By: Sorrina Beecher, Digital Content Strategist
For most of my adult life, I have always felt busy. But it wasn’t until a health scare that I realized my overpacked schedule might be a real problem. In 2012, after months of struggling with shortness of breath, a racing heartbeat, and a few frightening fainting episodes, I found myself sitting in a doctor’s office anxiously awaiting test results. Just a few weeks shy of college graduation, I was feeling rather melancholy that I’d come this far, only to be faced with the prospect of a failing heart.
Or so I thought.
When the doctor returned to the room, she wheeled up her chair, and gently informed me I was suffering from severe anxiety. Completely perplexed, I questioned the doctor on her findings. Are you sure? She was. Then she asked me to consider my daily routine.
"The problem wasn’t my heart — it was that I had zero work/life balance."
At the time, I was taking 15 credits at Marquette University, completing an internship at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, freelancing for a local newspaper and a lifestyle magazine, and raising my 7-year-old son as a single parent. To top it off, I had a two-hour commute between my home and downtown Milwaukee, a night class, hours of homework, and a never-ending To-Do list of household chores to check off each day. Before Marquette, I was equally taxed, living in North Carolina and spending up to 18 hours a day toiling as a daily newspaper reporter. I was constantly on the move, cycling through burnout, and inadvertently pushing my body into overdrive.
The problem wasn’t my heart, the doctor explained. It was that I had zero work/life balance — and it was starting to seriously affect my health. Still, it was years before I would fully embrace my doctor’s guidance, and finally do something to switch up my lifestyle.
Stress vs. Burnout
While a jam-packed schedule may not lead others to develop an anxiety disorder as it did for me, I am far from alone in its consequences.
The average American professional puts in more than 50 hours of work a week, with nearly half of the group clocking 65 hours or more. And with technology permeating nearly every second of our waking lives, we’ve developed an almost Pavlovian-response to each ding notification we receive from text, email, or social post.
The result is a workforce that squares its pride on living in a state of perpetual “busyness,” but is exhausted, overworked, and less productive, overall. With each hour added to the workweek, another is removed from friends, family, or personal leisure time — and studies show how long stretches of this imbalance can seriously impact our health.
"Unlike the stress that accompanies a work project nearing a deadline, burnout takes time and effort to achieve full restoration."
The difference between stress and burnout is a subtle one, but there are important distinctions. While everyone experiences stress, burnout is a state of prolonged stress that can cause you to lose motivation, become overwhelmed, emotionally withdrawn, depressed, or feel helpless. Unlike the stress that accompanies a work project nearing a deadline, burnout takes time and effort to achieve full restoration.
Work-related stress can lead to burnout, but both afflictions can have detrimental effects on your physical and emotional wellbeing.
According to Mayo Clinic, you might be at risk of burnout if:
You identify strongly with your work and lack balance between your work life and personal life;
You have a high workload, or frequently work overtime;
Your job is monotonous or unchallenging; and
You feel you lack control over your work.
These feelings can result in a laundry list of troubles, including excessive stress, fatigue, headaches, insomnia, alcohol or substance misuse, digestive issues, high blood pressure, recurrent colds, sadness, anger, irritability, heart disease, and more.
Worse, sometimes — for myself, and for so many others — certain personality traits such as perfectionism, high achievement, and Type A tendencies, can contribute to the frequency of the problem.
So, what’s the fix? Experts recommend taking the “Three R” approach:
Recognize the warning signs of burnout. Increasing your coffee intake, and pulling all-nighters to “push” through can quickly spiral into chronic stress and burnout, and can actually hinder your performance.
Reverse course. Burnout is a sure sign it’s time to lighten your load. Prioritize your work tasks, learn to say “No,” and seek out support from co-workers, friends and family members.
Build your resilience. There’s no way to eliminate stress from your life entirely. But checking in on your emotional and physical health, and practicing acts of self-care, can prevent stress levels from spiraling out of control.
Over the years, I’ve learned that little things like sleep, diet, and exercise go a long way in helping me to manage my stress and anxiety. In fact, I often check in on these three elements and hit reset to quickly return to normalcy when I do get off track. At other times, I have to force myself to stop mindlessly scrolling, refuse that second, or third cup of coffee, and take time out of my day to indulge in a bit of niksen — the Dutch phrase for doing, well, absolutely nothing. I highly recommend it.
Find an employer who values YOU
But above all, the factor that has changed my life for the better has been finding an employer who truly values work/life balance and its employees.
Last year, a Gallup poll found that nearly two-thirds of full-time workers experienced burnout on the job. Employees cited unfair treatment at work, unreasonable deadlines, an unmanageable workload, and a lack of support among managers, as primary causes for the burnout epidemic.
At Mueller Communications, we enjoy a flexible schedule that allows us to book a daytime doctor’s appointment, take off early to watch a child’s ballgame, or spend a few hours working from home or a local cafe, with the ease of sending out a courtesy email.
"Mueller Communications truly walks the walk when it comes to work/life balance."
Better yet, our employees don’t have to be a parent, or a manager, to enjoy Mueller’s work/life balance benefits. As long as our work is up to par, and we’ve met all our client’s needs and expectations, we are all free to take advantage of this flexibility.
More importantly, no one here has to tackle their workload alone. If one person’s plate is full, we can all count our colleagues to jump in and provide a little backup.
We also enjoy:
A fully stocked kitchen, so no one ever has to skip breakfast or lunch to meet their deadlines;
Regular Happy Hours and company outings to socialize with colleagues, have fun, and strengthen the team;
Professional development lunches to support company growth, and our individual career ambitions;
A walking treadmill, and neighborhood access to lakeview trails, to encourage breaks, exercise, and creative rejuvenation; and
An open-door policy. Should we find ourselves heading for burnout, we have direct access to our executive team to discuss our concerns openly and work together to find a viable solution that works for all parties.
These benefits measure up to more than just “work perks;” they truly make a difference by ensuring that every employee feels comfortable, supported, and valued at Mueller. Our company truly walks the walk when it comes to work/life balance.
I credit our progressive leaders — and our hardworking team — for creating a work/life business model that works, and strongly encourage other companies to consider how they too can incorporate work/life balance into the workplace.
For those of us who have lived without it, the ability to achieve work/life balance makes it worth more than all the money in the world. And while I can’t say I don’t find myself in a rut every now and again, I can confidently say that I am in the right company, with the right people, when I do.
So, my heart isn’t failing after all — it’s just full of gratitude.