The Hustle Joyride: This Century’s Cocaine
Overextending yourself is this century’s cocaine, its problem without a name. Workweeks of sixty, eighty, even a hundred hours are commonplace in major law firms and corporations; tribes of modern-day male and female Willy Lomans, manacled to cellphones, trundle through the nation’s airports at all hours with their rolling luggage; cafes are filled with serious young people bent over laptops; young workers at dot-coms are available for work 24/7. Could this be you?
The research team at ZenBusiness recently surveyed over 1,000 managers and employees to explore what motivates people to work overtime, how frequently it occurs and what employees think of their colleagues working overtime. The study found the top six reasons employees work overtime are:
- high workloads
- to get ahead
- to earn more money
- excessive meetings
- excessive distractions
- to impress the boss
If you’re clocking overtime as you start the new year, you’ll be excited to learn from ZenBusiness that over 70% of managers perceive employees who work overtime as hardworking and committed. While this is good news, and all of us want to be perceived as hardworking and committed, there’s a huge downside if you allow your boss’s accolades to outweigh your own self-care. Be careful to interpret this study as a message that you should work harder to be successful, even if it means hitting the point of emotional bankruptcy. Researchers report that employees who regularly put in overtime work of 11-hour days or more are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, major depression, decreased productivity and poor job performance. Other long-standing research shows that overextending yourself leads to escalating anger, depression, perfectionism, generalized anxiety, health complaints, greater unwillingness to delegate job responsibilities and higher incidences of burnout. And the story doesn’t end there. The Harvard Business Review, reports that the mental and physical problems of burnt-out employees costs corporate America around $125 billion to $190 billion a year in healthcare spending. So let’s back up for a second.
At first the accolades, slaps on the back, fat paychecks and gold plaques make you feel it’s all worth the effort. But after a while, it starts to feel like an unwelcome burden. You have a lot on your plate. You’ve got to do it perfectly. Can you measure up? Or will you let others down? You’ve got to prove you can do it. If you fall short, you dig your heels in deeper. You can’t let up because everyone’s depending on you. Some folks wear their “always on” label like a prize, but if you’re like most workers, the picture is far more subtle. You don’t party or stay out late. You don’t waste your time or throw money down the drain. You’re level-headed and rational. You’ve been called dedicated, responsible and conscientious. You work long and hard, and you’re always at your desk or available electronically.
Burrowing itself deeper into your soul, the habit of overextending yourself is like a prisoner’s chain that moves with you wherever you go. When you’re not at your desk, your exhausting compulsive thoughts are still there. They beat you to the office before you begin the day. They stalk you in your sleep, at a party or while you’re hiking with a friend. They loom over your shoulder when you’re trying to have an intimate conversation with your main squeeze. You can’t stop thinking about, talking about or engaging in tasks and projects. You have rigid thinking—sometimes called “stinkin’ thinking”—patterns that feed your anxiety, reminding you how much you have undone. When you’re preoccupied with completing tasks, you don’t notice signals, such as physical aches and pains or a reduced ability to function, that warn of serious health problems.
Your projects take priority over every aspect of your life. You get soused by overloading yourself with more tasks than you can possibly complete. You toil around the clock—hurrying, rushing and multitasking to meet unrealistic deadlines. You might even throw all-nighters, sometimes sleeping off a work binge in your clothes. The compulsive thoughts engulf you in a work fog called a brownout, numbing you to anxiety, worry and stress as well as to other people. Work highs, reminiscent of an alcoholic euphoria, run a cycle of adrenaline-charged binge working, followed by a downward swing. Euphoria eventually gives way to work hangovers characterized by withdrawal, depression, irritability, anxiety and in extreme cases even thoughts of suicide.
The Adrenaline Rush
Studies link overextending yourself to a rush of adrenaline—a hormone released in times of stress—that has an effect similar to amphetamines or “speed.” The release of adrenaline, like other drugs, creates physiological changes that lead to “work highs”—that become addictive and may even be fatal—often described as a rush or surge of energy pumping through the veins and an accompanying euphoria as “an adrenaline high.” At some point, the euphoria requires larger doses to maintain the high, created by adding more to the to-do list and increasing stress levels to the max—to get the body to pump its fix.
After a long week, a university professor left his office, butterflies in his stomach, at the thought of facing an unplanned weekend. On his way out, he was handed a memo announcing grant-proposal deadlines. Suddenly, calm descended on him, and the adrenaline began to flow as he folded the three-inch-thick computer printout under his arm. Like an alcoholic with a bottle under one arm, who was assured of plenty to drink, the professor was calmed by the guarantee of having more to do, filling the hours and giving him purpose. It was an anesthetic, a tranquilizer. After the proposal was written, the feelings of emptiness, unrest and depression returned. That professor was me, unknowingly on my way to burnout.
If you’re “always on,” the need for adrenaline, in effect, creates a dependence on crises that lead the body to produce the hormone and give you the drug. Pushing subordinates or yourself to finish designated assignments within unrealistic deadlines is one way crises are achieved. Another is biting off too much at one time or attempting to accomplish many tasks at once. But while you get high, coworkers and subordinates experience stress and burnout. The adrenaline flow also has a boomerang effect, blocking the body’s ability to clear dangerous cholesterol from the bloodstream. Elevated cholesterol levels clog arteries, damage their inner lining and can cause heart attacks.
Are You Overdrawn? Preventing Emotional Bankruptcy
If you’re burning the candle at both ends, you could be headed for emotional bankruptcy or burnout—the physical exhaustion and depletion of emotional energy brought on by the stress of producing at the expense of taking care of yourself. Fortunately, self-care can recharge your batteries if you’re facing burnout.
Think of yourself as a bank account. When overloading yourself withdraws more than self-care, it’s time to make some deposits toward your well-being. Practice setting limits on the demands placed on you or that you place on yourself, leaving yourself elbow room to stretch and breathe and time to look out the window or take a walk around the block. Set aside fifteen minutes to an hour each day to relax, exercise, play, meditate, pray, practice deep breathing or just watch the grass grow. Eat nutritious foods instead of fast food on the run and get ample sleep. Then look inside yourself and examine your motivations for overextending yourself. If you end up helping someone, make sure you’re in the habit of showing them how to fish instead of feeding them fish. Sometimes the best way to accomplish you career goals is to have the goal of caring for yourself first.
Think of these practices as building investments in you. Make sure your daily deposits equal the withdrawals that overextending debits from your personal account. Ask yourself if you made a “to-be list” alongside your “to-do list,” what you would put on it such as soaking in a hot bath, enjoying a hobby, getting a massage or nature bathing with a hike. One item on my “to-be list” is sitting outdoors listening to the sounds of nature. Jot down a few of your items and check a few off in the next twenty-four hours. Continue to excel at your job and savor your manager’s praise, but take steps to prevent overextending yourself to the point of burnout. You’ll be happier and healthier, thrive and enjoy more productivity and job performance. And instead of overextending yourself, you’ll overextend your career trajectory.