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The Taboo Toxin Of Overwork

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More than one employee around the table had the same confession to make. Yes, they were taking their BlackBerrys to bed. Talk about an unrequited love. I wasn't surprised by this news at a work-life balance workshop I led. But it wasn't just connection addiction that was causing them to shack up with their devices. It also had to do with something that has gone largely unreported through the Great Recession. The people who are employed -- 90.8 percent, according to the latest stats -- are often doing the jobs of several people as a result of years of cutbacks.

These people are increasingly imploding from overload and the stress and burnout that comes with it, yet they're made to feel they can't complain. After all, they have a job. The question is at what price? For both individual and company. I meet people who have had heart attacks at age 29, folks in the prime of life who are on more meds than the folks on some geriatric wards. All pointlessly, and completely counter to the research on what makes us productive in the knowledge economy: a refreshed and energized brain.

Any engineer can tell you: We have structural limits. Even the strongest materials pull apart when subjected to the right amount of force and load. American workers are being pulled apart, because we're not making adjustments to the increased load and pace coming down on us. Chronic long hours can trigger a cascade of health problems. A study at the University of California, Irvine found that a steady diet of workweeks of more than 51 hours can triple the risk of hypertension. British researchers in a 2010 study documented that people who work more than 11 or 12 hours a day have a 60 percent increased chance of coronary incidents, from heart attacks to angina. Stress is the culprit, triggering the release of hormones that help contribute to plaque build-up inside arteries. Long days were also linked to sleep problems and depression.

The Japanese have known for a long time where excessive workweeks can lead, to what they call "karoshi," death by overwork. Researchers there have found a link between long hours, high blood pressure, heart disease and an unhealthy lifestyle -- no exercise, sleeplessness, poor eating habits, fewer medical visits and increased anxiety and strain.

We're working ourselves to death. Many of us have become so fused with our work we have become our jobs. One woman told me she has zero identity outside her work. We create the self through labor in this land, unlike in other countries, where your family or regional background give you a sense of who you are. We're a young land, we move around a lot and wind up defining ourselves by our jobs. Performance becomes the sole source of identity and value. Step away from it, and you have no value. You hear the nag in your head bellowing, "Get busy" -- even if you're at home on a Sunday morning.

Like all external yardsticks, performance is a flimsy source of worth, so you have to keep doing more of it to keep it propped up. A government employee I worked with told me she hadn't had 10 minutes to herself in five months. Digging deeper, I found that almost all of it was self-inflicted. She had a talk with her supervisor, who asked her why in the world she was working all these weekends.

Fear of layoffs drives "defensive overworking," as some go to extreme hours to avoid pink slips. But those who work on weekends and skip vacations get laid off like everyone else. A tech worker who limited her vacation to a long weekend, instead of the four weeks she had coming to her because she'd worked at the firm two decades, got laid off like everyone else. "Now I'm wondering where my life went," she told me.

That's usually the first thing to go with overwork -- exercise, hobbies, social outlets -- all the things that reduce stress and provide proof there is another realm of value and meaning, and that ensure you make time for it. In the course of researching my new book, "Don't Miss Your Life," I paddled, danced and hiked with people whose greatest achievement wasn't in marathon workweeks and the external approval and health problems that come with them. They found lasting gratification in the act of living through passions and hobbies.

It turns out that where we think all the gratification comes from -- performance, status, stuff -- is way off-base. The research shows the best predictor of personal satisfaction is satisfaction in your non-professional life. The more active leisure life you have, the higher your life satisfaction. The badminton, aikido, kayaking and dancing enthusiasts I met know what the researchers have confirmed: that recreational activities build mastery and risk-taking and connect us with our true aspirations and selves like nothing else. That creates lasting gratification, since these pursuits pump us up with internal satisfaction, not the mercurial approval of others.

This anti-burnout tonic is available to all of us when we rediscover the most basic self and life-management tool: boundaries. In an unbounded workplace in which there is no shortage of people happy to guilt you into burning the midnight oil, you have to be able to know when to say when.

Ex-GE boss Jack Welch, famed for his workaholic ways, was said to have made his managers demand well more than their workers could actually do on the premise of pushing until there was pushback. That pushback is not coming enough today, even though studies show speaking up in the workplace doesn't have the negative repercussions we think. One Harvard report showed that people are speaking up, and they tend to be extraverts. The report called "No," the "voice-oriented improvement system." It's how we get more effective. In my experience with workers across the country, the people who speak up get the best schedules and save their health from irreversible damage.

At a time of record job insecurity, speaking up seems dicey. But people are doing it every day and living to tell about it. At workshops, I'll ask who's good at setting boundaries. A couple hands go up, maybe 5 percent out of any group. So what happens when they set a boundary? Well, they say, there's some static. Okay, natural. And after that? Nothing. And now a boundary is set. There is a method to it, and with the right language and approach, it's a win-win. The job gets done more effectively.

One Harvard study found that boundaries are a success tool. "The key trait of successful businesspeople who have true satisfaction in their lives is the deliberate imposition of limits," said Laura Nash and Howard Stevenson. People who are good at setting limits are able to find the "just enough" point, the authors say, when they had done just enough for a given project or for the day.

Boundaries are a productivity tool. They prevent the colossal drop-off in performance that comes from excess hours (25 percent and more), fatigue and stress that comes out of your hide the next day and the next. MRI scans of fatigued brains look exactly like ones that are sound asleep. Boundaries also produce a little thing called life, a realm in which beds are BlackBerry-free zones.

Joe Robinson is author of the new book "Don't Miss Your Life" on the science, spirit and skills of activating the fullest life. He is a work-life balance and stress-management speaker, trainer, and coach at Work to Live.

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