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Balance Yourself, Not Work and Life

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I love my work. I mean I really LOVE my work. Do you? Are you creative and compelled to excel? Do you find happiness in relationships with your work-friends and colleagues? Do you like being part of something bigger than yourself? Me too. Work is fun and meaningful and I am completely dedicated to writing, leading my team and advising leaders whom I respect.

And then there's life -- so much more important than work. It's true, right? Work doesn't even run a close second to the beautiful little children in your life, or even the teenagers who get on your last nerve. Work pales in comparison to your love for your partner or relationships with family and friends. I even include my dogs and cats in the more-important-than-work list. I love Tula, Keiki, Pika, Tiko and Tiger (also known as Mikey). And then there's spirituality, learning, dedication to making our world a better place -- all these make life worth living.

Some of us are lucky -- we love our work and we have full, rewarding lives. It's a wonderful thing. But we are busy. No breaks, no boundaries -- texts from kids, tweets pouring in, emails all night... It never stops. Most of us have no idea how to manage it all.

There is no such thing as work-life balance. But we keep trying to live up to that impossible standard until finally we lose it. Or I should say, we lose ourselves.

We lose ourselves to the "sacrifice syndrome" -- a condition that is more than burnout. It's a way of life. Maybe it's familiar: You've been behaving in ways that don't fit with who you are. You snap at loved ones, make bad decisions, rarely smile, miss out on life. Or you move at the speed of light like super-man-woman-mom-dad. Maybe you take pride in your super-humanness, but deep down you know you're in trouble. You self-medicate: two 16-ounce cups of coffee? Really? How many martinis or glasses of wine? Stress-eating? You are completely worn out, you feel trapped and you see no way out.

The sacrifice syndrome doesn't strike out of the blue. It starts with an insidious form of chronic, intense stress that comes along with lots of responsibilities. We call it "power stress." Leaders are especially susceptible because of the 24-7 nature of our jobs, too many toxic work environments, unhealthy competition and out-of-control achievement drives. This kind of stress is brutal.

Stress arouses the sympathetic nervous system and triggers the release of powerful substances like epinephrine, norepinephrine and corticosteroids.[1] Blood pressure goes up and large muscles prepare for movement or battle.[2] The immune system is compromised and the brain shuts down non-essential neural circuits, so we don't take in as much information.[3][4] We become less creative and old habits of thinking prevail. All of this has direct impact on our performance. We feel anxious, nervous or even depressed. This has direct impact on, well, everything.

Stress isn't all bad -- a certain dose contributes to focus, excitement and readiness for hard work and play. But we're not wired to deal with "power stress" and when we are bombarded day in and day out for years, stress is dangerous.

It's an epidemic. A Google search on stress resulted in 73,000 new or updated websites containing news articles, blogs magazines, programs or advice on stress in life. The Grant Thornton International Business Report survey of business leaders found that the net increase in work-related stress increased 28 percent globally in 2011 (less than 2010's 45 percent increase, but still). A research study picked up in several South African news outlets reported a loss of R3bn -- or more than $300 million, U.S. -- due to the effects of stress on workers. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development reported that for the first time in the organization's history, stress was the most common cause of employee absence.

This epidemic won't go away until we learn how to interrupt the sacrifice syndrome. Our companies can't do it for us, neither can doctors, counselors or loved ones. We need to heal, and healing starts with learning how to balance sacrifice with renewal.

Managing the "cycle of sacrifice and renewal" begins with prioritizing well-being. You can start by cultivating practices that allow you to re-engage with yourself, focus optimistically on the future and connect compassionately with other people. You can start with mindfulness -- tuning in to yourself, your environment and others.

Mindfulness is the first step toward renewal. And no, you don't have to meditate for two hours a day, or attend a yoga class before work (nice, but impossible). You can start small. Find a few minutes every day -- and I do mean every day -- to be quiet, to breathe, to take in nature. Breathe and focus on gratitude, love and hope.

Like mindfulness, hope is a powerful antidote to stress. A vision of a better future, optimism and the belief we can make it happen helps to calm our nervous system. Think about your dreams. Help someone else achieve theirs. Pick up trash on the way to work. Talk to a child about what he or she wants to be. Actions like these, done mindfully and often will make a difference.

These actions tap into hope and your desire to help others. You can renew yourself by slowing down long enough to get in touch with your most primal and powerful nature -- your concern for others and your desire to connect with them and lend a hand. That's compassion. It's as simple as asking someone how they are in the morning and waiting long enough to hear the answer. Find someone to mentor, and give them your time. Stop managing performance and start coaching.

Learning to live mindfully and to focus on hope and compassion will help you to ward off stress and balance yourself. It might not be easy, at first, because it is truly a new way to live. You'll need to change old habits and resist the urge to pursue an impossible goal -- work-life balance.

Remember -- there really is no way to balance all that we do, until and unless we balance ourselves. You'll find yourself having more energy, your relationships will be stronger and you will be happier.

References:

[1] Dickerson, S. S. and M. E. Kemeny (2004). "Acute Stressors and Cortisol Responses: A Theoretical Integration and Synthesis of Laboratory Research." Psychological Bulletin 130(3): 355-391. [link]

[2] Roozendaal, B., B. S. McEwen, et al. (2009). "Stress, memory and the amygdala." Nat Rev Neurosci 10(6): 423-433. [link]

[3] Segerstrom, S. C. and G. E. Miller (2004). "Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry." Psychological Bulletin 130(4): 601-630. [link]

[4] Roozendaal, B., B. S. McEwen, et al. (2009). "Stress, memory and the amygdala." Nat Rev Neurosci 10(6): 423-433. [link]

For more by Annie McKee, click here.

For more on mindfulness, click here.

For more on stress, click here.

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