Balance, not burnout
How to achieve a sustainable work-life balance
You've reached mid-life— you've achieved a lot in your career, started a family and established a good financial foundation. But suddenly you find yourself in an identity crisis. The important question is: “Can things go on like this until retirement? More and more responsibility, more sales, more income, more status symbols, less time for children, spouse and friends? Still keeping up with this rat race?” Perhaps now is the time to stop, look back and make a few changes. How can you manage to balance it all—work and career, partnership and family, friends and leisure, health and sports, search for meaning and culture, and all your other dreams and goals? And how can you lead a happy and fulfilled life without wearing yourself out and depleting your energy reserves?
Have you noticed how time starts to race by? From birthday to birthday, from New Year's Eve to New Year's Eve, from meeting to meeting, from event to event. Sounds familiar? It seems like the days go by faster and faster.
Sometimes we feel like we're stuck on a hamster wheel. We hardly have time to pause. I'd like you to just stop the hamster wheel for a moment and look into the mirror. So that you can take a good look at your life at this moment. In order to realise what's really important to you.
Imagine your life as a tape measure. That's usually 100 centimetres long. But let's make it 83 centimetres—the average life expectancy of women. Now let's say you're 42 years old. That's the age when “happy” and “birthday” begin to go separate ways. The time from zero to 42 is in the past, meaning it's gone. That still leaves 41 centimetres—for women. For men, it's statistically five years less. And as a smoker, you might have to tear off another three to four centimetres.
How much of our remaining time do we experience in a waking state? Exactly two thirds. During the other third, we sleep. So as a man, that would mean you have 24 years left, as a non-smoking woman 28 years—that's statistically the remaining lifetime in which you're awake, time that you can consciously shape.
You might think: "OK, this is just a statistical value". And you would be right. If you're healthy, physically fit and have a good work-life balance, you'll have a few more years. That's my wish for everyone, especially if they're good years.
Surely That Can't Have Been It
But it can also turn out quite differently. Just imagine this: on your way home today someone ignores your right of way and cuts you off. Badly. The other vehicle crashes into you. You fly through the windscreen, land on the hard asphalt, lie there on your back and can't move. Then you hear sirens, out of the corner of your eye you see the blue lights flashing. Suddenly you see the emergency medical specialist bending over you. The last thing you consciously perceive is this: Of all those years, only a few minutes will remain and then it's all over. Your whole life flashes before your eyes and you take stock: How would you feel as you say goodbye to this world? What would be your final thoughts? Would you say to yourself: "Too bad I didn't spend more time at the office"? Or would you more likely think something like: "What? This is it? That surely can't have been everything. Where is the happy ending? I was going to do so much more. And I was still looking forward to so many things."
Just because somebody dies doesn't mean they have really lived. And I mean "lived", not just "functioned". For some, the gravestone should read: “He gave everything for his work but nothing for the rest.” And some people (that are still alive) I want to ask: Are you living already—or are you simply existing? My point is this: We never know how much time we have left. And we don't know whether there is life after death. However, one thing we do know for certain: There is life BEFORE death. And we can't save this life for a rainy day.
The important questions that concern me are as follows: How do I make the most of my life— within whatever time I still have left? How do I lead a fulfilled life, perhaps even a really great one? How can I manage to deliver an outstanding performance—not only today, but all the time, even 10 or 20 years from now? How can I manage the balancing act of fulfilling ever-increasing demands while still experiencing happiness and joy? And always recover those feelings even after I've really taken a beating?
How do I get through all this without rushing into a burnout? The evil “b-word“— burnout. What exactly is that anyway? A disease? A mental state? A fashionable diagnosis? An expression of genuine suffering? Or just a fancy label for workaholics or braggarts? For many, burnout sounds a lot better than depression. Depression is for sissies. "Don't make such a fuss! Don't get depressed. Pull yourself together!" Burnout, on the other hand, sounds like you've burned yourself out, like a bonfire. You completely exhausted, surrendered and sacrificed yourself. You don't just get a burnout from nothing—you have to earn it! And if you haven't had one by the time you're 38, you simply don't work hard enough. Also, the term burnout certainly gets overused. Some people most likely just simulate burnout. And many stressed-out employees are simply due a decent holiday. Or they might need a good coach or some new, different tasks. And it's certainly not burnout if someone drinks until half past four in the morning and is therefore too exhausted to work four hours later.
