I'm in the process of writing a book about hormones. With intense writing deadlines, a medical practice, three children, a house, and my own hobbies and pleasures, I often feel totally strapped for time. I eat quickly between patient visits at the clinic and work late some nights and on weekends. But I know better! In fact, I just saw a study done at the University of London that reported work-related stress is associated with low self-esteem and depression. I spend more than 50 percent of my time talking with my patients about how important lowering stress is for health, but I'm sometimes the worst culprit of all!
What's behind our compulsion to work constantly? Why do we feel so compelled to be productive all the time even when we know it isn't good for us? And, most importantly, how can we stop the cycle?
How Are Work and Health Linked?
Work -- even when we love our jobs -- tends to shift the body into "stress" mode, meaning a cascade of changes unfold in the body. The sympathetic nervous system (known for "fight or flight") is activated and stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol go up. The health effects of this are generally fine -- as long as we're not doing it all the time. But when we're working all the time, the body is in a constant state of crisis or stress and there isn't time to recover from temporary shifts like a lowered immune system, higher blood sugar, rapid heart rate and shallow breathing. This can lead to long-term issues like thyroid imbalances, memory issues, fatigue, and weight gain.
Any time we can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (well known for "resting and digesting") we're turning the stress dial down and shifting the body back to balance. Things like dim lighting or candles, music, warm baths, massage, and deep breathing can all help us to shift back to parasympathetic mode. And generally these things are not common at work. We sit at computers under fluorescent lighting, working under time crunches and in situations where we have to perform for our bosses or supervisors, which all lead to more stress in the body.
Why Do You Work So Hard?
There are many things to blame our workaholic nature on. It could be that things are difficult at home and work seems much more predictable and satisfying. It could be that you desperately need the money to feed yourself and your kids. You might feel the need to please a parent or a boss and enjoy the idea of getting more money, more recognition, and more responsibility. It might be that you have a dream or goal (for me it was to change women's health care). It might also be our capitalist society or the message our parents and grandparents passed on: work is good for character and the best way to get what you want in life. In the end, most of us have bought into the puritan mindset that work is good.
I'm certainly not saying that work isn't good. I simply think that some of us are taking it too far. What we do for a living is often the first thing we tell people about ourselves at cocktail parties. We work night and day, keep our computers and phones on at all hours, we wake up before the sun, go to bed late, eat on the go and spend less and less time sitting to enjoy the people we love. Work is a very satisfying part of life, but by no means does it have to be the center of our lives or the way we identify ourselves in the world.
How Can You Break a Work Cycle That Isn't Serving You
If you're noticing that work is starting to take over too much of your life (insomnia, anxiety, depression, or fatigue are good indicators), there are some simple things to try below. And for those of you who don't think work is getting in the way of your life but hear complaints from people you love about your working too much, you may want to step back and make a few changes. From what I've noticed in my own life and those of my patients, once you make a few changes, it's easy to make others and before you know it, the balance between work and play has returned.
• Take one day a week off where you don't use your computer or your cell phone. Even checking one email can be disruptive to your whole day. Take time to read books and magazines, watch movies, spend time outdoors, and be with your family or friends. Discuss the possibility of an alternative work schedule. Can you negotiate leaving early one day a week or taking Fridays off?
• If you have young children, make it a priority to find reliable babysitters, or if money is an issue discuss swapping babysitting with friends who also have kids so you can have some free time.
• Explore hobbies and activities that "fill you up" vs. deplete you.
• Explore new career ideas. Even if you have to take time to go back to school, a few years of school is worth having a job that doesn't deplete you the rest of your life.
• Evaluate the successes of the day. We'll never do everything on our (or our bosses) to-do lists. Tell yourself, "I've accomplished enough and tomorrow is another day."
One thing that has worked for me is finding a balance between my work and the things I love. I love to dance and so, no matter how busy I am, I make time to attend my dance lessons six to eight hours per week. This time away clears my head, energizes me, and ultimately allows me to be more productive.
We Can Change the Culture
We need to start applauding friends and coworkers, and even children, who take time for themselves when they need it. Instead of looking down on coworkers for taking personal days at the last minute, let's change the culture and say, "Good for you for taking care of yourself." At the end of our lives I can promise you that we will not wish we'd worked more.
Lee, JS, et al. 2012. Perceived Stress and Self-esteem Mediate the Effects of Work-related Stress on Depression. Stress Health. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22610597
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