has to give.

  • Feeling overworked and exhausted is an increasingly common experience, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
  • Work-related stress is taking a heavy toll on our health, with people reporting a lack of sleep, depression, anxiety, and a variety of physical illnesses.
  • It may be time to start questioning what our work is affording us and what it is costing us.

It probably won’t come as a big surprise that I have been having a lot of conversations with young professionals (and older ones) about burnout, stress, and that ever-elusive work-life balance over the past few weeks (and months). If there is anything (other than the virus) that seems to be bonding people together right now, it’s the feeling of a universal experience of being overworked and exhausted. And while, certainly, a lot of this is COVID-driven, work-related stress and burnout isn’t new. There has been a slow creep over the past few decades from work-to-live to live-to-work mindsets, fueled by Silicon Valley, global workforces, economic inflation, and a whole host of other factors. In a popular piece in The Atlantic in 2019, Derek Thompson traced the rise of this “workist” culture, “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose,” especially among the elite professional working class.

Photo by David Hofmann on Unsplash
Dancer on stage
Source: Photo by David Hofmann on Unsplash

Generally speaking, I believe that adults get to make choices, and choices have consequences. If you don’t like your current work-life set-up, don’t complain about it, make a different choice. But not everyone has that freedom or privilege. And, as we start to consider what a post-pandemic world might look like, something truly does have to give in terms of our relationship with work. It is moving beyond simple burnout. The bodily impacts can no longer be ignored.

This past week there was a fascinating, fairly depressing piece in The New York Times about how the pandemic is giving (female) professional dancers – known for a very specific body type – the freedom to return their bodies to something approaching a healthy weight. Early on, the piece notes, “How can body image, a fraught topic for any female dancer, no matter her size, be a source of strength rather than agony? Could this pause in live performance be an opening for the aesthetic requirements of ballet — especially extreme thinness — to change?”

The rigors of and body issues in the dance world aren’t new news, which makes it all-the-more tragic. We know there is a problem, we just choose to overlook it. As one dancer describes it, her health became so adversely affected by her chosen profession that “her doctor told her that he didn’t know what situation she was in, but to get out of it.” These are the words of a medical professional to someone in an abusive relationship. They shouldn’t be the advice given to someone just doing their job.

Of course, most of us don’t work in industries built around body type. But there is something bodily that is happening to people in other roles, as well. A young professional recently shared how they had suffered from shingles – twice – in their twenties due to their job. Another described the experience of regularly being in the office until 1 and 2 o’clock in the morning to accomplish their daily work tasks. Countless others have shared stories of ongoing lack of sleep, depression, and anxiety. Recently, a colleague reached out with apologies for missing a workshop I was leading. They had just gotten out of the hospital on that Friday “due to a small stroke,” but assured me they would be back to work by Monday.

While I certainly wouldn’t say these individuals’ roles are unimportant, none of them are saving lives. These are people in marketing, and tech, and banking, and education, and other roles that should not require medication (or hospital visits) just to survive them. And these aren’t just COVID stories, although the health impacts of this pandemic – beyond those suffering from the virus, itself – have been well-documented, including feelings of hopelessness, despair, grief, bereavement, and a profound loss of purpose; as well as anxiety, worry, depression, and sleep problems. Compound these with “normal” work stress and anxiety and you have a recipe for a mental, emotional, and physical breakdown. What happens when those impacts are not just felt by one individual, but by an entire organization, an entire generation, an entire society?

Reflecting on What We Want Out of Work and Out of Life

The good news (I’m sure, right about now, you’re wondering, is there good news?) is it feels like this pandemic has pushed at least some people to a point of questioning why it is they work. And why it is they want to work. And that is very good news. No one, no matter the industry, should accept working to the point of anxiety, depression, or stroke. Stress is a normal part of everyday life, but not when it starts to impact your health. Our bodies are trying to tell us something important, and we need to start listening. It’s time to ask yourself:

  • What does “work-life balance” mean to you? How would you define it or describe it, and how well-aligned is your current life, role, and organizational expectations with that description?
  • What motivates you to work? What are you currently missing, and are there steps you could take to gain more of that in your role or organization?
  • What keeps you up at night? What are some strategies you could take to better manage those concerns?
  • How has your role or your organization impacted your health? What is an acceptable level of impact, for you?
  • What resources do you need to seek out to help you manage your mental, physical, or emotional well-being?
  • If you are managing people, how are you helping them to manage their workloads, set clear boundaries, and stay engaged at work? How are you keeping them from burnout?

Work was never meant to be a walk in the park. As a friend of mine likes to say, “There’s a reason they don’t call it spa, after all.” Some people like to say that you should do what you love, and then it never feels like work. For me, that just sounds like turning something you love into work. But no matter how you think about it, your job shouldn’t be making you sick. Your organization shouldn’t be making you sick. There is, in fact, more to life than work. And you get to make that choice, every day.

As for those dancers, I’d like to say there’s a good ending to that story; alas, probably not. “I think the aesthetic for ballet will probably go back to the way it was because they have to fit into their costumes,” Marika Molnar, a physical therapist and director of health and wellness at New York City Ballet, said in The New York Times piece. Why does that matter? “In ballet, this is a serious concern; dancers are known to get parts based on whether they fit a costume.” Perhaps they, like the rest of us, would do well to remember Thompson’s concluding remarks in The Atlantic: “Work is not life’s product, but its currency. What we choose to buy with it is the ultimate project of living.”

What life is your work affording you? What life is it costing you?

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