Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

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Death by Overwork Part 3: How do we deal with and/or change the culture of overwork here in the US?

by James Porter June 18, 2021

This is a 3-part series on how Americans - partly as the result of the pandemic - are working longer hours, unable to establish boundaries between work and home life, and getting stressed out as a result. In Part 1 we looked at the problem, in Part 2 we looked at how other industrialized nations solve this problem and in Part 3 (today) we will look at solutions that can be applied right here and right now in the USA.

This 3-part series was inspired by an editorial I read in the New York Times entitled: Working Less is a Matter of Life and Death. At one point, the editorial quotes Samuel Huntington who wrote the book “Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity.” In it, Huntington writes: “Americans work longer hours, have shorter vacations, get less in unemployment, disability, and retirement benefits, and retire later, than people in comparably rich societies.” And it’s the first two parts of this conundrum that has formed the basis for this three-part series.

The NY Times editorial observed that in years gone by, wealthy Americans ostentatiously didn’t work – going on month-long retreats and moving to their “cottages” for the entire summer. (Cottage is what they called their ostentatious mansions in places like Newport Rhode Island.) But now wealthy Americans, the editorial goes on to explain, “show off by working all the time.” Elon Musk is a case in point. A few years ago, when his Tesla Model 3 factory wasn’t meeting its production deadlines, Musk, now possibly the richest man in America, slept for weeks on a couch in the factory’s offices so he could keep an eye on his manufacturing plant 24 hours a day.

Still, working long hours isn’t necessarily the culprit in this story. Like Musk, I work long hours, and I typically work 7 days a week. But I also stop at 6 PM, (about noon on weekends) so I can have dinner with my family and freely interrupt my workday for chance meetings with friends or extended family members, who happen to be in town or drop by. I make a point of exercising vigorously 5 days week, meditating just about every day, and doing yoga at least 3 days a week. So my long hours, don’t take a physical toll on my body. I make time for self-care.

I think the hero in this story, particularly here in America, where this persnickety work ethic reigns supreme, could be for all of us to have what psychologists call “an internal locus of control.” When you have an “external locus of control” you blame outside forces for all the bad things that happen to you. You blame your boss, the management, the economy, the pandemic, whatever outside force is a handy foil for your troubles. But when you have an “internal locus of control,” you take personal responsibility for making the best of your life circumstances despite all these outside forces you might be tempted to blame.

I read about a study that was conducted at Microsoft in the late 1980’s. Employees were working long hours, sometimes 18-hour days, because they couldn’t hire enough people to keep up with the rapid growth. So management brought in a team of psychologists, to see what ill-effects all this overtime was having on the morale of the workers. The conclusion of the study was: It was having little or no effect. Even though employees were working long hours, they had CONTROL over their time. They could come and go as they pleased, work from home if need be, and attend any school functions or attend to the needs of family members whenever a “crisis” might arise.

By simply adding in the element of control, the management at Microsoft made a potentially stressful situation NOT as stressful. All managers need to realize this important business strategy. It costs NOTHING to implement and yet it truly lowers the stress in your organization. Give workers control over how they structure their time, and how they accomplish the tasks they’ve been given, and you will be rewarded with a healthy, engaged workforce that out-performs employees in rival companies with LESS control. And all it takes to implement, is a simple mindset shift.

Dr. Raquel Garzon, a behavioral change specialist and author of the book, “The Business of You” is always looking to control what she can control and let go of what she can’t. When the Pandemic hit, she switched her business model from doing seminars in person to doing webinars over Zoom. “I learned all the new features on Zoom in order to make my programs more interactive, and now I am doing more presentations than ever. My business is thriving. But more importantly, I have more time to spend with my family since I’m not traveling all the time.”

If you’ve ever seen Dr. Garzon put on a presentation, you are immediately struck by how much energy and enthusiasm she puts into each program. Yet Dr. Garzon has Lupus, a crippling autoimmune disorder, that leaves many people bed ridden for weeks on end. Dr. Garzon once explained to me how she manages to maintain such a busy schedule and have so much energy. “First, I focus on all the things I have to be is grateful for: My family, my career and the opportunity to help other people lead healthier lives. That’s my purpose. And purpose is important. Next, I focus on what I CAN control such as eating a healthy diet, exercising every day, and getting enough sleep. And finally, I let go of what I can’t control like the fact that I have this disease and that helps keep me from feeling sorry for myself or feeling like a victim.”*

*When I sent this article to Dr. Garzon to make sure I had quoted her accurately, this what she wrote back:

“I feel like this article makes me look too perfect, which is so NOT true. I cried my eyes out in the middle of a bike trail just last week due to my body completely shutting down. I DO have difficulties at times but manage to pick up the pieces and carry on leveraging my purpose and all the strategies I have available to me to help me to carry on.”

James Porter
James Porter