Burnout— looking For a Diagnosis
There still is no “real” diagnosis for burnout. So far more than 160 possible symptoms have been identified, but there is neither a clear definition nor a clear progression of the disease. There's not even a clearly defined “target audience”. The ICD-10, the diagnostic code used throughout the world, has to make do with a designation from the residual category Z 73.0: the affected person suffers “from problems related to difficulties in his conduct of life”. Great, that explains it.
Depression is extremely complex. It occurs in the brain, similar to multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and dementia. But depression is something that can't be specified in greater detail. In the case of multiple sclerosis, plaque becomes visible in the brain which can then also be found in the spinal cord. When someone is afflicted with Parkinson's disease, the dopamine neurons no longer function. With dementia, the nerve cells decay. And diagnosing depression is much more difficult because it extends over large networks of our brain.
Mental Illnesses Are On the Rise
Whether it's called burnout, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome or something else, the fact is: mental illnesses are increasing dramatically! The World Health Organisation (WHO) predicts that by the year 2030, mental illness will be the main cause for sick and medical leave, overtaking cardiovascular disease, back problems and other musculoskeletal issues. My concern is what you can do to avoid that fate. To state it briefly: there are no sure remedies. And actually, common sense tells us quite a lot. When you drive a car, you know that you need to refuel regularly or you will run out of petrol. That usually doesn't happen to you because your car has a petrol gauge. And when your car is running low on petrol, that gauge lights up, starts to beep and shows you how many kilometres you can still drive before the fuel tank is empty. You would never say, “Oh, never mind the gauge - it'll be okay!” You'd stop at the next petrol station, even if you're in a rush and at risk of being late.
The same goes for your life—if you're running on empty, there'll be certain warning signs. But they don't light up red, and there's no digital display to tell you how much further you can go. (It might occasionally beep, though. If you ever had tinnitus, you'll know what I mean.) But because nothing ever lights up red, we often don't pay enough attention. We ignore the warning signs, skip the petrol station and then suddenly come to a halt. And instead of a tow truck, you'll need an emergency medical team.
Peter Drucker once said: “Your first and foremost job as a leader is to take charge of your own energy and then help to orchestrate the energy of those around you.” This should be quite obvious: If you're stranded on the hard shoulder and don't have enough petrol for the next steep hill, how can you ask your employees to climb it? A little honking won't do, not for long. And in the business world, it's mostly an uphill battle these days. The times of “Just let it roll” have long passed.
When asked who is the most important person in their life, most people will name their partner, their daughter or their son. Nonsense! The most important person in your life is you! Because when things are going bad for you, nobody will profit. Not your children or your partner, not your employees or colleagues, not your boss or your customers—and, of course, not you yourself.
Many people somehow put the needs of others first, before their own. They think: "If they are fine, if their needs have been met, then it's my turn. But only then!" They will do whatever they can for other people and nothing for themselves–whether out of loyalty to their company, their sense of duty or their love of the family, sometimes out of fear of consequences. These are all honourable and reasonable motives. But it somewhat misses the point, and it's irresponsible. Because if you're not around, everybody else will have to manage without you.
The seven areas of life
I've created a model with the seven areas that make up our lives: relationships, health, job, finances, philosophy of life, leisure, living.
Let's begin with the relationships. These mainly include your partnership, your family and your friends—not your 496 Facebook friends, just the two or three really good pals. A stable partnership and deep friendships significantly contribute to a happy life. They also help dealing with all those minor and major crises that everyone experiences in their life. Not only is this common sense, it has also been scientifically proven—in contemporary research on happiness and resilience.
If you live with a partner, I have a very simple question, and your answer will immediately reveal the quality of your partnership. Which do you prefer: coming home or leaving it? And it doesn't count if you just prefer to come home because you want to check your email or work on your car. It has to be because you really want to see him or her.
So let's be honest: what's it like every day? You've had a long day, stress with a colleague, two absolutely unnecessary meetings and some annoying clients on the phone. Your projects don't seem to move forward because you're constantly being interrupted by somebody or something. So it's another late night and then you're stuck in traffic for an hour. Then you arrive home. It's shortly before eight and you shout across the hall: “Honey, I'm home, I just have to check my email.” And “five minutes” later, when you're finished, the clock shows half past ten. After that you barely make it to the sofa. You don't find the strength to watch anything more sophisticated than "Farmer Wants a Wife".
