Burnout: The Disease of Our Civilization

Since launching our Third Metric campaign -- to redefine success beyond money and power to include well-being, wisdom, our ability to wonder and to give back -- I've been seeing things through a Third Metric lens. And what I see is a split-screen world. On one side, we have endless examples of how the business world still hasn't changed and continues to glorify an approach to measuring success that leads to burnout. On the other side of the screen, there are more and more examples from companies large and small of prioritizing well-being. One of the primary things keeping many businesses from adopting more sustainable metrics of success is the stubborn -- and dangerously wrongheaded -- myth that prioritizing health and well-being is incompatible with a healthy bottom line; and that there is a trade-off between high performance and taking care of ourselves. As countless studies show, this couldn't be less true.
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Since launching our Third Metric campaign -- to redefine success beyond the first two metrics of money and power to include well-being, wisdom, and our ability to wonder and to give back -- I've been seeing things through a Third Metric lens. And what I see is a split-screen world. On one side, we have endless examples of how the business world and the American workplace still haven't changed and continue to glorify an approach to measuring success that leads to burnout and a culture enraptured with technology to the point that tools meant to give us greater control of our lives have, instead, taken control of our lives.

On the other side of the screen, there are more and more examples of companies, large and small, prioritizing well-being. And even at companies that haven't yet learned why encouraging well-being is good for both their employees and their bottom line, there are more and more examples of individuals applying Third Metric principles in their own lives to help themselves cope with the negative effects of a retrograde workplace atmosphere.

One of the primary things keeping many businesses from adopting more sane and sustainable metrics of success is the stubborn -- and dangerously wrongheaded -- myth that prioritizing health and wellbeing is incompatible with a healthy bottom line -- and that there is a trade-off between high performance and taking care of ourselves. As countless studies show, this couldn't be less true.

Indeed, all across the country, more and more businesses are realizing that the long-term health of their bottom line is directly tied to the long-term health of their employees. Right now, about a quarter of U.S. corporations offer some sort of stress-reduction program. And those that do are starting to be recognized for their efforts, especially by employees. Glassdoor.com, the social jobs and careers community, recently released their third annual list of the top 25 companies for work-life balance. "Companies that make sincere efforts to recognize employees' lives outside of the office," said Glassdoor's Rusty Rueff, "will often see the payoff when it comes to recruiting and retaining top talent."

This year, among Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For, several stood out for their commitment to well-being. At number 19 was Salesforce.com, which offers free yoga, a $100 benefit for wellness, and 48 hours of paid time to volunteer. At number 4 was the Boston Consulting Group, which flags employees working too many long weeks with a "red zone report" and allows new hires to delay starting for six months and get $10,000 to volunteer for a nonprofit.

Last month, HuffPost's Peter Goodman wrote about Promega, a biotech company in Wisconsin. Employees have access to on-site yoga classes, fitness centers, healthy meals, offices filled with natural light, and "third spaces," which are areas that are neither work nor home, like cafes and lounges. "You create a culture of wellness," Promega's chief medical officer, Ashley G. Anderson Jr., told Goodman. "If you create a culture in which vibrant physicality is an admired thing, you've achieved a lot. A healthy workforce is a productive workforce."

The Minneapolis staffing company Salo has enlisted the best-selling author Dan Buettner for help. Buettner is an expert in so-called "Blue Zones," regions of the world with the highest life expectancy, and is helping make Salo the first certified Blue Zone workplace. By adding meditation rooms, adjustable-height desks, cooking lessons and "purpose workshops" to help employees follow their non-work passions, the effort is yielding results -- for both the employees and company. "There's a culture and developing reputation at Salo as a place that puts the well-being of its employees and partners in front of just profits." Buettner told the Minnesota-based Journal. "That's a reputation that will transcend our time with them."

Next up for Blue Zone certification is Google, which has already been a leader in prioritizing well-being, including a "Search Inside Yourself" course taught by Google engineer (and employee 107) Chade-Meng Tan. The class has three sections: attention training, self-knowledge, and self-mastery. More than 1,000 employees have taken it so far and there's a waiting list whenever a new one is announced.

