04/10/2011 04:35 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Career Epidemic: You Don't Have to Choose Between Your Job and Your Health

Two years ago, shortly before she came to see me about some career challenges, Elizabeth, a physically-fit, happily married, mother of two, was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. A high-achieving executive with an impressive 20-year track record in finance, Elizabeth has held a variety of senior positions including, at one time, CEO. During the onset of her symptoms, Elizabeth exceeded everyone's expectations but became embroiled in a tough fight for a well-deserved promotion. Her request was denied despite her reliably stellar reviews. Medication and dietary changes have helped, but Elizabeth continues to work while saddled with exhaustion and pain, both daily realities of her disease.

In 2009, with the 20% decline in Manhattan apartment prices and a significant slowdown in transaction volume, Marc, a top real estate agent at a premier firm, came to me for advice about how to reinvent his business. When we first met, he told me, "The game has changed. This housing market is in a downward spiral and I've got to re-think my strategy or else." As the sales cycles got longer, and as clients got more gun-shy, Marc began having severe podiatric and orthopedic problems that literally prevented him from stepping his business forward, and would ultimately require surgery.

Samantha, a superstar salesperson in a blue chip bank with over $1 trillion in assets under management, developed dental and oral problems from biting the inside of her mouth. This behavior began once the company she had been loyal to for over a decade became unstable following post-merger restructuring.

And then, there is Matthew (whose name has been changed along with all the client names referenced above, to honor confidentiality). A spectacular entertainer who graced Broadway stages for years, Matthew now faces fewer audiences and paychecks thanks to the closed shows, lower ticket sales, and increased competition for work following Broadway's bust in 2009. Re-located to a suburb of Los Angeles, he is struggling to raise four children on diminishing means. Matthew has developed such debilitating insomnia that there are nights when he considers taking his own life.

As a whole, the clients who come to me for strategic career advice are healthy, extremely high functioning and successful professionals. But, in the last two-and-a-half years, a disproportionate number of them have struggled with physiological conditions. Research says that anxiety over job and income instability is partly to blame. Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University, one of the leading researchers on the relationship between stress and disease, confirms that, under chronic stress, the immune system doesn't defend as well as it should against challenges. According to Cohen, when exposed to a virus, people who are experiencing ongoing stress are more likely to get sick.

More dramatic is the research suggesting that job loss takes 1-1.5 years off of your life. Two prominent economists, Daniel Sullivan of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and Till von Wachter of Columbia University, claim, "We were convincingly able to show that if you lose your job, you die earlier." This is especially relevant data given a Gallup Poll that says 1 out of 5 employed Americans think they will lose their job in the next 12 months. If you do the math, that means about 26 million Americans will die at least a year earlier than they would have, had they kept their jobs.

Even the lucky among us, who have jobs but worry about them constantly, are at risk. Sociologist, Sarah Burgard, of the University of Michigan has found that the consistent, nagging concern about losing one's job is even more harmful to people's health than job loss itself. Under the stress of job uncertainty, people smoke more, drink more and don't sleep as much. Ultimately, they are more likely to develop stress-related health conditions such as hypertension or diabetes. Each year, hypertension kills 40,000 Americans, and high-blood-pressure-related illness claims an additional 200,000 lives. (Not to mention that having hypertension makes you 7 times more likely to have a stroke and 6 times more likely to have congestive heart failure.) According to the American Diabetes Association, 25.8 million Americans have diabetes and 5800 of them die from the disease each week.

Clearly, genetic factors, environmental influences and lifestyle choices impact people's physical health. But, the domino effect on America's collective well-being caused by the recession, massive industry restructuring, and layoffs cannot be dismissed. While there are wide reaching public-policy implications of our country's rampant career and income instability, that's not a battle for this blog post.

Instead, here are four practical ways to combat the stresses of your career:

#1) Don't Fixate on Fixing. Create.

Sometimes, fixing your job is the wrong answer. Ming, an experienced technology professional, was constantly frustrated at her job. As much as she tried to influence the decisions of her senior management team, she was never the one making the decisions. For a born leader with strong entrepreneurial instincts, the lack of "juice in the job," as she called it, chipped away at her self-esteem. To increase her impact, Ming began new initiatives and ran big projects, but ultimately the buck always stopped with someone else. The years of hoop jumping and fence mending were causing more anxiety than promotion potential. The fact was that no one above her was going anywhere. In our private weekly meetings together, Ming and I started repeating a mantra, "Fixing is about history. Creating is about the future." She grew to be more proactive than reactive by tapping into her Rolodex and big idea bank. Ming is now the CEO of her own Internet company where, by the way, the buck sits squarely on her desk.

You too can make the mind shift from broken to becoming. Focus on new opportunities rather than old problems. A good place to start is InMaps by LinkedIn. InMaps is an innovative way to see your entire professional network at a glance. In seconds, it builds an intricate web of all the contacts from your LinkedIn account and clusters them by color. You can name the groups according to the common theme that each cluster shares.