And if you don't fall asleep in front of the telly, you gather your last bit of strength to go to the bedroom. And where you previously showed great affection, you can just about utter “Sweet dreams”, on a good day you might manage to give him or her a goodnight kiss. Alternatively, your TV is conveniently located in the bedroom. Then there's most likely nothing going on between the sheets at all any more. And no one brings you freshly squeezed orange juice, hot coffee and scrambled eggs in bed the next morning.
Married couples just talk 4 minutes a day
The question is: What goes on before it's over? What exactly doesn't work anymore? And what can you do to prevent this from happening to you?
For decades the psychoanalyst, Professor Michael Lukas Möller, has explored why some partnerships work well and others don’t. Among other things, he was interested in finding out just how much time each day partners who'd been married for four years spent on “substantial discussions”—and I mean genuine talk, not just talking about their jobs or who's doing what chores. “Do we still have beer in the fridge?” doesn't count. It's four minutes. Four minutes - that's what I would call “lean communication”. How about you? How much time do you really spend together—really talking to each other. Not things like: “Who's going to do the shopping on Saturday?“ or “Are you going to drop off the kids to sports practice or should I?”
In long relationships it's not only the conversions that fall by the wayside, there's also little action between the sheets. Let's look at Professor Möller's research results. He conducted anonymous surveys among wives who've been married for over four years: Would you marry your husband again? Nearly half of all women answered: No, I wouldn't. But 80% of the men said: Everything's fine. She's still with me. To add it up: there's a big difference in terms of how the relationship is perceived and evaluated. It's no surprise that women are more likely to file for divorce than men.
So what can you do to save your marriage or relationship? Here are two pieces of advice. The first advice is about recognising the state of your marriage or relationship. My wife and I found this to be very helpful. It was her second marriage. After we'd been dating for a few months, we talked about what we would do to prevent falling into a routine. To avoid breaking up sometime in the future and then thinking that the last two years were for nothing, wasted time.
So we came up with a specific ritual: the extension question. Once a month (in our case on the 28th) we ask each other the following question: “Sweetheart, would you want to continue our relationship for at least as long as we've been together, if things would go on the way they have last month?” How would she or he answer that question? And what would you say? The important thing is that, once a month, you take a serious look at your relationship, briefly take stock and say what you think. “Darling, everything is great. I hope it stays this way forever”. Or: “To be honest, if things go on like they did last month, forget it. We don't need that. At least I don't.” So whatever it is, we openly put it out there rather than sweeping the problem under the carpet. Then you think it through and discuss if and what you would change.
90 minutes for a better relationship
Let's suppose you come to the conclusion that you're not spending enough time together. Actually, you just manage to organise your daily routine, and in the evening you barely have time to watch your favourite TV show together. But suppose you want to transform this meaningless coexistence into an active and vibrant relationship—you really want to do something for your partnership. Then here's the second piece of advice: Have a real dialogue. It was developed by Professor Möller. There are two important things: 1. Each week, put aside 90 minutes of undisturbed time—just the two of you. No smartphone, no children, no TV! 2. Make sure you do this on a regular basis.
The process: 6 x 15 minutes, always alternating. One person speaks, the other simply listens—without interrupting. After 15 minutes, you change roles. What you are talking about is this: “What am I currently most concerned with?” You describe how you experience yourself, the other person and the relationship. You could also talk about problems at the workplace, good things that happened, problems with the kids or your dreams. No questions, no advice. It's important that each person speaks about themselves and only themselves. There is no other topic, only your own experiences. What you feel, think, or want. Period. After 90 minutes, it's over and there are no follow-up discussions. These 90 minutes are absolutely fixed; you never talk for more or less than these 90 minutes.
When we started this, I was really surprised how many things I had not noticed. I was surprised about the many things my wife was concerned about. And she felt exactly the same way. But I was also surprised to see how quickly we could get close again, just by talking about the things that concerned us. Initially, most people—especially us men—will have a hard time with this concept. But with a little practice, the real problems will come out, even the most difficult ones.
Time with children should be quality time
Our relationships also include our relationships with our children. And in terms of their role as father, many men are more like permanent interns—even after many years or even decades. Because they're not really there for their kids. And if they are, it's usually just physically—in their mind, they're far away. On weekends they take on a bit of an event manager role. And that's it. Imagine or a moment how a well-trained, invisible appraiser would evaluate your relationship with your children, if they did nothing but follow you for a month, sensing the overall mood every day. How would they sum up the relationship in one sentence? And would you want to read it?
