Food for thought

The Danger of Burnout

By January 3, 2020 No Comments

Until recently I had never heard of Pascal Chabot. I don’t know if that means I have been living under a rock or what, but I had no idea who he was.

Turns out that Chabot is a Belgian Philosopher. He is probably most well known for his work on what he considers to be our civilizations disease. It may seem like I am about to throw a very challenging concept your way, but what he says is simple:

Our civilizations disease is burnout.

We live in a world where we think that the only way to truly succeed is to push ourselves to a crippling extent. We hear that it’s more important to be the hardest worker in the room than to be naturally talented. We say things like, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” We’re praised for answering work emails at unholy hours of the night and promptly thanked for responding so quickly. 

I don’t think that the idea of being a hard worker is a new concept. My grandfather only retired from his job once his body and his doctors told him it was time. He loved working. But the technology and other pressures that he dealt with, simply weren’t as great. He couldn’t accept calls or emails once he left the office because he didn’t have a cell phone or email account. He had predictable time off and work and his personal like were in two very neat and very seperate boxes.

I think, over time, we have lost that organization. The lines are blurred and the boxes have been thrown across the room. And we are struggling because of it.

Burnout, stress, and depression have become worldwide epidemics. Here’s some stats that put this into perspective:

In the UK, prescriptions for antidepressants have gone up 495 percent since 1991. In Europe, from 1995 to 2009, the use of antidepressants went up by nearly 20 percent per year. And the health consequences of stress are increasingly documented around the world. According to a Danish study, women who described work-related pressures as “a little too high” faced a 25 percent increased risk of heart disease. A nurse at the British Heart Foundation warned that “Feeling under pressure at work means stressed employees may pick up some unhealthy bad habits and add to their risk of developing heart problems.”

In Germany, more than 40 percent of workers say that their jobs have become more stressful in the past two years. Germany lost fifty- nine million workdays to psychological illness in 2011, up over 80 percent in fifteen years. When she was the German Labour Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, guessed that burnout was costing the country up to ten billion euros per year. WHAT? “Nothing is more expensive than sending a good worker into retirement in their mid- forties because they’re burned out.” 

In China, according to a 2012 survey, 75 percent of Chinese workers said their stress levels have risen in the previous year.

A Harvard Medical School study showed that 96 percent of leaders said they felt burned out. In fact, one of the legal defenses offered by Steve Cohen, CEO of SAC Capital, the hedge fund that was indicted in 2013, was that he missed a warning about insider trading because of the one thousand emails he gets every day.

And it’s interesting. None of these are new surveys or studies, but I don’t know that this has gotten better.

Sure, we hear more and more about the importance of mental health, taking mental health days, and putting our own health as a top priority. Yet so many of us still struggle with it. (I’m mentally raising my own hand here.)

So what if we changed our language a bit? What if instead of thinking of meditation and sleep as luxuries, we thought of them as “performance enhancing tools”? In that sense, athletes, are way ahead of our CEOs. Athletes are FORCED to prioritize their recovery to enhance their performance. And while I don’t have a study or conversations to pull from, I would venture to say that in general, they are much happier because of it. 

It goes back to “predictable time off”, a concept that we have gotten away from. But slowly companies like Volkswagen are making strides to fix this. When you get a company issued phone from Volkswagen, it shuts off certain apps at 6pm every night. Not only that, but it doesn’t turn them back on until the next morning. Making employees free from the “pings” and “dings” of work. Now these employees are leaving work, focusing on the things that fulfill them, and coming back to work and being more productive in fewer hours. I guarantee that the employee that shuts off work when they get home, is more productive and more creative in fewer hours than the employee that seems to never leave the office.

And then what we see again and again, is that it often takes a personal health crisis to get us to slow down. That happened  for the former president of Google China, Lee Kai- Fu, in 2013 when he was diagnosed with cancer. Lee told his fifty million followers on a Chinese social media network that he had decided to change his life: “I naively used to compete with others to see who could sleep less. I made ‘fighting to the death’ a personal motto. . . . It’s only now, when I’m suddenly faced with possibly losing 30 years of life, that I’ve been able to calm down and reconsider. That sort of persistence may have been a mistake.” His new plan: “Sleep enough, adjust my diet and start exercising again.”

As we stare ahead at a fresh year ahead of us, new goals, and re-invigorated motivation, how will you take care of yourself? Remember, we only get one shot at this thing.





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