Rest is part of work
3 April 2020
I’ve travelled a lot as part of work, and the travel magnified the burnout that came from overworking. I’m lucky enough to have learned some lessons from it.
I used to fly from the East Coast of the US to Europe regularly. I’d take a night plane and land in London early, pick up a car, drive 2 hours to the office, work a full day, often go out to dinner with colleagues at night, and be at the office gym the next day at 6:00 UK time to workout and have my first meeting at 7:30. In truth, most my life was a lot like this: early morning meetings, regular flights to China, Russia and domestic destinations, and middle of the night calls with different time zones. I was praised by some for my work ethic, my ability to switch time zones at will, keeping a training schedule, and traveling on “days off” to accommodate others’ schedules.
Of course, the burnout came. When it did, I had a long time of forced recovery during which I considered the consequences of how I treated myself, the effects on my family, on my health and on the parts of my life that weren’t part of that work routine.
Overwork is a part of our culture
We live in a culture that rewards and reinforces personal sacrifice without regard to our health or our goals. Think about this for a minute: the way we often do things, and the way we are encouraged to do them, is often a path that does not benefit us or our community. It costs not only us personally but our families and friends as well. Even your boss, your shareholders, and your projects are worse off when you don’t take care of yourself.
Worse, the very idea of “taking care” of yourself is a minefield of activities that include the corrupt patterns that burn us out. It’s very similar to processed food that is packaged as “healthy”: a processed snack is still not good for us even if it’s marketed in a different way. So non-work distractions keep us tethered to the same routines and devices, misinformation abounds about exercise, and cleverly hidden revisions of the siren song of sacrifice all cloud the picture of achieving true balance. A rough cardboard wrapper with green print assures us that the shrink-wrapped convenience store snack is part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle. We use the same screen that delivers work-related stress to “relax” with an edited, curated and borderline fictitious representation of real life (social media, reality shows, videos). Our body is not fooled by this, and there is a price to pay.1Yes, all of that distraction labeled as entertainment or time off is not 100% destructive – it’s easier to see the hand-knit dog sweater that my cousin (said he) made on social media than to visit him directly. But we can’t consider only the benefits, we have to consider the costs of screen exposure too.
It’s difficult today to have a discussion or even a clear thought about how we work and how we rest. It’s popular now to have rest or balance as part of one’s boilerplate work jargon or to talk about rest along with the modern-day humble brag of being so busy. So many of the people I’ve worked with (myself included) have extolled the virtues of time off, recharging, perspective and whatever else fits that description. I actually had one conversation like this with a colleague in the Hong Kong airport, where both of us had been awake for 30 hours and were planning our return to London to “get things done.” I did not see the irony then, but I suffered from behavior like that.
Despite rest being a popular topic, burnout exists, and it’s a stubborn problem. It’s a major occurrence even in professions where good work, accuracy and good execution are key. One estimate is that burnout in physicians costs the country $4.6B That’s just the US, but not all the costs can be measured with a dollar sign. What if those physicians were able to work in a happy and productive way? What effect would that have on their output (treatment and prevention of patients’ illnesses) and their families and communities? What difficult and tragic events would not occur if the physicians made fewer mistakes because they were better rested?
Then lets consider that same scenario across professions. Both the negative financial costs and the hidden but obvious opportunity costs of lost positive effects are staggering.
Rest includes separation
Admittedly, I’m writing this and you’re reading it on the same screen that ties us to the insidious screen that does not allow us to get true separation and rest from work. We live in a world where we accept that each person “needs” their phone for a long list of “reasons” – directions, lists, traffic, ad infinitum.2 People take their phones – and scroll through them – walking in nature. What’s the point of that? Combine that with our current culture’s reinforcement of sacrifice related to being in the office early, staying late, always being online, answering emails within a certain timeframe, even on a Sunday night, when it’s snowing, and there’s no electricity . . . well, you get the idea. Working to the detriment of personal health and overall productivity has accelerated with the addiction to technology.
This combination of culture and technology probably has many hidden and unknown costs. Smartphones, VPN’s, laptops, and the like combined with a twisted and exaggerated work ethic amplify each other. The result costs us personally and damages the collective.
What can each of us do?
There is no hard and fast definition of what activity constitutes rest, however it’s not difficult to figure out individual cases. It’s simply the opposite of whatever stress comes from work.3If you were smart enough to become a mason, and you build stone walls for a living, then building one on your day off is probably not rest. If you (like me) spend a majority of your time in front of the screen, sometimes talking into it at the face of a co-worker, trying to figure out the existential meaning (or gross profit trend) in the 16th version of a spreadsheet, then building a stone wall might actually fit the bill as “rest.” If your work involves a screen, as it does for so many of us, then rest really isn’t going to include one. Rest needs to be different, but not necessarily sedentary.
It may be a challenge to be honest about this, but it’s not difficult to see that a screen usually isn’t a break. With the idea of difference in mind, I should have left the airport in Hong Kong that night, and stayed there for a few days, and balanced work-related meetings with personal wandering. Had I done something like that that routinely when I traveled or when I worked at home (and I could have), I would have had some true balance. Simply, the rest activity would be different from work, and a break from the stress of work. Had rested regularly, I may not have ended up completely fried and unable to work later.
I think there are sneaky and popular hacks that perpetuate the dogma of overwork and under rest – these are activities or suggestions of habit that enable one to be “more productive” (and are usually linked to a smartphone app). Again, some people may benefit from new activity or new habits, but just like you can’t outrun a bad diet, you can’t out-meditate an imbalanced life.
I experienced my own version of this (I tried meditating on the plane, for instance) and getting up even earlier to exercise more.4If, some years ago at 3:30 am, you saw someone in the snow-covered parking lot of the O’Hare airport Hilton, running to and fro with burpees thrown in, well, that might have been me. I just simply does not work. As humans, we adapt to almost whatever stress we experience – note the college age kid with severe cervical neck flexion from living a life of staring down at the phone – and we need rest in order to become stronger and fully adapt to that stimulus, or the body will shut down. There’s nothing wrong with a regular early morning workout, and I’ve been doing that for more than 40 years now, largely to my benefit. But there’s quite a difference between working out as part of a realistic plan after sufficient sleep, free of nagging injuries, disconnected from the grid, and a “getting up even earlier” as a way to be more productive, then forcing run on sore joints after checking in with social media, the news and email.
Having survived (I hope) a quite severe bout of burnout, I would say this: listen to your body, your conscience and common sense. Balance is individual, and it’s very easy to rationalize not being truly healthy. Remember that being sedentary is not the opposite of work, and many modern distractions are more of the stress that we all need recovery from. Being truly balanced and rested is not a difficult mystery, but it takes a little courage and self-trust to step out of your unhealthy pattern and recover.
Share this post with someone who might be interested using the buttons below, or head back to Practical Resources.
Receive ideas like this every week: new articles on leadership and running a business you started.