This is not about you having to know every little thing that goes on with your kids. The real question is: What kind of connection do you have with them? Perhaps you just don't have much time for them. But the limited time that you do spend with them—would you call that quality time? In other words: are you really there with them? When you drive your kids to school in the morning, do you really listen to your daughter during the those ten minutes—or do you check your inbox? If you take your son out to play football with him on Saturdays, do you “accidently” kick the ball into the woods so you can use the time he goes looking for it by checking your email?
We have not even touched on the increasing number of older—and a bit more fragile —parents. Or about demanding blended families scenarios. And if we actually manage to do all that, is there something else we neglecting? Our friends. It's about the few old pals who have been your friends forever—the ones that still like you, even though they know you.
It's not about hanging out with them every week, going out for beers or shopping together. Even if you've heard nothing from each other for some time, you'd still be close again in no time at all. But if you don't spend any time with them over a couple of years, then at some point the shared memories will fade. If you won't take any time for your friends, time will take them from you. And then they won't be there in times of crisis, when you really need them.
So far we just talked about the first area of life, the relationships. Why did we spend so much time on that one area? Because it's relationships that make life worth living. Imagine a scale of one to ten. Ten would mean: As for as close relationships go, I am the queen/king of the world. And one would mean: If later today somebody crashes into my car, nobody would care. Where do you stand?
The miracle cure
Let's talk about the second area of life—health. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines health as “ a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, not just the absence of disease or infirmity”. When we're physically and psychologically healthy, we are more efficient and much better prepared to deal with pressure and stressful situations. And if we are sick or have some kind of disease, we'll take some medication in order to get well.
Let's just assume there is one medication that would render all other medication unnecessary, because it does all of the following:
- It stabilises your immune system
- It keeps your weight at a normal level
- It lowers your risk of cancer
- It keeps you from losing strength
- It reduces stress hormones
- It improves your blood circulation
- It normalises your blood pressure
- It optimises your heart and lung functions
- It preserves your mental capabilities
- It improves your cholesterol levels
- It bolsters your self-confidence
- It improves your quality of life
- It increases your life satisfaction
- ...and in addition to all that, you also live much longer.
And the best thing is: in addition to all these great features, there's no package insert that says “For information about risks and side effects, please consult with your doctor or pharmacist” because with the proper dosage there would be no bad side effects. Would you take it? Of course—you'd be a fool not to. And here's the good news: This medication exists! It costs nothing, not a penny! And the name of this miracle cure is: regular exercise!
So how do you do in that department? How many times are you exercising every week? And I'm talking about a normal week, not a ski-ing holiday.
The dose makes the poison
Another important topic is your diet. Just like medication, it's important to get the right dose. How much do you eat throughout the day? What does your breakfast, lunch and dinner look like? What do you indulge in between meals, and how much? Do you drink? Any stimulants? How about coffee, or alcohol?
Ten percent of all men fight their stress with alcohol! And of course—if I'm stressed-out and I drink two litres of wine in the evening, I will eventually calm down, Even if alcohol doesn't really have a relaxing effect. It just seems to be that way. It actually just sedates that part of our vegetative nervous system that is responsible for actions, called the sympathetic nervous system. It would be more helpful to activate its counterpart, the parasympathetic nervous system that could provide true relaxation. But that would not work with alcohol.
Anyway, the next question is: how do you get back to normal the next morning? And how can you get through the day, how do you get all the things done that you need to do? What do all those high performing people do, especially the chronic "power players"? In case coffee doesn't help, or Red Bull?
No one talks about it. They take something. Those small white, pink and blue capsules and pills have pretty cool names: Something like "Brain Booster" or "Neuro Enhancer". Wow! Powerful stuff! Viagra for the brain! In short, healthy people take medication for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease because it increases their ability to concentrate.
People don't keep up with their preventive health screenings
Alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, cannabis—it almost doesn't matter. They all work on the reward system in the brain by raising your levels of dopamine. This effects the cerebral cortex so that you feel better–and turn to the same thing the next time you're in a stressful situation. The treatment of addicted managers is a fast-growing business. There is a form of prescription antidepressants called SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors).
