What Does It Cost?

What does your work cost you, in terms of your health?  In your relationships?

There is always a cost for the money we make.” says Simon Sinek.  There is always a cost (for the reward) of any choice we make, no?

Friend and I recently bonded over the challenge of disconnecting from work when we go on vacation.  It took going overseas for me to finally feel mostly (not totally) guilt-free deferring all urgent patient care, temporarily, to a colleague.  Friend also went abroad for spring break, yet he still logged onto work email for 30 minutes every day (was it really only 30 minutes, I wonder?).  As a high-level organizational leader, and thus a gatekeeping decision maker, “things stop for a week if I go away, and I hate that idea, that I’m the [rate limiting step of the org’s operations].” 

I get that. Maybe it’s different from medicine. It’s more work to cover another doc, no question. We answer calls from patients we don’t know, often prompted to sift through a tangled morass of electronic medical records that now often includes documents from multiple facilities across the country. We don’t readily know the patient’s current health status, communication preferences, or personality quirks. But in the end, we can all take care of the patient. And in a week or two, we hand them back off to their primary care doc, hopefully with questions answered and problems resolved (‘tucked in’), or at least an appropriate care plan well underway. Because of this, many of us ‘cover ourselves’ when we go away, especially if it’s a short time, like a holiday weekend. So over a year, my patients maybe have to live without my immediate, personal assistance a total of three or four weeks. We docs trade off, and it feels fair and manageable. I asked my friend if no one could cover him similarly, be available in a pinch so he can relax with his family? Yes, he answered without hesitation, it’d be easy. What would it cost him and the workplace, I asked. “Nothing.” And yet he has never done it; not really even considered it, maybe? We were walking, and I stopped suddenly, stymied in surprise and empathy.

How fascinating. 

In our thinking brains we know what to do and how to do it—to make it safe and seamless to get away. Logical calculations tell us that disconnecting from work for a little while is low risk for organizational operations. Our colleagues are more than capable of handling things in our absence; the place and its people will not actually grind to a screeching halt. And yet the social pressure of staying connected, of never putting down the yoke of work, even for a little while, looms heavy and thick. “The graveyards are full of indispensable men,” Charles de Gaulle said. And it’s not that we think ourselves truly indispensable—it’s not arrogance. It feels, at least in part, more like a fear of being seen as a slacker, a freeloader, not pulling our weight. Most concretely, it can cost precious time, attention, and connection with our loved ones. And it’s not just on vacation. Our 24/7 work lives invade our homes, stealing us from our children so insidiously that we don’t even notice. But because home is where we feel safe and un(less)conditionally loved, it’s much easier to withdraw from that account to pay work.

Beyond that, what are the myriad costs to those we lead, and thus to our organizations, and our society as a whole?  When my direct reports see me sending emails at midnight on Saturday, what example and expectations do I set?  Even if I write explicitly that I do not expect a response outside of business hours, the implicit message is the opposite.  I lead by example, like it or not.  “Do what I say, not what I do,” fails just as surely at work as it does at home.  This is how the status quo of burnout and disengagement, even (especially?) among the most passionate and well-intentioned workers, perpetuates.  What a vicious cycle, I say, all of us trying so hard to prove our worth every day, not trusting that our value is seen and appreciated just by virtue of our contributions and relationships. 

And whose job is it to break the cycle, to reshape this flawed culture of relentless, imbalanced, and unhealthy self-sacrifice? I think it’s the leaders’, first and foremost. It’s so much easier said than done, and it cannot depend solely on one person in any given place. Culture is self-organizing and perpetuated through the mundane, momentary, miliary interactions between all of its members. So we all matter—we contribute—in the big picture. But I am convinced that no significant change occurs without direct influence from those at the hierarchical apex. Thus, I commit to doing my best to support, encourage, and advocate to leaders themselves and on their behalf, one person, one vacay, one interaction at a time. We will all be better for it, co-creating a world where we can all rest sometimes, taking turns pulling the cart. The immediate social costs of bucking the system can be borne more easily the more of us support one another in the effort. The current status quo already costs us productivity, morale, and lives, literally.

At the ends of our lives, will our work rewards have been worth all that we paid?

8 thoughts on “What Does It Cost?

  1. I was never good at totally disconnecting from my work, unless—like you mentioned—I was traveling out of the country. Then, I could forget everything and trust that all would be well. I loved my work, so I never resented that I consistently worked ridiculous hours and and that I checked emails and connected with staff or clients while on vacation, but I do sometimes wonder what I might have missed by not fully disconnecting. Now that I am retired, I don’t regret the excessive hours I worked, but I also don’t miss them (not one whit!). And I put some of that same intensity into the projects I have in retirement. I think that’s just how I’m wired. I’m having fun. Not gonna stress over it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for this, Donna! I think that’s how many of us are wired, and it’s a plausible story that we end up in work that is suited to it. My friend is the one who can’t sit still, always has to be in engaged in something, maybe even always solving problems? Or maybe just helping, not sure… I’m just speculating. This post was short, possibly overgeneralized, and relatively shallow, relative to the topic… Perhaps more in a book one day… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Now, I’m the opposite. I always made a point of being able to be unavailable, so I could completely switch off, to preserve my sanity. I always felt I worked to live, rather than living to work. I was asked a few times, for example, to do extra, unpaid, hours to push a project through. I said ‘no’.

    Of course, I appreciate this is a lot more difficult in some jobs than in others, but in lots of cases it has developed simply because those in charge have insisted on it. I’m not talking about medicine here, but in money-making corporations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oooo, thank you, Mick! I really hope many more people comment here with their individual perspectives. There are so many more aspects of work life balance than I covered in these paltry 900 words–it’s complex and simple at the same time… I think my main objective is to just be more mindful and intentional about our routines, not just for our own benefit but for our systems.
      And though every profession has its own unique pressures and requirements, as humans in groups there are still fundamental relational dynamics at play that influence (or even govern) our interactions and their consequences…. Happy Monday! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, all systems are different and there’s no one size fits all. There are lots of different reasons why we choose professions and lots of different reasons why we might choose to make ourselves more available than strictly required, or not. And, as you say, external factors also have a role.
        happy Monday to you too, Cathy.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Proud of You | Healing Through Connection

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