Is Your Job Killing You?
The common assumption is that we spend one third of our lives at work. I think we may all agree that the COVID pandemic, together with technological advancements this last decade has increased the time we spend working and saw a massive surge in our screen time while in the "always on" mode.
This tip in the scales does not impact our work-life balance favourably and it's common knowledge that an unbalanced work-life ratio leads to poor morale and productivity, increased depression and anxiety due to less time and activities with family - the things and people we value most. This also trumps any increased salaries with any other favourable employment benefits. We seem to be more unhappy at work, work longer and after hours, multi-task more in front of screens with detrimental effects on our health.
I am sure employers will agree that an imbalance in ones work-life relationships leads to high employee turnover, reduced productivity and will eventually lead to burnout, which is not good for business or people.
The Health Effects Of Poor Work-Life Balance And What You Can Do About It
I often speak about stress or hidden stressors and the fact that it's part of life and unavoidable - it's a disruption of our homeostatic balance and if we are healthy or when we correct our stressful situations, we return to balance and bounce back with vigour. Work stress in particular is what we experience and feel when our job demands exceed our ability to meet those demands.
It is more than feelings though. When we are stressed beyond our control, predictable changes in our physiology and biology occur, like changes in our hormones, immune function, sleep cycles and result in unwanted and unexplained symptoms like bloating, heartburn, brain fog, headaches and many more.
Living with an abundance of perceived or physical stress that is allowed to continue indefinitely without appropriate intervention, can lead to detrimental systemic effects with long-term or permanent health or mental challenges and chronic illness or diseases.
Clawing your way back from these states can take years and be exhausting.
A State Of Chronic Stress Occurs When Hormones Intended For Short Term Use Are On Speed Dial.
Your stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline are good examples of this.
Short bursts of these hormones are vital for your survival and when on tap can cause havoc because they:
- maintain your cardiovascular and blood pressure or cause cardiac events and hypertension that damage your arteries with major implications
- are implicated in your blood sugar and fat metabolism and can result in yo-yo eating, cravings and weight gain
- impact your immune, reproductive and digestive systems and can prevent you from getting sick often, having low libido or cause bloating and indigestion, etc.
- affect your brain and nervous system function and can cause depression, anxiety, over-alertness, which impacts your sleep
- in excess are inflammatory and cause unexplained aches or pains to name a few
When on tap, these hormones can keep you in a permanent flight and flight mode.
Consider What This May Mean For You At Work
You perceive everything and everyone as a threat and you are constantly on high alert or ready to take flight. You experience fear, anxiety, anger and feel agitated with your surroundings. How do you build rapport, trust and confidence when you are in a constant state of high alert, ready for conflict or in avoidance? You may find yourself isolated because colleagues may experience you as unapproachable or needy in your attempts to be constantly reassured that things are actually okay.
Since you are on a rinse-and-repeat cycle, your body and physiology has to respond accordingly.
Your heart rate and blood pressure rise, your lungs dilate and you experience shortness of breath (panic attacks) and you seek solace in the vending machine because your cravings give you a quick boost of sugar and energy. Cortisol, your stress hormone raises insulin (you blood sugar), so you stay on the rollercoaster all day long, which causes a mid-afternoon slump and you nodding off in meetings. You may also experience headaches or extreme hot or cold, tingling in your extremities, develop allergies or forget things and experience fogginess or uncertainty when you are most required to be decisive.
Did I Mention That Stress Can Kill You?
A cardiac episode, prolonged hypertension (high blood pressure), panic attacks, weight gain, poor cognition, muscle weakness and complete exhaustion can lead to death (Selye HA. The Stress of Life New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 1976).
Sadly, the only stop after this one is platform exhaustion, illness, fatigue and what is termed "adrenal insufficiency". It's your brain and endocrine (hormone) system not cooperating anymore because your stressful situations have occurred once too many times and they cannot respond appropriately by producing and reducing vital hormones that keep you thriving - their mechanisms have failed you.
Your whole system becomes deregulated and shuts down, and you begin to feel very unwell with a bunch of nasty symptoms. Sound familiar?