For example, one cluster may be made up of friends from college, another grouping may consist of former colleagues at your previous employer or a national association to which you belong. The visual picture shows you the depth of each one of your micro networks as well as the breadth of your macro network. This is a great tool for brainstorming about ways to leverage the dense volume of people you already know in one industry, geography, company or social circle. Equally as important, InMaps allows you to identify where you're "out of it." While you may maintain solid contact with certain people, the fun part is to discover where you can build bridges with entirely new communities to broaden your professional universe. InMaps opens the career doors your current manager keeps slamming in your face and reminds you of your power to create a whole new pathway of possibility -- with a little help from your friends.

#2) Blame The Economy

Research shows that stress is correlated with blows to your self-esteem. The more you internalize the reasons for your present job crisis, the more negative your health consequences may be. Stop beating yourself up, and look around. You're not the only one out of a job, obsessed that you might be unemployed soon, or struggling to make ends meet. In fact, you're in pretty good company. Along with the 13.7 million unemployed Americans reported in the Bureau of Labor Statics' March 4th release, 84% of high-powered women and 40% of their male counterparts are considering leaving their current job. Whether you're employed or not, uncertainty is part of the career condition right now. So ease up on the self-blame game.

#3) Support Groups (Read before rolling your eyes.)

Jack, one of my CEO clients, closes his office door at work whenever there is a crisis. At home, if he feels overwhelmed by family issues, he locks the study door and hangs a sign on the knob that says in French "Do Not Disturb". The sign was a not so subtle and sadly appropriate trip souvenir gift from his high school age son. Everyone around Jack gets the message loud and clear. His strategy for survival when the going gets tough is to shut the world out.

But science indicates that social relationships, more than any other factor, are the key to health and happiness. Dr. John Cacioppo, from The University of Chicago, has found that isolation is bad for our health. In fact, chronic loneliness is associated with many mental and physical disorders including heart disease, diabetes, dementia and depression.

In the event that you're one of the 27 million Americans living alone, it's especially important that you get off your couch and make contact with the human race. Join your local chapter of BNI where you can pitch other people over breakfast on your skill sets, business services, and make new contacts. As they say, start "gaining from giving."

#4) Mindfulness Meditation

Meditation is the best way I know to let go of what is and what isn't. It settles you into the truth. By tuning into the present moment, your body and your breath, you become an impartial witness to your own experience. Like the welcome change of scenery a vacation provides, meditation gives you distance from your everyday frustrations, on command. It loosens your grip around that gnawing sense of dissatisfaction so many of us live with -- what Buddhists refer to as "Dukkha," a primary cause of human suffering.

In my own life and in the lives of my clients, I have observed the transformative power of meditation. Ironically, busy clients who associate stillness with failure and futility benefit the most from learning to meditate. For some people, life spent sprinting on a treadmill with no off button feels far safer than a few minutes sitting in silence. The goal for them is always the same: more. This cycle of craving -- endemic to our culture -- drives many people to fill voids constantly in their jobs and lives. Unfortunately, spending so much energy filling what's not there usually causes people to miss what is.

If that sounds too abstract, imagine this. You're driving at a good clip along Highway 1 in breathtaking Big Sur, California. As you steer, you try to take in the view through the car window that is moving past everything at 60 miles per hour. There's so much to see, but you're moving too fast. You take your eyes off the raw beauty around you and just focus on the road. You might think you're driving that car, but it turns out the car is really driving you.

Clients often tell me that they can't take time off or cut back on their work schedules because there's too much to do. Sometimes, it takes actually getting sick for them to figure out that when you can't stop, you can't really see. After all, that's what lookout points on the side of the road are for -- a spot to stop and take it all in. Meditation gives you that reason to pause, a lookout point. Eventually, with a regular meditation practice, an awesome sense of emptiness replaces the craving for more. Much to your surprise, with nothing but your own mind and breath, you might just find that is enough.

Need to press pause? Set an alarm for 3 minutes, sit quietly in an undisturbed place, and close your eyes. Focus only on your breath going in and out. If your mind wanders, bring it back gently, and re-attend to your breathing until your alarm rings. Try it every day for a week, adding a few minutes when it becomes more comfortable.

To learn more about meditation and its healing potential, read Jon Kabat-Zinn's book, Full Catastrophe Living, or check out some mindfulness meditation tips, CDs and resources at MindfulnessTapes.

Clearly, there is a paradox to this current career crisis. In order to make a healthy livelihood, you need to make sure your job or joblessness doesn't suck the life out of you. As the four strategies outlined above show, this requires that you do both internal and external work. Yes, it's important to dive deep inside yourself to create exciting new possibilities, strong self-esteem and inner peace. But, connect that inspired internal effort with other people and communities, both on-line and face-to-face. Regardless of our global economic concerns, the world needs your contribution. It's up to you to take care of yourself so that you can first determine what your unique path of contribution is, and then start paving it like your life depends on it.