Today’s workplace culture is increasingly fast-paced, and as a result, workers are experiencing more job-related stress. At least this is what we all keep telling ourselves!
There are endless articles showcasing new scientific findings on stress, the prevalence of high-stress work environments, the detriment high-stress work environments have on the health and performance of workers, and the many how-to articles that offer remedies and life hacks to help us survive the chaos of the modern workplace.
Assuming the workplace culture is the main source of their stress, many professionals are leaving traditional employment-based career paths to start their own businesses and take back control of their work-life balance.
Yet in my work as a burnout prevention advocate and educator, I have found that many professionals across all industries, self-employed or otherwise, still fall short when it comes to reducing stress and improving their quality of life.
Which raises the question: Is it really the company culture and the job demands that are causing us so much stress? I think not.
Rather, I believe that while the main issue is cultural, it isn’t a company culture issue — it’s an American culture issue. More specifically, an American cultural myth. What is the myth, you ask? That stress is a status symbol.
This isn’t a slogan or a catch phrase you will here people preaching. Rather, it hides in plain sight and informs our day-to-day behaviors, keeping us stuck in the cycle of stress and burnout.
An assistant professor of sociology at Meredith University in North Carolina said, “Americans have long attached value to being a workaholic.” Beyond that, we’ve always been taught that the harder we work, the greater the reward will be. However, in recent years, workaholic values have spread like a virus, invading all areas of our lives.
Chaniga Vorasarun, a contributor at Forbes, explains, “Where once we looked at money, cars, and houses as the symbols of success, now, it’s all about how busy you are.” We tell ourselves that if we aren’t stressed, we aren’t working hard enough, we aren’t important enough, or we aren’t successful enough.
In an interview with Lillian Cunningham of the Washington Post, Professor Brené Brown discusses this pattern of behavior, which she has coined “crazy-busy.” She said, “‘Crazy-busy’ is a great armor, it’s a great way for numbing. What a lot of us do is that we stay so busy, and so out in front of our life, that the truth of how we’re feeling and what we really need can’t catch up with us.”
This creates a reality where we are stressed and under-resourced.
When our self-worth is based on constant “doing” and proximity to chaos, many other vital aspects of our lives begin to suffer. True focused productivity, which allows us to complete and finish projects successfully, is often replaced with multitasking. Quality downtime with loved ones is often reprioritized or compromised. Self-care and rest, which are vital components to our personal sustainability, are often neglected entirely. Brown’s warning about numbing suggests that most people are unaware that they’re dangerously stressed out.
But this isn’t even the most disturbing reality fueled by this myth of stress being a status symbol.
Unlike the big house and the fancy car (which are there for our enjoyment when we’re able to steal away for the weekend or take a vacation with the family), stress must be cultivated and constantly recreated or its corresponding status disappears. Then, we’re left feeling worthless and insignificant. These feelings of worthlessness and insignificance (which have really been there all along) flare up and cause even more stress.
This is a vicious cycle. The worse we feel about ourselves, the more we fill our schedules, the more stressed out we become, and the more vulnerable we become to burnout. And when we crash, we feel even worse than when we began. Improved self-worth and pride are never accomplished, but because we have the deeply engrained, culturally informed belief that stress is a status symbol, we equally feel we’re on the right track.
How, then, can we break this cycle? Well, let’s start with some good news.
If you haven’t figured it out already, stress is NOT a status symbol!
Stress won’t help you gain real financial or professional status! When you’re operating from a place of chronic stress, you can’t think logically or solve problems creatively, and you’ll be moody and unpleasant to be around.
Do you want to do business with someone who lacks the ability to think logically or solve problems creativity? Of course not!
Are you likely to get hired or promoted if you’re moody and unpleasant to be around? Unlikely.
Furthermore, ongoing exposure to stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline will cause your body to break down and, if left unchecked, can lead to burnout, life-threatening illnesses, and even premature death. In other words, chronic stress will literally cause you to FAIL.
