Leadership Tutorial VI (for women): Do We Work Ourselves to Death?

You don’t have to be a woman in the U.S. to work yourself to the detriment of your health. But many of us risk our well-being. You may have seen Arianna Huffington discuss this recently. It’s more a problem of fast-paced culture — all the racing here and there in jobs and at home.  There’s so much opportunity for failure and economic pressures don’t help.  Children don’t go out to play and come home at meal times and when the street lights go on.  And so, “having it all” is having it under your feet a lot more now days.

Having paid some hefty health costs while working to be the best I could be, I write now with the benefit of hindsight.  As my female oncologist said to me when I was 32 and diagnosed with breast cancer, our bodies are not made for the abuse we put them through. Do you think she was dropping a hint?  Yes.  She was trying to convince me that taking time off was a good idea. She was impressed that I’d tried to keep up my schedule.  I, on the other hand, fought to keep things as they were for as long as I could — to teach the same schedule, write, and publish. Such immersion in work had its benefits, but there is something called pacing that both men and women could learn more about.  And for those women in careers where getting ahead requires being significantly and conspicuously more competent than male colleagues at the same level, the risk to health is significant.  You just can’t beat yourself up without breaks and expect to be around in a healthy condition to reap the benefits of your hard work.  Besides, you probably look stressed and tired and that doesn’t help promotions.

So, what’s the answer?  How do we give it our all without doing so to the detriment of our health and thus to the detriment of our personal lives and families?  My first suggestion is to begin separating out what truly matters from what matters, matters somewhat, could matter and really doesn’t matter at all.  This isn’t easy.  But one clue is to see what men and women getting ahead are doing?  Are they wasting their time on projects for which there is little reward?  Are they team players all the time? Do they torture themselves over slights?  Or do they help as they can, realize no one is perfect, recognize that some criticism is useful and some is just gossip, and protect themselves from being pushed and pulled in all directions?

I used to marvel at a colleague who protected herself by carving out blocks of time when only certain types of requests would be allowed to distract her.  We would plan lunch a month in advance, unless she was in a relatively relaxed period.  Then she’ be quite spontaneous.  I began being more protective of my time.  Truth be told, I was never a pro at it because my work involved students and they need your time when they need it.  But even with them, I asked that they arrive at my office having thought through what they’d like to discuss so we could use our time wisely.  It was good practice. And it often left time for casual, fun discussion.  None of us should waste people’s time.  When pressed for time, I learned to let people know how much was available.  If that wasn’t enough, we’d reschedule.  The side benefit is that, in time, others learn to value your time.

These are just a couple of simple ways to protect your time.  I also learned to meditate while recovering from breast cancer.  It has served me well.  Bernie Siegel’s Morning and Evening Meditation is my constant companion.  When our children were little, it was difficult to find time to meditate, but when I did the benefits were great.  It only takes about 10 minutes and once you get used to doing it, the introductory music alone will relax you.

My dad used to say, “You can do anything if you have your health.”  He was right.  If you’re working yourself into illness, step back.  Don’t do less, just do what matters most.  Take some down time.  And don’t be hesitant to protect your time. There are ways to politely tell people that you won’t be able to respond right away or that they’ll get more from you if they can wait an hour, a day, or maybe a week.

By all means exercise.  Think about work as little as possible during that time.  Enjoy the people you love, get enough sleep, work hard at what you do well and where you’re appreciated. Donate your time to something that has nothing to do with work.  Reap some benefits and when you do well at something, before getting back on that ladder to climb the next rung, celebrate.  Life is better with celebrations!

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