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Exhaustion Should Not Be A Status Symbol

workplace exhaustion“Crazy-busy.” It’s a personal and workplace buzzword that has come to genuinely define more and more of our lives. We are hounded by constant email, internet browsing at 3am, meetings that block out our calendars, communications with work at all hours, and even professional duties that follow us on vacation and over the holidays.

Yet some critics have suggested that this isn’t just a condition that’s “imposed” on us by our place of work; it’s also something we do to ourselves. Maybe it’s a kind of “armor” or way of numbing ourselves against a lost sense of direction or responsibility for attending to the most important aspects of our personal lives. Maybe we keep our schedules so packed, and get so far ahead of the present moment with our plans and commitments to avoid the truth of how we’re feeling. As a consequence, what we really need can’t catch up with us.

Author and University of Houston professor Brené Brown writes about this condition of pathological “busy-ness” in our work and personal lives, and the way it hinders our health, personal relationships and our own inner lives. Here are some excerpts from an interview with the Washington Post, where she elaborates on how today’s packed schedules and workplace culture can block us from a deeply fulfilling professional and personal life. This transcript grew out of conversations surrounding her latest book, Daring Greatly, which subsequently became a popular Ted talk.


Excerpts from Washington Post Interview with Lillian Cunningham:

One of the experiences you write about in your book is “the burden of not getting enough done.” I take it this resonates with a lot of people who, despite answering emails at 3 a.m., perpetually feel that they are somehow always behind.

I have really seen that more in the past two years than any other time in my work. And I think it’s a combination of technology and the economic realities, where so many people are doing more than one job. It’s the whole adage of doing more with less. To be really honest with you, I don’t think it’s doable. The expectations of what we can get done, and how well we can do it, are beyond human scale.

And because there’s always this readily available technology and you can get your emails all night long, there’s no stopping and celebrating or acknowledging the accomplishment of anything. Instead of feeling pride or recognition, what everyone is instead made to feel is, “Thank God, I can get to the next thing on my list.”

So as an individual working in such an environment, what can you do? And what if you’re a leader shaping that culture?

One thing that I think really makes a difference is simply to stop, recognize and offer feedback. Imagine someone who says, “Hey, I got the proposal done, I left it on Tom’s desk.” And the response is: “Great, the next thing we need to do is…” That conversation needs to stop, and the boss needs to say, “Sit down, let’s talk about it. I’d love to see a copy and go over it together. Tell me what you think works about it.” It’s about giving five minutes of feedback, of acknowledging that someone completed something important.

Feedback is a function of respect. But you know, the only feedback we get these days from leaders is corrective feedback. And the only way we can protect ourselves from that is by disengaging.

The other piece is, we have to encourage people to set boundaries around their work and respect them when they hold them. And I think as leaders we have to model that. One thing that I tell people all the time is, I’m not going to answer a call from you after nine o’clock at night or before nine o’clock in the morning unless it’s an emergency.

To me, a leader is someone who holds her- or himself accountable for finding potential in people and processes. And so what I think is really important is sustainability. If it’s crunch time and from Tuesday morning through Wednesday night all bets are off, then there should be some real boundary holding Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. When people just don’t make themselves available, I think it’s healthy, and I think it’s smart.

I imagine a lot of people would love to do that but would probably say they’re scared to be the one person on a team who sets those boundaries.

You know what I would argue? Less than half the people I’ve interviewed would say they work around the clock out of fear, and more than half would say they do it out of habit. We use work to numb out. We can’t turn off our machines because we’re afraid we’re going to miss something.

I don’t want to dismiss the fact that people are fearful, but, you know, one of the biggest shame triggers at work for us is relevance. Our fear is that we’ll be perceived as not relevant or not necessary. So I think sometimes that’s why we jump on the weekend emails. You have to have buy-in from a lot of people to create a culture of immediacy and 24-hour working. I think as many of us are perpetuating that as are victims of it.

You have a quote in your book, “One of the most universal numbing strategies is what I call ‘crazy-busy.’” Elaborate on this concept.

I see it a lot when I interview people and talk about vacation. They talk about how they are wound up and checking emails and sitting on the beach with their laptops. And their fear is: If I really stopped and let myself relax, I would crater. Because the truth is I’m exhausted, I’m disconnected from my partner, I don’t feel super connected to my kids right now.

It’s like those moving walkways at the airport — you’ve got to really pay attention when you get off them, because it’s disorienting. And when you’re standing still, you become very acutely aware of how you feel and what’s going on in your surroundings. A lot of our lives are getting away from us while we’re on that walkway.

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