I can tell you to stop relating to stress as a status symbol and be on my way, but I have found that most people need clear operational instructions when combating unconscious and subconscious behaviors fueled by dysfunctional social norms. The bad news is that you have to put in the time! You have to make a commitment to retrain your brain! More good news, however: The more you practice, the easier it will become. When you master these skills, you’ll finally be able to achieve the results you’re seeking, as well as a work-life balance that feels good, nurturing, and successful!
Be selfish with your time.
Just like downtime has become taboo in a world that treats stress as a status symbol, selfishness gets a bad rap; we’re taught to be selfless instead. This makes it hard to say “no” when we need to. As a result, we often say “yes” when we can’t or shouldn’t actually follow through. This, of course, feeds into the busy schedule and relentless stress.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a huge advocate of generosity and service, but I think we have taken things too far. Not only is it healthy to say “no” and establish boundaries, there is so much selfish giving and serving. What is selfish giving, you ask? Giving and acts of service that really serve to stroke the busy ego of those hijacked by the “stress is a status symbol” mythology.
I don’t know about you, but the idea of being in a relationship — professional or personal — with someone who is acting in a way that is out of alignment with his or her sense of self (which is the actual definition of “selfish”) disturbs me.
There is so much I can say on this topic, which is why I wrote another full article, “It’s Not As Simple As Selfishness vs. Selflessness.” I highly recommend checking it out! At the very least, play around with saying “no” and being more selfish with your time! Schedule time for play, and rest and commit to honoring your schedule. If you still have time left over after your primary responsibilities are honored (and your commitments to your self around play and rest have been fulfilled), maybe consider adding other activities and commitments to your schedule. Just as they tell you on any airplane, if the plane is about to crash, put your safety mask on before assisting others!
Divorce your ‘shoulds and shouldn’ts.’
For many people, stress is self-inflicted and self-perpetuated. These are fueled by a desire to feel important and successful and manifests as overextending and overcommitting. You feel like you should be doing everything and shouldn’t be taking a vacation or shouldn’t be taking a sick day.
When you aren’t able to crush it while perfectly executing all of the things you should and shouldn’t be doing, you turn against yourself with judgment and actually create more stress! When you’re motivating yourself with “should and shouldn’t,” it’s highly likely you’re allowing other peoples’ expectations, needs, desires, and standards to drive your behavior.
Imagine the meanest teacher you ever had standing over you, waving her finger, and saying, “If you want to be successful, you really should do X, and you really shouldn’t do Y!” Feels yucky, right?
“Should and shouldn’t” are often used as forms of social control; they’re directives designed to make others experience shame around nonconformity. Shame is an emotional stressor that causes our bodies to produce stress hormones such as cortisol. Overexposure to cortisol is bad news for your physical, mental, and emotional health — it can cause sickness and inevitably lead to even more stress.
Start to pay attention to what is motivating your behavior. Are you doing things because you feel you should, or saying “yes” to things because you feel you shouldn’t be so selfish as to say “no”? If so, whose voice do you hear? Is it yours? If not, don’t obey the command!
Connect to your needs, wants, and desires.
Once you have become accustomed to listening for the voices and internal dialogues motivating your behaviors and leading to experiences of stress (and once you’ve stopped jumping at their beck and call), you’ll want to reconnect with you needs, wants, and long-term desires.
When your behavior is driven by needs, wants, and desires, there will be things you MUST do. You MUST take good care of your health if you want to feel good and wish to live a long, fruitful life. You MUST hydrate and eat to address your physical needs. You MUST work to save money if you WANT to take a vacation. You MUST attend that professional development seminar if you desire to be the CEO of the company some day. When you are able to take actions to address your needs, wants, and desires, that is when you’re truly successful because you will be well resourced, focused, and motivated.
If you want to dive deeper into divorcing your “should and shouldn’ts” and connecting to your needs, wants, and desires, download this FREE worksheet.
Also, keep an eye out for the rest of the articles in the “Unpacking the Cultural Myths of the Modern Workplace” series, where I will be discussing myths such as “Breaking Out of Your Comfort Zone” and “Done Is Better Than Perfect.”
Guest Author: Charlie Birch is an entrepreneurial coach, trainer, and consultant. Her areas of expertise include but are not limited to burnout prevention, resilience, optimal performance, leadership, team building, diversity and inclusion.