After a lifetime of working as hard as possible and as much as possible, I'm now trying to work as little as possible.
The transition has been much harder than I expected. Like so many others, I feel guilty if I waste time. If I have to wait at the doctor's office, I'll bring work with me. If I walk the dog, I decide that's a great time to get caught up on my podcasts. I'll stay up an extra hour at night to try and get ahead of the next day's tasks.
But those habits I thought were necessary in order to "achieve" success were actually killing me. That's not hyperbole. The long hours and stress of overwork caused me to burn out in 2016. I got very sick and started hearing dire warnings from my doctor: slow down, I was told. Relax. My son said he didn't think I knew how to relax.
So began a three-year research project into the causes of modern burnout and the possible solutions.
I discovered that my obsession with work was not unique to me but a common issue all around the world. Like I once did, many people think they can't be happy without working hard. Like I once was, many are unaware that the 21st-century love affair with work started hundreds of years ago, and it's become toxic. Time for a divorce, or at least a separation...
In order to break away from this dysfunctional relationship, it's important to understand what has kept us in it: an underlying belief that the purpose of human life is productive work.
In fact, "work" and "purpose" are often used interchangeably in modern society, although they are generally two different things. That's not to say that your purpose can't align with your career. Of course, it can. That's certainly true in my case. Yet, I can still make a clear distinction between what I do because it's part of the job that pays my bills and what I choose to do when I have free time. There's not a lot of overlap between those two categories.
I've spent three years studying this, consulting with psychologists, sociologists, even paleontologists. I sought the answer to the question of whether human beings need to work — whether a lack of work actually makes us sick or miserable.
Here's the bottom line.
I'm aware that this may be controversial: Humans don't need to work in order to be happy. To be fair, there are some nuances in this issue. One Gallup poll found that "the longer that Americans are unemployed, the more likely they are to report signs of poor psychological well-being." The unemployed are more than twice as likely to seek treatment for depression as those with full-time jobs. However, there's no evidence that it's the lack of work that causes depression — correlation is not causation.
In my opinion, it's a combination of worry about finances and the anxiety brought on by losing one's status in society. Our culture is so invested in the idea that work is what makes a person's life worthwhile, that lack of work inevitably leads people to believe they are worthless. After being laid off, one man told the New York Times "Your whole life your job defines who you are. All of a sudden that's gone, and you don't know what to take pride in anymore."
This idea that the emphasis on work in our society has made us all feel that our job description is our identity has been studied for years by researchers. Alexandra Michel of the University of Pennsylvania says people put in long hours not for "rewards, punishments, or obligation," but because "many feel existentially lost without the driving structure of work in their life—even if that structure is neither proportionally profitable nor healthy in a physical or psychological sense."
The truth is, we have been told for 200 years that hard work is patriotic, that work ethic is what separates good people from bad, and that those who sit around all day are immoral and undeserving. After all, the Bible tells us that "idle hands are the devil's workshop."
But we were lied to. So were our parents, our grandparents, and our great-parents — going back for generations.
Work doesn't make you a deserving person. You are worthwhile whether you're working or not. Your life has value even on days when you're unproductive. What's more, if you inherited $100 million dollars tomorrow and never had to work another day in your life, you would probably be just fine. You may need a job to pay the bills, but you don't need work to be happy. In fact, if you can afford it, you might be a lot happier if you worked just a little less.
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When I first heard #OKBoomer, I cringed and thought — here we go again.
Yet another round of generation bashing, this time Millennials against Baby Boomers. This new social media conflict will not help workplace dynamics.
Throughout my career, I've heard countless rants about long-established workplace norms that younger generations perceive as overly repressive rules that subvert identity, familial obligations, civility, and respect for the environment.
I get it. I remember how I felt early in my career being told that I couldn't wear pants, had to wear pantyhose (even in 90-degree weather) and that I wasn't allowed to speak to executives. Seriously?
Gen X here to the rescue.
Sandwiched between the much larger Baby Boomer and Millennial generations, Gen Xers are often overlooked. Please allow me to build a bridge to the opportunity ahead.
For me, the generation challenge is a communications opportunity. And the stakes are high, because we spend about 70% of our day communicating. Within that timeframe, we spend about 45% listening, 30% speaking, 16% reading, and 9% writing.
By 2030, most Baby Boomers will have retired, and approximately 75% of the workforce will be comprised of Millennials. That gives us about a decade to continue working together to create a work environment that is better for women, people of color, and the younger generations.
As a multigenerational workplace scholar, I'm often asked, what is a generation, and why do they matter?
Karl Mannheim, the founder of sociology, concluded that key historical events significantly impact people during their youth. Essentially, when you were born and what was happening where you lived during your formative childhood years, help define what is important to you and help set your value system.
Think of it this way, if the games you played growing up allowed you to advance to the next level regardless of if it took one attempt or fifty, you might have a different perspective on what mastering a task looks like than someone who didn't.
If technology has almost always allowed you to be more efficient, you may seek to perform a job as quickly as possible, so that you are being productive, not because you are looking for a short cut.
If the answer to any question was always a Google search away, you might get frustrated when your questions go unanswered and are told to figure it out.
These examples begin to explain why Baby Boomers and Millennials value different things. However, there are always going to be outliers. I study generational-related values, because they frame how we show up and what we expect when we come to work.
In my recent study of 1,400 Baby Boomer, Gen X, Gen Y, and Gen Z women, I examined strategies for communicating. I was particularly interested in interpersonal communications — the process by which people exchange information, feelings, and meaning through verbal and non-verbal messages. It turns about that the most essential characteristics by generation were active listening (paying attention to others), collaboration (teamwork), and empathy (showing understanding for others).
Baby Boomers believe they are best at "paying attention to others."
Given our hectic schedules at work, you may be tempted to multitask while speaking or try to get by gleaning the gist of a conversation in a conference call while working on a report at the same time. But this isn't deeply effective. Active listening is crucial because being highly engaged in a conversation helps everyone involved have clarity and alignment on exchange. It also helps build rapport and trust between participants.
Some practical ways to demonstrate active listening include:
- Asking specific questions or paraphrasing what you've heard
- Using non-verbal cues such as making eye contact and not looking at your device
- Maintain body language that shows you are interested and the speaker has your full attention
Gen X believes they are best at "working with others."
Lots of us have heard the expression, "There's no 'I' in a team." Teams that collaborate well have a better chance for sustained and repeatable success.
Effective ways to demonstrate collaboration are:
- Establishing clear goals and expectations for the team
- Being accountable for the team and yourself
- Providing and being open to feedback
Both Millennials and Gen Z believe they are most effective at "showing understanding for others."
The workplace is more diverse than ever before. Some organizations may have a Baby Boomer, a Gen Xer, Millennial, and a Gen Zer, all working alongside each other. By showing empathy, we can demonstrate that we appreciate and respect each other's perspectives and are open to understanding how they feel about a situation, idea, or concept.
Effective ways to demonstrate empathy are:
- Listening without judging or forming an opinion
- Being slow to criticize
- Acknowledging the other person's feelings as valid for them
So, instead of dismissing a generation with a hashtag, let try to open a dialogue. For example, next time you are working a Baby Boomers demonstrate that you are actively listening to what they are saying. Try sending a summary email about your deliverables on an assignment Gen Xers to highlight your collaborative skills. And take time to let Millennials and Gen Z know that you appreciate and understand their point of view.