But it's not just high tech companies that are discovering the importance of well-being. For example, at the nearly 100-year-old supermarket chain Wegman's, Danny Wegman, grandson of the founder, has seen the benefit of encouraging his 45,000 employees to get healthier. The company now offers on-site yoga and Zumba classes, nutritional counseling, and high blood pressure screenings.

Some of health insurance giant Aetna's stress reduction programs stem from CEO Mark Bertolini breaking his neck in a 2004 ski accident. While recovering from the painful injury, Bertolini discovered the health benefits of meditation, yoga and acupuncture. He proceeded to make the benefits available to his 34,000 employees and brought in Duke University to conduct a study on the cost benefits. The results? A 7 percent drop in health care costs in 2012 and 69 minutes of additional productivity per day for participants.

Third Metric practices certainly aren't limited to just yoga and meditation. Instead of creativity-deadening conference rooms, Farhad Chowdhury, CEO of the software development company Fifth Tribe, connects with collaborators during a four-mile hike. As Gregory Burns, author of Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently, writes, insight and discovery are most accessible to us when we break up our routine. "Only when the brain is confronted with stimuli that it has not encountered before does it start to reorganize perception," he writes. "The surest way to provoke the imagination, then, is to seek out environments you have no experience with." As he notes, chemist Kary Mullis landed on the principle of polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, not in a lab but on a northern California highway.

On the other side of the split screen -- well, we've still got a lot of work to do. Stress is still costing U.S. businesses an estimated $300 billion every year. Health care costs for employees with high stress levels are 46 percent higher than for lower-stressed colleagues. Over half of employees say that work stress has made them look for a new job, leave a job or say no to a promotion.

And then there's the ever-onward creep of technology -- into our lives, our families, our bedrooms, our brains. The average smartphone user checks her or his device every six and a half minutes, which works out to around 150 times a day. It's not easy to turn away from this kind of stimuli -- we're wired to connect. But the connection that often comes from technology is not only an unfulfilling, ersatz version of connection, it's a siren call (or beep, or blinking light) that begins to crowd out the time we have for real connection. Even worse, it begins to rewire our brains to make us less adept at real connection. One person who saw this happening in his own life and decided to do something about it is Grist's David Roberts. "I am burnt the f*** out," he writes in his memorable goodbye-to-the-Internet-and-his-job-for-a-year letter. He continues:

I enjoy sharing zingers with Twitter all day; I enjoy writing long, wonky posts at night. But the lifestyle has its drawbacks. I don't get enough sleep, ever. I don't have any hobbies. I'm always at work... I'm never disconnected.

It's doing things to my brain.

I think in tweets now. My hands start twitching if I'm away from my phone for more than 30 seconds. I can't even take a pee now without getting "bored." I know I'm not the only one tweeting in the bathroom... The online world, which I struggle to remember represents only a tiny, unrepresentative slice of the American public, has become my world. I spend more time there than in the real world, have more friends there than in meatspace.

I wish him well on his year off. And he's not alone in feeling the overpowering effects of the deluge of email we've let into our lives. A 2012 McKinsey Global Institute study found that the average knowledge economy employee spends 28 percent of his or her time dealing with email -- over 11 hours a week. SaneBox, which makes email-filtering software, reports that it takes us 67 seconds to recover from each email that lands in our inbox. "At some point," SaneBox's Dmitri Leonov told New York's Jennifer Senior, "we have to understand this process is hurting us."

In fact, the science is already there. A study by researchers from UC Irvine and the U.S. Army found that avoiding your inbox -- taking an "email vacation" -- reduces stress and allows you to focus more. It can also have profound effects when an entire company decides to take an email vacation. That's what Shayne Hughes, CEO of Learning as Leadership decided to do, sending out an announcement that "all internal e-mail is forbidden for the next week." Employees were skeptical, but he says the results were unequivocal. "Our high-octane, stay-on-top-of-whatever-is-happening-via-e-mail mentality disappeared," he wrote in Forbes. "In its place we experienced a more focused and productive energy...The decrease in stress from one day to the next was palpable. So was our increase in productivity." The experience, he concluded, "reconnected us with the neglected power of human interaction." Similarly, in 2011, Volkswagen forced its employees to take mini-email vacations by deactivating employees' mobile email accounts after work hours.

