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Burnout S.O.S.: Increase Your 'Worth Ethic' and Save Your Health

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Open the top desk drawer at workstations around the land, and it's like you're at the drug counter at CVS. Inside, there's a treasure trove of pharmaceuticals to get folks through the working day: Tylenol, Tums, Xanax, Paxil. Work is making us sick, and it's something we should all be sick of.

When I do work-life balance workshops at companies and organizations, I meet folks who, out of earshot of peers and supervisors, share a medical blotter of health problems. At an aviation company, one guy told me about the heart attack he'd had just four months earlier.

He'd switched jobs, but now the stress was even worse. At a "health" agency in Los Angeles, the people working there were headed straight for disability. One woman ticked off a set of serious back, bowel and other illnesses that seemed to be that of an 88-year-old. She was 28.

Behind the game face, the work face, a nation is silently imploding from stress and overload, from lean-sizing, technology run amok, and a reflexive, unbounded work style proven by the research to be completely counterproductive. I'm talking about the burnout model -- just keep going till the paramedics arrive. It's fueled by an all-consuming overwork ethic that equates anything but nonstop busyness as slacking and consigns all self-worth to output.

The reality, though, is that no matter how much we work, it can't produce the worth we think it can. The thrill of a job promotion, for instance, is over in two weeks, studies show. Then you have to find another notch to pump the ego up. External approval doesn't go to your internal bottom line, because it's someone else's opinion.

We need more than a work ethic to deliver the validation we want and prevent a headlong rush to an early grave. We also need a worth ethic, a recognition that authentic success comes not from the quantity of production in our lives but from the quality of input -- engaged living time that satisfies your core needs for things like autonomy and connection with others. You need no ratification from anyone else for that, which is why it doesn't vanish like the back-pats and bonuses but sticks with you in the form of gratification, the long-term form of happiness. That's the counterbalance, the stress-reduction engine that keeps us healthy and resilient in the face of job pressures.

When you operate from the worth ethic, value is no longer a function of whether you can get enough done, rack up enough hours, have less of a life than the next person, or make enough money to be worthy; instead, it is about about what makes life truly worthwhile -- the actual experience of it in moments that captivate, rivet or thrill you. The worth ethic re-frames the premise of self-worth from something based on the approval of others to value you feel through the reality of your own self-determined experiences.

The research shows that true success is in the living. The more active leisure life you have, the higher your life satisfaction, says Seppo Iso Ahola, a seminal researcher at the University of Maryland who has tracked the stress-reduction benefits of recreational experiences. That's a message we never get, not surprisingly, because there's no almighty productivity attached to the recreation side, unless you want to count getting some life in as an achievement.

Richard Weinberg knows all about where authentic success comes from. Weinberg is one of a number of life enthusiasts in my new book, "Don't Miss Your Life," who were transformed by something quite rare these days, engaging in an activity that has no productive outcome attached to it. A Chicago businessman, Weinberg was at a Mexican restaurant with his wife one night when suddenly the tables disappeared and the salsa dancing commenced. His wife tried to drag him out on the floor, but there "was no way I was going to make a fool out of myself," he told me. But his wife had so much fun, he decided to take a salsa class the next week. Soon he was doing salsa seven days a week. Five years later, at the age of 55, he now dances professionally in 14 different dance categories, and his life has been radically altered.

"It's changed me totally," he says. "It's really given me a--." He paused for the right word: "Purpose. I went to the office, had a great family to care for, but dancing shifted my spirits and energy and direction in such an amazing way. I feel 20 years younger than I am."

Weinberg had uncovered this magical new lease on life because he'd uncoupled his identity from the job, the initial skill of life intelligence -- a set of traits and talents I detail in the book that vault you out of the life postponement rut. He allowed himself to try something that didn't have any of the output metrics we're taught to apply to everything we do, even our fun. He did it just to do it, guided by intrinsic motivation, home of life as good as it gets. He didn't expect a payoff, and as a result, he got one in the place where we feel ultimate success, in our core, by satisfying key psychological needs.

Input is where our lives live, so staying in output mode, racked by the overwork ethic -- I'm too busy, need to get things done, can't stop for a second, what am I going to get out of some trivial dance or game? -- isn't too swift. Work is a square peg. Life is a round hole. You need a different mindset to activate life, one that comes from a belief that you are working to live, not living to work. If you're working to live, then you have to ask what you're working for. What's the living you're working for? Ask that question regularly, and you'll be able to hone in on the activities, interests, service opportunities and curiosities that supply a vital worth ethic, and your real identity.

Tony Scott is a New York engineer who, like too many over the last few years, was cast out the door in a layoff. Suddenly, the only identity he knew was gone. He found himself without a source of worth. A friend encouraged him to do something that's worthless by the usual measuring stick of output -- take up a recreational outlet, in his case, pottery. As he dug into the clay and started putting another side of himself into action -- the creative side -- Scott discovered that there was a person behind the business card after all. "I may not be employable, but at least I could make a pot," recalls Scott, who now has his own web business. Through pottery classes he was able to make new friends at the most isolating time of life, build up confidence and express himself, the real self, not the performance identity of the job, all of which helped boost internally validated worth that gives him a much broader base of self-esteem than the fragile job ID.

He now knows how critical it is to have a worth ethic. It's nothing less than life assurance. Without it, we have no identity or life beyond the grind. We default to the risky behaviors of the living-to-work mode, setting no boundaries, saying yes to everyone, with no respites from nonstop stress and no infusions of the positive mood, fun and autonomy we need to buffer the assault of demands that come at us every day.

The worth ethic assures that we produce something quite extraordinary -- the living we're making ourselves.

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