Given that you may be working 10+ hours a day, unhappy in your job, compounded by the job uncertainty from the Covid pandemic, financial concerns, ongoing wars, an imminent recession, increased divorce rates and domestic violence, climate change and unstable political landscapes.
I am sure you now see a very worrying picture emerging.
Most of us will jump ship - resign from our roles and search for greener pastures with the promise of greater work-life balance elsewhere because we cannot fathom continuing in our current position. On our way out the door, we blame our bosses, colleagues or companies for our work problems and stress. The challenge with always jumping ship is that you risk repeating this pattern several more times in your professional career and your resume will be impacted and you may be overlooked for a role or position and seen as a person who does not have the staying power when the going gets tough. See my post on building resilience.
What Strategies Have Or Haven't Worked For You?
I see a lot of advice doing the rounds that attempts to plug a few holes, but which will not reduce your stressors, stress levels and at worse, leave you feeling guilty that you give it a good go with little or no result. If your stress has been hanging around for a long time, you are unlikely to move the needle with a few minor tweaks.
There are some fixes that may eventually lead to healing your physiology and alleviate some symptoms but your overall health (physical, mental and emotional) will not improve unless you take a whole person approach to tackle this beast.
Avoiding the obvious offenders that exacerbate your symptoms like coffee, alcohol, sugar, drugs or smoking makes good sense, as do improvements in your diet like adding nutrient dense foods to balance your blood sugar and stabilise your mood, while paying attention to your use of digital devices after dark and their impact on your sleep.
But will these result in lasting change or new habits?
The likelihood is that you are a highly driven individual - personally and professionally - who likes to be in control, stay busy and stimulated with little time for yourself. If this describes you, it's likely that you are also motivated, want to get ahead, approach most things with perfectionism and strive for a greater personal and professional life in all aspects.
What capacity do you have available to reduce your stressors and stress load?
If your health does not support you, it's likely that you will fail, run out of steam or give up and settle for less because you are being forced to. You may continue to repeat this pattern a few times until you are literally sick and tired!
The "Discomfort Zone"
This is the place in which we so often find ourselves - we hate how it feels but we are incapacitated to create a shift or change. It feels very uncomfortable but not yet unbearable enough to do something about it, and let's face it, doing something requires energy and effort and your stores are depleted!
Unless you take care of your health by reducing your stressors, it will come back to bite you and hamper the progress you seek in other areas of your life. We are wired for balance and homeostasis with some capacity for change and adaption along the way but not forever.
When events, challenges, obstacles or stressors unbalance us and we allow it to continue indefinitely, we experience tremendous upset and feel the debilitating effects. If we continue to ignore the signals, we risk becoming gravely ill with no clear path or the will to return to a balanced state. Our situation becomes all consuming and can lead to complete burnout or breakdown.
How A Whole-Person Approach Can Help
- It connects you to the deepest parts of yourself, so you can name the hidden stressors and normalise them so they stop controlling you. This is more than developing coping strategies. We are not aiming for coping but thriving!
- You will be open to question your attitudes, beliefs and all the self-talk that could be keeping you stuck. Compassion and slowing down can create openings and space for healing to begin.
- You will need to get comfortable with where you are now - face the facts - and connect to a higher purpose or goal(s) that move you forward.
- Be realistic in your expectations and with what is possible for you. Healing takes time and patience.
- You will have to reevaluate your personal and professional relationships to decide or prioritise what and whom are most important to you.
- You will have to be prepared to let go or give up some things in your life. It's called taking inventory or cleaning up and letting go of whatever does not serve your goals.
- You will need to learn how to straight-talk honestly and openly to express your non-negotiable needs and wants with your boss, organisation or partner.
- You will have to get very real and honest with yourself to understand the causes of your stressors and what to do about them. No one else knows you better than you.
- You will need to build your resilience or grit.
- You will need to stop blaming others - bosses, colleagues, peers, friends, parents, partners or your organisation and take responsibility for your happiness and health.
- Setting goals, creating new contexts to create a new reality are vital steps in your healing to stop the burnout and symptoms.
- Be and hold yourself accountable and ask for help when you need it.
- Adopt new activities, habits and behaviours that invoke calm, rest and digest.