Recently an article was published in the Atlantic written by Anne Marie Slaughter about the work-family balance. It is a very thoughtful article in which Dr. Slaughter discusses the struggles many parents face in combining family responsibilities with the demands of a successful career. She raises many issues in the article around the current corporate culture and the expectations placed on workers that interfere with a healthy work-life balance. She argues for rethinking the basic assumptions that guide many of the implicit and explicit policies and expectations placed on workers. In this blog I would like to discuss the (mental) health aspects of this issue.
In her article, Dr. Slaughter puts the spotlight on aspects of our work culture that, in my opinion, flow from an economic paradigm that centers around competition and maximizing profit. She highlights pressures that people aspiring to successful careers experience that interfere with parenting responsibilities and other important relationships in their lives. But not only people who have successful top careers face this issue, many people have to work long hours or multiple jobs just to make ends meet. Dr. Slaughter describes the expectation to work 12 to 15 hour days, the pressure to be always available, and a lack of flexibility in work schedules among the many challenges that working parents face. But I argue that this is not just an issue that concerns parents who try to balance their work with their family responsibilities, this economic paradigm has unintended health consequences that affect all of us.
The work schedules that are expected of many workers often coincide with a chronic lack of sufficient sleep. Sleep deprivation is linked to a host of problems, including diminished concentration, attention problems, memory problems, and all sorts of health risks. Sleep deprivation has detrimental effects on higher order executive functions, and negatively affects things such as planning and decision making. Not to mention, driving while sleep deprived can be just as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol!
The hectic schedules, pressure to perform, staying ahead of the competition, deadlines, and all of the responsibilities outside of those at work often lead to stress. Stress is a major health problem that is linked to deadly diseases, as well as anxiety disorders and depression. There is a fascinating documentary by National Geographic that shows some of the health complications caused by stress.
A stressful work situation and sedentary lifestyle often exacerbate other lifestyle factors that are linked to diseases such as cancer, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. Because of overloaded schedules many people don’t have time to go to the grocery store, cook a healthy meal, and eat dinner with their family. Instead they eat bad, cheap, processed food. They don’t have time to exercise, rest, and take care of themselves.
Dr. Slaughter’s main argument is that meeting the demands of a career often interfere significantly with our most important relationships: our family and closest friends. We are often asked to make significant sacrifices in these relationships for the sake of success in the work place, or simply to be able to meet our financial responsibilities. Yet, at the end of the day, aren’t our most meaningful relationships and connections with others the very things that are most important in our lives? As Dr. Slaughter so poignantly points out: at the end of their lives people most often regret not spending enough time with the people they love.
Within an economic paradigm that centers around maximizing profit an argument that is often used is that companies have to stay ahead of the competition. Employees, and particularly people in leadership positions, need to work long hours to ensure the success of their business. But when you consider all the unhealthy consequences of working unreasonable hours, one can only imagine the negative effects on the quality of work an overworked, stressed, sleep deprived employee. Dr. Slaughter notes that workers who have a more healthy, balanced life style, tend to actually more productive, loyal, and provide better quality of work. We only have to ask ourselves: do we want the leaders of our country, the managers of the companies we work for, the people who care for our aging parents, the doctor who is about to perform surgery on us, the person who repairs our car, or the people who teach our children, to be stressed, overworked, burned out, and sleep deprived?
I would like to invite you to imagine a different economic paradigm: one that places wellness and collaboration at its center. The small Himalayan country Bhutan has inspired to United Nations to adopt the notion of Gross Domestic Happiness, which is an economic paradigm that is based on human happiness and wellbeing. Dr. Slaughter has pointed out several changes she would like to see happen in the workplace that would benefit families, which would naturally flow out of this paradigm. I would like to argue that such an economic paradigm would not only benefit families, but every member of society, as well as the entire planet. Please take a moment to consider the implications such a new paradigm would have…
The good news is that all of us, collectively, create and support the basic assumptions we work from. This means that we can also change these assumptions. We can discard those assumptions that no longer work for us and adopt new ones. Each of us can make a small difference in our own work environment that can add up to a really big change. I hope Slaughter’s article will inspire you to start making these changes in your workplace!