NEW YORK -- When we think of addressing the worst illnesses of modern life, such as cancer and heart disease, we often first focus on causes like poor diet and genetic factors. What we might forget to consider is burnout. Yet the accumulated stress of extreme workloads and busy home lives may contribute to much of our chronic disease.
That was the message delivered on Thursday as Arianna Huffington, the chair, president and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post Media Group, gave a keynote speech at Manhattan's Plaza Hotel as part of the Mount Sinai Women's Health Day of Learning and Luncheon.
Speaking to a full ballroom of medical professionals who have devoted their careers to the field of women's health, Arianna touched on a startling statistic: More than 75 percent of medical costs are associated with preventable chronic diseases.
The news is even more troubling for women, Arianna said: Those in stressful jobs had a 60 percent greater risk of Type 2 diabetes compared to their less stressed-out peers, according to the American Diabetes Association. This finding was unique to women -- the same researchers found no similar link between work stress and diabetes among men.
But that doesn't mean the stress of cutthroat work environments is solely a women's issue. Men also fall victim to the corporate mentality that the "toughest" worker is the best worker, Arianna said.
"You see so many successful people sacrificing their health on the way to success," she said. "Often a serious medical diagnosis is when people reevaluate their priorities. But we don't have to have the rude awakening for us to reevaluate our life."
One example is Kai-Fu Lee, the former president of Google China, who was recently diagnosed at age 50 with lymphoma. In an announcement of his illness on the social media site Sina Weibo, Lee acknowledged that his hard-charging lifestyle may have contributed to his diagnosis, admitting that he often used to compete with other executives to see who could function with the least sleep.
"We began defining the good life as simply the successful life, and we began defining success as money and power," Arianna said. "It's time that we look around and ask, 'Is this really worth it?'"
Aside from the very real threat of chronic disease, a value system that prioritizes wealth, power and toughness over mindfulness, self-care and flexibility just isn't good business, Arianna said.
"Whatever job you're in, you're not paying people for stamina, you're paying them for judgment," she said. "I'd rather have someone come to the office for six hours and give 100 percent than 16 hours and give 40 percent." Indeed, research suggests that sleep deprivation and burnout contribute to bad decision-making.
So what can we do? First, we need to approach the problem as individuals, Arianna said. We might not be able to rid our lives of stressors, but we can prevent the accumulation of stress by putting into place good practices that help us "course correct." Feeling stressed? Look at pictures of loved ones or listen to a favorite song. Get enough sleep. Walk around -- don't sit all day. Take naps. And consider your own spirituality.
"We all have in us that place of peace, contentment and harmony. The question is how can we spend more time there?" Arianna said, invoking the poet Rumi's advice to live as if everything were rigged in your favor. "If we can live life with a sense of trust, it dramatically changes everything," she added.