When did exhaustion become a status symbol?

Is feeling stressed, overstretched and exhausted your "normal"?

Overstretched and working to the point of exhaustion is not a way to get more done or be more effective….it can lead to physical and mental health problems.

Most of us are now more aware of the negative effect of stress on our bodies. Yet we continue to accept workplace cultures that normalise or endorse behaviours that perpetuate pushing individuals to a state of exhaustion.

Today is National Stress Awareness Day and so I thought I would share an article that highlights the dangers of being in a heightened state of stress. It also suggests some ways in which we can challenge the cultures in our workplaces.

I remember a time in my career, during a period of high-stake change, when I was working 13 hour days, I was a senior leader with functional responsibilities, managing key organisational change programmes at the same time as working within a team to attract investors.

I was operating at the edges of my capabilities, going above and beyond because I had overinvested my sense of self in the business outcomes. Or as I put it; "I cared what happened to the teams, to the business and to the community". The truth was I cared more about those things than I did my own wellbeing.

My days started early; breakfast eaten at my desk, lunch a quick snatched supermarket sandwich then back to my desk to work through. They ended around 8pm, sometimes leading to a dinner with colleagues at which we talked more about work. Alternatively I went home to a glass of wine and food if I could be bothered to cook.

I was working harder than I ever had, trying to do many things at once, wanting them all to be perfect, believing failure to deliver would be catastrophic so I worked and that was all I did.

But, after an initial period, rather than achieving more, I was becoming less effective. This led to fears about failing, a drop in confidence, a difficulty making decisions, a need to control more and a lack of delegating, all making matters worse.

Fortunately, this period only lasted about 2-3 months. I got through it with support from family and great colleagues. They helped me to see that I needed to take a step back in order to be more objective; stop the pressure I was experiencing turning into stress by choosing how I responded to the situation.

The reason for sharing a short version of this story is to illustrate that it is easy to get caught up in the doing and going to excess. When we are doing everything at 100 miles per hour; we don’t notice the affect it is having on our ability to do the job.

In today’s society “Exhaustion” seems to be being used as a status symbol. People sharing stories of how busy they are as a reflection of how effective and important what they do is.

Taking this view can lead to us concluding that our output determines our level of self-worth, any drop off in performance being equivalent to failure. We all know how that feels! How many times have you caught yourself thinking you are lazy for the extra ten minutes in bed even when you desperately need it, or for contemplating taking a lunch hour that you are entitled too?

This way of thinking can damage self-esteem, lead to an inability to make decisions and a reduction in your overall effectiveness at work (like in my story). More worryingly and less widely known, being in a constant heighten emotional state floods the body with cortisol, causing us to feel like we’re stuck in a state of fear. It has been scientifically proven that long-term increased exposure to high levels of cortisol may increase your risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and other chronic diseases.

I’m not arguing that we all down tools on time every day, stop doing the tasks that we are required to do or stop going the extra mile when circumstances dictate; like in my story.

Instead I’m advocating for a sense of balance, ensuring that we are taking enough time for ourselves to stay at peak performance for longer. I hope that reading this will encourage more people to ask for support and push back against accepting exhaustion as “the norm” in the workplace/community.

We should not be allowing friends, colleagues and employees to drift into overstretching themselves selves for pro-longed periods, potentially risking their physical and mental health.

How can we halt this acceptance of exhaustion as a status symbol?

Stay alert for people you care about and work with; look out for over-focusing on work and always placing the needs of others ahead of their own. Challenge their assertions that "working this way is essential or a good thing" . Get them to think about what advice they would give a close friend or family member who was working this way. Ask them for the evidence that supports why they believe this way of working is a good thing? Hopefully, these simple questions will lead to a new perspective and increase their awareness of the situation.

If you’ve noticed that they don’t seem their normal selves. Perhaps they are more emotional; angry, frustrated or anxious or they are withdrawn and behaving differently to what you would expect. Talk to them, take some time to get curious about what’s going on for them by listening. There are some great resources at Mental Health First Aid England to help you If necessary guide them to get professional support.

Believing that the busier we are the more value we bring to society/work is faulty thinking. The overstretch(stress) will ultimately lead to being less effective and in some cases cause burnout and illness.

Starting to challenge this faulty thinking is the first step to changing, however, this is made harder if this thinking is an accepted culture in an organisation or community setting. Our ability to change is impacted by the context in which we find ourselves, external pressure to be a certain way can feel overwhelming.

At Bear Fruit we believe the stronger our sense of self, the more likely we are to be able to hold onto our personal power in these situations. We should rely on our internal rules and beliefs to guide our behaviour. We should not let external expectations from our workplaces or communities dictate how we react. By doing this we can avoid being sucked in to comparing ourselves with others or seeing exhaustion as a badge of honour!

Coaching is a great space in which to explore your values and beliefs and to assess how your beliefs positively and negatively impact your life. It can also help you if you are already stressed by identifying what you can do to move through those emotions and get back to feeling more balanced and effective.

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