Blackout to Wake Up

04/06/2015 09:25 am ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015

It is hard to estimate how many of us are suffering the impacts of stress and fatigue from living in an always on 24/7 world and trying to deliver to all the demands and expectations of our work, life, family and (last if we still have the energy) ourselves.

The cost to business of workplace health and stress related issues is rising at an alarming rate. In the US the cost of workplace illnesses is $58 billion a year and burnout alone, is estimated to cost Germany 10 billion Euros a year. Unfortunately, we only calculate the impact of when we break down physically and mentally.

Our current wellbeing paradigm is stuck measuring the cost of various degrees of illness rather than calculating the value of higher levels of wellness and proactively enabling us to thrive.

As a baby boomer, I grew up in a time where sharing any feeling of pressure and strain was seen as letting others down and not being good enough for the task or at least that is what I perceived the world around me to expect of me, so for far too long I delivered and often exceeded all those expectations around me at great cost to my personal wellbeing and work life balance. In order to do so, I have become highly skilled at shutting out the noise from my body and spirit and compensating by the adrenalin of achieving one more external goal. The high of yet another challenge conquered has become so much more satisfying than physical pain, emotional drain and endless jet lag.

A wise friend once told that we teach the lessons that we ourselves need to learn and I for one have done a great job of advising organizations on how to put their employees at the center of the workplace experience they provide. Focus on giving people choice, enablement and trust and support them to do great work and also live a fulfilled life of physical, social and emotional wellbeing. Whilst I am very successful at what I do, as validated by ongoing client engagements and testimonials, recently a client unknowingly held a mirror up to who I was really being, whilst I was helping others change who they were trying to become.

Awareness of who we are being is directly linked to our behaviors, the use of the physical environment, our bodies and our wellbeing. We mostly operate in the world in a state of autopilot where learned behaviors override our awareness and we just keep doing, getting things done with no awareness of who we are being and what impact our behaviors have on ourselves and those around us.
One of the key messages I give clients is that actions speak louder than words. I recently worked with an inspired CEO who recognized that he could unleash the potential of his people by inspiring trust and empowerment through new cultural values and through using the physical environment and changing behaviors to help his organization live those values.

I have long believed that the physical environment is a powerful tool that reflects the culture of an organisation and that it also actively shapes behavior and the culture of an organization. I had been right, the environment did indeed transform behavior and mine was being altered day by day and hour by hour.... Whilst I was inspired by the people I was working with, I was shocked to realize that the workplace experience I was tasked with transforming was actually transforming my own behavior instead. I was expected to be in the office every day to be effective and for the first time in my career I started to feel that being present ( commuting 3 hrs a day) and being busy, having a back to back diary, never getting up from the desk or meeting room, taking no breaks and arriving earlier and leaving later...etc, was part of demonstrating my value.

Several months in and I was gaining weight and feeling stressed, whilst increasingly getting further stuck in the destructive autopilot pattern of the corporate status quo. As I was changing the environment and behaviors of the organisation, my own were slipping backward into the dysfunctional patterns that needed changing in the first place. Finally one morning I ended up in an ambulance with a black out. It is a strange feeling having the lights go out, one minute you are discussing the weather over breakfast and the next a nurse is asking if you know your name..."Of course I do and I am late for a meeting", was my response.

After weeks of tests, I was told that I should try to lose some weight, but there was nothing to worry about, it was ... 'just stress' and I was absolutely fine! I ordinarily would have gone back and continued on the autopilot but something happened, a moment of awareness that indicated something was not right with the world I was busy constructing, that having a black out and being fine did not make sense, maybe, just maybe my body was trying to communicate something and it might just be worthwhile to take notice. So, I stepped back and have been trying to figure out how to best balance the awareness of being present with the autopilot of doing and achieving. It is very hard to do and sadly I keep finding that I am not alone.

I recently shared my autopilot induced blackout experience at a client round table dinner, on the importance of wellness at the workplace and shockingly a number of people at the table shared similar experiences. It seemed that for that moment, we all had been granted permission to acknowledge our vulnerability and share that all was not well, we were not super human and maybe we had been doing too much to try to prove otherwise. Someone said that maybe the new trend is 'have a blackout to be cool'. How very sad it would be that having pushed our bodies to shut down in order to get our attention, rather than wake up we keep going.

The cost of our lack of awareness is catching up with us in unfortunate ways and we need to proactively wake up and begin to view wellbeing not as lacking illness but as thriving.

Arianna Huffington shared her own blackout experience and subsequent awakening in her book Thrive and introduced wellbeing as the much needed Third Metric of success. She reinforces the message that there is no work life balance. We have only one life and a company culture that does not expect employees to be wired and responsive 24/7 needs to become the norm to make our workplaces truly sustainable.

Healthy employees are significant factors to a healthy bottom line but our entire approach to workplace requires transformation. It is not a simple solution; a gym, or a standing desk, but it is an ongoing process that requires an integrated approach of the Corporate Mind (leadership and vision) Body ( space and technology) and Spirit (policies and culture) to deliver change.

The process is equally complex for us as individuals. Whilst the organization might give us choices and enablement of how we work, we ourselves need to become aware of our freedom to choose how we experience life and take responsibility for our own wellbeing. We tend to want an easy answer that will deliver the result but the answer lies in embracing the complexity and constant change of life through the awareness of having the choice of who we are being at every moment.

My own continuing quest for personal balance has been a difficult paradigm shift, from always doing, anxious to control the events around me to becoming aware, letting go and starting to integrate my own functional sylos of body, mind and spirit and recognize my freedom to choose how to experience the journey!