The lure of technology is such that we often need someone to do an intervention to save us from ourselves (and thereby reconnect us with ourselves). Sometimes that intervention comes too late. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Erin Callan, former CFO of Lehman Brothers, wrote about the lessons she learned about burnout. "Work always came first, before my family, friends and marriage -- which ended just a few years later," she writes. She left Lehman a few months before Lehman left us all, and in the years since, she's learned the value of working, and living in a different way. But, looking back, she also realizes how counterproductive the overwork was. "I now believe that I could have made it to a similar place with at least some better version of a personal life," she writes. In fact, working to the point of burnout wasn't just bad for her and her personal life, it was also bad for Lehman Brothers. And that's the connection we need to start making if we want to accelerate changes in the way we live and work.

According to a Harvard Medical School study, 96 percent of senior leaders report feeling burned out, with a third saying the burnout is extreme. In fact, one of the defenses of Steve Cohen, CEO of SAC Capital, who was indicted last month, was that he missed a warning about insider trading because of the 1,000 emails he gets every day. And in 2011, after less than a year as head of Lloyds Banking Group, Antonio Horta-Osorio took a two-month leave. "[It was] physical, overwork, lack of sleep, sleep deprivation," Sir Win Bischoff, Lloyds' chairman explains.

"With the benefit of hindsight I should have gone a bit slower," Horta-Osorio said upon his return.

It's no surprise that CEOs are often found on the wrong side of the split screen. As psychologist Douglas LaBier wrote on HuffPost, power brings with it particular dangers of losing the very qualities that are most essential to lead. One study found that increased power lowers the ability to be empathic. Another found that power makes us "prone to dismiss" or misunderstand others' viewpoints. This makes any tool that can increase self-awareness and the ability to listen and be in the moment all the more crucial.

The biggest obstacle keeping our desperately needed redefinition of success from becoming more widespread is the misguided belief that overwork is the route to high performance and great results. One easy way to see the folly of this belief is to look at the world of sports, where performance is even more objectively measurable. Cheri Mah of the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic found that when athletes slept more (up to 10 hours a night for five weeks), their performance also improved. "Sleep is huge in my sport," said Olympic marathon runner Ryan Hall. "Recovery is the limiting factor, not my ability to run hard. I typically sleep about eight to nine hours a night but then I make sure to schedule 90 minute 'business meetings' -- aka naps -- into my day for an afternoon rest."

As Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project writes, it's no surprise that the same principles that apply to athletic performance also hold true for business performance. In physical training, he writes, "it's during rest and renewal that muscle growth actually occurs." Likewise, it's in periods of sleep and downtime that our minds recharge. The key is to have "the biggest waves between activity and rest." To challenge our minds intensely, but also have very deliberate and complete downtime. "The same rhythmic movement serves us well all day long, but instead we live mostly linear, sedentary lives," he writes. "We go from email to email, and meeting to meeting, almost never getting much movement, and rarely taking time to recover mentally and emotionally."

So, not only is there no trade-off between high performance and living a full life, the former is not possible in a sustainable way without the latter. And this applies to both companies and individuals. There is no company whose bottom line will not be enhanced by healthier, happier, less-stressed, well-slept, centered employees.

And, yes, there is a paradox here: what we're talking about, really, is what's ultimately important in our lives. And, as it turns out, the tools and practices that put us in touch with ourselves and make us present for what's really important in our lives also make us more successful at many of the very things that these practices make us realize aren't the most important things. In other words, these practices -- meditation, yoga, sleeping, recharging and renewing ourselves, etc. -- make us better at our jobs, at the same time they make us aware that our jobs don't define the totality of who we are.

If your entry point right now is only that you want to be better at your job, or that you want your company to have higher profits, that's fine. But along with that will likely come some added perspective -- and that's even better.

Writing in the New York Times about the Third Metric conference we held in June, Anand Giridharadas saw this paradox. "Of course, there is risk in this approach, too. To make the case for greater attention to well-being in terms of its effect on work performance may be to win the battle and lose the war. The victor remains the idea that what is good for work is good for us."

The optimist in me believes that we'll win both. One day there will be no more split screen. In the meantime, we should remember to regularly shut the screen off.

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