Nothing succeeds like excess, we are told. If a little of something is good, more must be better. So working eighty hours a week must be better than working forty. And being plugged in 24/7 is assumed to be a standard requirement of every job worth having today — which means that getting by on less sleep and constant multitasking is an express elevator to the top in today’s work world. Right?
The time has come to reexamine these assumptions. When we do, it becomes clear that the price we are paying for this way of thinking and living is far too high and unsustainable. The architecture of how we live our lives is badly in need of renovation and repair. What we really value is out of sync with how we live our lives. And the need is urgent for some new blueprints to reconcile the two. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates defines his life’s mission as awakening the Athenians to the supreme importance of attending to their souls. His timeless plea that we connect to ourselves remains the only way for any of us to truly thrive.
Too many of us leave our lives — and, in fact, our souls — behind when we go to work. This is the guiding truth of the Well-Being section and, indeed, of this entire book. Growing up in Athens, I remember being taught in my classics class that, as Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Philosophy for the Greeks was not an academic exercise. It was a way of life — a daily practice in the art of living. My mother never went to college, but she would still preside over long sessions in our small kitchen in Athens discussing the principles and teachings of Greek philosophy to help guide my sister, Agapi, and me in our decisions and our choices.
Our current notion of success, in which we drive ourselves into the ground, if not the grave — in which working to the point of exhaustion and burnout is considered a badge of honor — was put in place by men, in a workplace culture dominated by men. But it’s a model of success that’s not working for women, and, really, it’s not working for men, either. If we’re going to redefine what success means, if we are going to include a Third Metric to success, beyond money and power, it’s going to be women who will lead the way — and men, freed of the notion that the only road to success includes taking the Heart Attack Highway to Stress City, will gratefully join both at work and at home.
This is our third women’s revolution. The first women’s revolution was led by the suffragettes more than a hundred years ago, when courageous women such as Susan B. Anthony, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton fought to get women the right to vote. The second was led by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, who fought — and Gloria continues to fight — to expand the role of women in our society and give them full access to the rooms and corridors of power where decisions are made.
This second revolution is still very much in progress, as it needs to be. But we simply can’t wait any longer for the third revolution to get under way.
That’s because women are paying an even higher price than men for their participation in a work culture fueled by stress, sleep deprivation, and burnout. That is one reason why so many talented women, with impressive degrees working in high- powered jobs, end up abandoning their careers when they can afford to. Let me count the ways in which these personal costs are unsustainable: As mentioned in the introduction — but it is so important it bears repeating — women in highly stressful jobs have a nearly 40 percent increased risk of heart disease and heart attacks compared with their less- stressed colleagues, and a 60 percent greater risk for type 2 diabetes (a link that does not exist for men, by the way). Women who have heart attacks are almost twice as likely as men to die within a year of the attack, and women in high- stress jobs are more likely to become alcoholics than women in low- stress jobs. Stress and pressure from high- powered careers can also be a factor in the resurgence of eating disorders in women ages thirty-five to sixty.
Most of the time, the discussion about the challenges of women at the top centers around the difficulty of navigating a career and children — of “having it all.” It’s time we recognize that, as the workplace is currently structured, a lot of women don’t want to get to the top and stay there because they don’t want to pay the price — in terms of their health, their well- being, and their happiness. When women do leave high- powered jobs, the debate is largely taken over by the binary stay- at- home- mom versus the independent career woman question. But, in fact, when women at the top — or near enough — opt out, it’s not just because of the kids, even though that’s sometimes what takes the place of the job they’ve left. And the full reasons why they’re leaving also have implications for men.
Caroline Turner, author of Difference Works: Improving Retention, Productivity, and Profitability Through Inclusion, was one of those women at the top. After successfully climbing the corporate ladder, she decided to get off. And it wasn’t because of her children, who were grown. “I lacked the passion it took to keep it up,” she writes. Once she left, she realized she had new colleagues of a sort. “I began to notice how much company I had as a former successful woman executive,” she writes. “I began to reflect on what really caused me to leave.”
