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Why None of Us Seem to Be Able to Have it All

As we intensify the discussion started by Anne-Marie Slaughter, let's hope the conversation stays broad enough to include ideas that would make the work environment more healthful in many ways, from enabling healthy parenting to encouraging healthy personal habits.
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In Anne-Marie Slaughter's recent article in the Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," Dr. Slaughter argues for changes in the work environment that would enable women (and men) to be better able to succeed professionally while being able to commit the attention and time to family that they want or feel is needed. It is a passionate article that has drawn ire from feminists and tears of validation from young women in their 20s. There is much to say about such a respected and successful woman such as Dr. Slaughter not only choosing to leave such a powerful and important job at the U.S. State Department in order to be able to spend more time with her teenage sons but then writing an honest indictment of the bill of goods our society has been selling young women when they are simply told they can have it all, and if they can't it is their own fault for not being ambitious enough or skilled enough in time management.

Here I want to ride the wave from Dr. Slaughter's article and expand on the reason and ways in which workplace policies can make real work-life balance easier, and in the process actually benefit that work place, to achieve not only more-involved parenting, but also to improve our own health.

Just as there is a belief that there is little respect for the mom who misses meetings or leaves early in order to attend to child care responsibilities, there is also little respect for the person who takes a real lunch break in order to exercise or to actually sit down away from their desk to eat or who spends time exercising or doing yoga when they could be writing more memos or reading more emails.

Here in Los Angeles, where I practice integrative medicine, I see a real hesitancy to commit to healthy habits across the board in the entertainment industry, from those involved in production to agents to executives -- all of whom laugh when I suggest they take time to exercise, take a meditation class or do yoga. By far the most common response is lack of time to spend on any health-promoting activities.

The number of hours we work has steadily increased since 1950 in the United States. This cuts into family time but also into taking-care-of-ourselves time. We see rising epidemics of obesity and obesity-related diseases such as diabetes. I see ever-increasing numbers of patients with stress, fatigue and anxiety-related conditions, from chronic pain to depression to heart disease. This certainly does not bode well for the quality of work we do or for the number of years we could sustain doing it.

There are proven returns on investment for companies to invest in the health of their employees. Many visionary companies realize this and have meaningful policies that encourage workers to exercise more, lose weight, eat healthy or join gyms. Other industries that are still mired in the attitude that if you are exercising or meditating you are by definition not working and are therefore less than serious about your professional commitments? I think of the fields of academic medicine (ironically), entertainment and management consulting as especially notorious in this regard. For work environments like these, thought leaders from the rank and file are needed to show that productivity increases when time is taken out of the day to exercise or when a healthier meal is eaten for lunch. More fit workers have fewer sick days and longer professional years to work without developing disabling illness. This needs to be shown and emphasized at the grass roots in order to make the lunch time walking group more popular (and to change policies to allow that walking group to have time to eat a healthy lunch after the walk).

As we intensify the discussion started by Anne-Marie Slaughter in her provocative article, let's hope the conversation stays broad enough to include ideas that would make the work environment more healthful in many ways, from enabling healthy parenting to encouraging healthy personal habits.

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