Why Are We Killing Ourselves?

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It’s no secret, we as Americans, live to work.  I have traveled a fair amount in my lifetime and lived abroad for a short period.  In my experience, and in talking with others who have shared similar observations during their travels, there is a clear distinction between how other countries live vs our western mindset.  Many countries surpass the US in terms of their ability to achieve a work-life balance for their employees.  While there are many US companies that have made strides in creating an environment that cultivates this balance, we still have a long way to go.  Our fitness, nutrition, mental health and most importantly quality time with our loved ones has suffered greatly.  When we are able to spend time with our family, we’re either extremely exhausted or our brains are so wired to be ‘ON’ all the time that we become distracted by emails and phone calls while we are at home having dinner, watching a movie, playing a board game or putting our children to bed.

The trend these days is that working heads of household spend minimal time at home with their children due to long hours at the office, lengthy commutes to and from work, and computer time back at home because of critical project deadlines that simply cannot wait.  Many of us feel inclined to always be available 24/7 in order to remain visible and present and show leadership that we are committed, dedicated and ready for that next big promotion.  It’s a futile situation and we are killing ourselves by trying to meet such unrealistic expectations and our families and health suffer gravely for it.

I did a study recently for my graduate program on pain killer addiction (opioids) and how many professionals find that long hours in the office, endless meetings, phone calls and computer gazing 9+ hours a day, cause severe migraines, back and neck pain, digestive issues (due lack of nutrition and skipping meals) and increased UTI/bladder infections by not relieving ourselves regularly because we ‘just can’t step away’.  It has become a dire situation.

For those of you who have put your foot down and made health and family a priority might find that your career growth may be at risk because you might not seen as the passionate, hard-working, burning the midnight oil type of employee that many companies in the US have come to embrace.  This extreme, super-human level of work ethic is highly encouraged.  Just ask those who work in Silicon Valley.  Glassdoor.com will tell you that many senior level managers do not hesitate to let their employees know that they are very fortunate to have good paying jobs and should not complain about the long hours and limited personal time with family because there are plenty of qualified candidates out there who are out of work and need to make a living.  Some companies have gone as far as to employ mainly college graduates who have not married or started families yet (for obvious reasons).  While I do feel that we are fortunate to be earning a good living, there is a threshold.  What good is an employee if they’re overworked, burnt out and sick all the time.  During my last business trip, I can name 5 people who were ill from weakened immune systems, body aches and overall stress.  This becomes counter-productive for the company.

Interestingly, when observing those companies in the US who do promote work-life balance, several are headquartered in other countries where those principles are strictly followed due to pre-established cultural values.  Lego Group is a perfect example, with their home-base in Denmark.  I have a good friend who works in their CT office.  Many countries in Europe place family, recreation and quality of life as a priority over high earning potential, climbing the corporate ladder and material objects.  The US philosophy of ‘Keeping Up with the Jones’ becomes a vicious cycle that is difficult to break.  “To fail to keep up with the Joneses is perceived as demonstrating socio-economic or cultural inferiority” (Wikipedia).

Even at an early age, our society teaches children to be driven, ambitious and go-getters who should stop at nothing to achieve success and financial independence.  While I do believe it is important to earn a decent living so that you and your family can enjoy time together in a comfortable home, driving safe vehicles, fulfill basic living needs and take family trips, if your physical and mental health deteriorate because of the stress and anxiety of such a demanding work environment, you are ultimately destroying the benefits of working all together.  I’ve seen families fall apart and marriages break-up due to demanding careers and detachment with loved ones.  Resentment and frustration result, particularly with children who feel that their parents were never ‘present’ and many times those relationships cannot never be repaired, even years later.

I didn’t expect for this blog post to run so long, but as you can see, I feel very strongly about the state we are in as Americans.  In my own situation, I continue to deprive my young daughter of quality time with her mother, to the point where I broke down in tears.  I asked her recently during a car ride home, “Maya, if you were stranded on a deserted island, who would you want to be with you?”  She did not hesitate.  She said “Daddy, because he can protect me.”  I can’t really blame her for wanting to share those special moments with her Daddy.  For Daddy to read to her.  For Daddy to see the pretty picture she drew.  For Daddy to console her when she is hurt.  For Daddy to put her to bed and kiss her goodnight.  I asked her last evening, “Maya, why don’t you ask me to put you to bed?  I’m sitting right here.”  Her response was “Mommy, you’re always on your computer.  I’m afraid to bother you.”  My eyes welled up.  Is this what it’s come to?  In that moment, I realized I will never get this time back with her.  She will be all grown up and I will have missed everything.  Now, the question is, how will I change the outcome?

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