What she found was research that showed that, yes, child care and elder care were cited most often as the reasons women left. But after those, the motivation most often given was lack of engagement or enjoyment in the job. And, of course, none of the three reasons are exclusive. “If a woman doesn’t really like her job, she may be less willing or able to juggle work and family responsibilities,” Turner writes. “If she is fully engaged in her work, the juggling act may be worthwhile.”
So what often looks from the outside like a simple choice to quit and take care of the children can actually be more complicated. Children are a formidable option — time spent with them can be meaningful and engaging. And if the career alternative ceases to be meaningful or engaging, some women who are able to will take the former. In fact, 43 percent of women who have children will quit their jobs at some point. Around three- quarters of them will return to the workforce, but only 40 percent will go back to working full- time. As Turner writes, for women to be engaged in the workplace, they need to feel valued. And the way many workplaces are set up, masculine ways of succeeding — fueled by stress and burnout — are often accorded more value. Take Wall Street, for example, where Roseann Palmieri worked for twenty- fi ve years, becoming a managing director at Merrill Lynch. Suddenly, in 2010, she came to a realization: “I’m at the table. I’ve made it. I’ve networked, I’ve clawed, I’ve said ‘yes,’ I’ve said ‘no,’ I’ve put in all this time and effort and I was underwhelmed. What I was getting back was not acceptable to me.”
Likewise, after getting a master’s in education at Harvard and an MBA at Wharton, Paulette Light had a successful career in management consulting. Ten weeks after her daughter was born, she was back at work. “I was an exhausted, nervous wreck,” she writes. Her company tried to be flexible to keep her, telling her to “just get the job done” however she could. But “that was the problem,” she writes. “Getting the job done was all about giving everything to the job.”
So she quit, and had three more children. But leaving the business world did not mean leaving behind achievement and accomplishment. Far from it. In the time since, she’s started a preschool, cofounded a synagogue, and launched an Internet start- up, momstamp.com, focused on making moms’ lives easier. She’s also been surveying the work landscape for ways in which the doors to the business world could be more two-way and allow for the talents and skills of those who have chosen alternative paths to be put to use. A healthy economy isn’t just about the efficient allocation of capital, but of talent, as well. As more and more people — both men and women — begin to choose not to work themselves into the ground, it’s important that humane pathways back to the workforce be created so their skills are not lost.
One idea is to expand the project- based world — where businesses simply give a skilled worker a project and a deadline. “If you want high- achieving mothers back in the workforce,” Light writes, “don’t give us an office and a work week filled with facetime, give us something to get done and tell us when you need it by.”
And it’s not just women with children who are looking for an alternative. After graduating from college, Kate Sheehan quickly worked her way up in communications and by twenty- seven was a speechwriter for the CEO of a large finance company. But seven years of twelve- hour days later, she began to have second thoughts about where she was going. It wasn’t the answers that were changing for her, but the questions. “It’s not ‘What do I want to do?’, it’s ‘What kind of life do I want to have?’ ” she says. Her answer made her realize she had to make some changes.
So she moved to Cape Cod and started a communications consulting business. “There was something about being on Cape Cod — I was inspired by the people around me, in this beautiful geography, who were making it work,” she says. “I started to think, ‘I could make a more independent path work for me as well.’ I felt inspired by the natural surroundings, by being close to the ocean where I grew up. Emotionally, mentally and physically, I had more space to create.
“There are a lot of women doing what I’m doing,” she says, “but they’re doing it 15, 20 years later. I don’t want to be someone who, 15 years from now, has horrible health problems and who hasn’t created a life that feels really meaningful to me.”
According to a ForbesWoman survey, an amazing 84 percent of working women say that staying at home to raise kids is a financial luxury they aspire to. This says just as much about the fulfillment we’re getting from our work as it does about our love of our no-doubt-adorable children.
Image courtesy of Unsplash.
Originally published at journal.thriveglobal.com