Denial is a super-strong forcefield. But even our strongest defences eventually give if we push too hard for too long, sacrificing everything for this thing we call work.
As a child, my work ethic was drummed into me by my parents. They believed the only way to achieve success was to always work harder than the next person.
Medical school was a test of mental endurance, six years of never-ending tests and exams. As hospital interns we worked ridiculous shifts – the longest I ever did was 105 hours with virtually no sleep. Twelve years later I was Principal of a thriving medical group practice with two small children and a husband frequently away for business.
Carrying the dual role of business owner and medical practitioner meant there was little time off. When an associate called in sick, I filled the gap. I started to resent not seeing enough of my children and never getting to school sport days or concerts. Gradually the sense of pride and love for my work was replaced with frustration, bone aching fatigue and waves of panic. I started to dread the daily drive to the surgery.
Ignoring the obvious and my 9 kg weight loss I pushed on, until one Friday during an appointment I had made with a therapist for my chronic neck and shoulder pain, I passed out.
Driving home afterwards I thought “It’s OK, it’s a long weekend. I’ll be right for Tuesday.”
Except I wasn’t. Unable to summon the energy to get out of bed, I felt stupid and believed I had let everyone down including myself.
Recovery from burnout is slow.
It took 12 months working with a caring and compassionate psychologist and the support of my family and friends to regain my health. I lost the business I had fought so hard to create but came to understand how my one-eyed focus had made me blind to the more important aspects of life.
It’s easy to get too close to that cliff edge when you’re passionate about your work, keen to do your best and always go that extra mile. Female leaders especially who put everyone else’s needs before their own can easily fall into the too-busy trap.
Overwork doesn’t work. Our work capacity maxes out at about 38 hours. At 70 hours a week we’re no more productive than if we worked 55 hours. Worse still it leads to mental exhaustion, increases your risk of depression or anxiety and puts you on the fast-track to burnout.
To be blunt. Overwork is killing us. While Australia doesn’t keep records of this, other countries including Japan, South Korea and China do. It’s one thing to love your job, but it’s never worth dying for through heart attack, stroke or suicide. Busyness doesn’t equate to being effective, efficient or fulfilled. If you’re constantly exhausted, worried how long you can sustain working at warp-speed six without self-combusting it’s time to pull back and ask – What do I really want?
What lies have I been telling myself? What matters the most? What do I need to achieve that and how do I start?
If you’re sick of the delusion that you can only be successful and happy by wearing your Super Woman cape, take it off, slow down and reflect on what enables you to be your best. What are your non-negotiables you know make the difference to how you show up each day?
The mantra that self-care is never selfish grants you permission to commit to setting the boundaries needed to avoid overwork and schedule in the down time needed for rest, recreation and sleep, and without the guilt.
For some, one of the silver linings from the Covid-19 pandemic has been not having to travel frequently, the discovery you can work effectively from home, having more time with a partner and children and enjoying the simple pleasures of life.
What determines our success and happiness is the quality and closeness of our relationships. As Brene Brown reminds us, connection is why we’re here. It provides us purpose and meaning.
The challenges of the modern workforce were well recognised prior to Covid. We now have the opportunity to rectify the problems associated with overwork.
It’s time to reflect, reimagine and reset to bring about the positive changes required to delegate overbusyness to the bin and focus on what works best to optimise health, performance and happiness.
If you or someone you know needs assistance, contact Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, Lifeline on 13 11 14, or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.
Dr. Jenny Brockis is a board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, global speaker and best-selling author specialising in brain health, mental wellbeing and social connection. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to cultivate a good life (Wiley) is now available online and at all good bookstores. www.drjennybrockis.com