What do you do in terms of health to prevent this from happening? You might have regular health screenings. But a major check-up, with stress ECG and full blood count? Only very few people do this. Not many women, and even fewer men. And what's the main reason? Yes, precisely, it's because we are afraid. Psychologists differentiate hundreds of different types of fear. But the biggest fear is fear of the results. The doctor just might find something! 42% of all diagnoses made during check-ups for senior managers are for something they were not aware of.
It's bad if the doctor finds something wrong. But it's even worse if you don't feel well and he finds nothing. What can you do in that case? And if the doctor suggests that, based on the symptoms and your medical history, it could be something “psychological”, you might just get up and leave without another word. Something “psychological”? Hello? I'm not crazy! So now I have to lie down on the famous couch, is that it? Or should I just go right to the loony bin? This kind of diagnosis is hardly compatible with our male hero self-image: If you can manage to go to the doctor, you can also manage to get to the office. A torn ligament is okay because you'll be back on the job in six months. A knee problem? Hey, it's just wear and tear, but in two weeks I'll be able to walk again without crutches. Even “back injuries” are acceptable. But psychological problems? No way! It would really be heroic to admit it without condemning yourself as a failure, a dud and a wimp.
When the body sends signals
Similar to the petrol gauge in your car, our body receives signals. Just ask yourself: How susceptible am I for that kind of signal? Do I even feel the tension in my shoulder or neck area? How conscious am I of the fact that for some time now I've not been able to sleep through the night? Do I notice my eyelid twitching? Do I sense that my stomach feels acidic, although I haven't had any red wine? Or does it have to be a slipped disc, a sudden loss of hearing or even tinnitus before I realise that something's very wrong?
Do you maintain a good balance between tension and relaxation? This is not about working half as much but about taking care of yourself—and taking enough breaks in between. No athlete would ever train 365 days a year. There are seasonal peaks and periods of intense stress, and in between there should be active and passive periods of regeneration. The alternation between active periods and resting phases will lead to a better performance. In the business world, most have not realised the importance of short and long breaks. People who run around in the hamster wheel for 14 hours are in a state of active unconsciousness!
A first step may be to consider under what conditions your body cells do their job. If the pH level is too low—typically in periods of stress—we're overly acidified, we feel tired and exhausted, and we are more susceptible to infections and allergies.
Is your job empowering or just draining?
Now we come to the third ingredient, your profession. Three questions: Do you have a job? Would you say you practise a profession? Have you found your calling in what you do every day? Calling is a big word. What I mean is this: Do you enjoy your work and find meaning in what you do? Do you still have that gleam in your eyes when you talk about your job? You don't have to go so far as to jump out of bed every morning at five, yelling: "Yeah, finally time to go the office—I wish I didn’t have to sleep!" That would be kind of weird.
More often it's the other extreme: The job is just toil and drudgery, but you need to do it to exist— and maybe have a little fun in your spare time. Or is it about status? If status is the ultimate goal, work becomes nothing more than a means of reaching the next status level. If at some point that overdue promotion never materialises, work becomes a pointless ordeal. A lot of work can make you happy. Too much work can make you sick. The difference doesn't necessarily lie in the number of working hours, but also the circumstances. The emotional state in which I perform my work is crucial. “Good work” is good leadership, adequate freedom, development opportunities, recognition and fairness.
The crucial question for you is: Does your work give you strength? Or does it take it away? It comes down to discovering your interests, your passions, your talents and skills. Which tasks and activities you really love, what environment you feel at home in and where your eyes begin to shine. If I know that during the next 10, 20 or 40 years I have to earn money anyway, I’d better do something that really interests me, something that I care about, have fun doing and find meaning in. The probability of becoming good, successful and happy in a job I really care about is much higher than if I just look at labour market forecasts, what status I can achieve or what my parents would want me to do.
Just ask yourself the following question: What kind of work would you do if you didn’t have to earn money? Would you still want to do what you're doing now? Or would it at least be OK? Or are you possibly thinking: if I had a guaranteed income, then, hey, time to leave—sooner rather than later. Even if you've only got 10 or 15 years until retirement, that can be a very long time.
What really matters
What we just have done for the first three areas—taking stock of your most important relationships, your health and your professional situation—you can also do for the other areas of your life—finances, philosophy of life, leisure and living.
With regards to finances, for example, ask yourself if you're one of those folks who buy things they don't really need, with money they don't really have, to impress people they don't really like. Wouldn't it be a relief if—instead of spending it on consumer goods—you spent your money on experiences instead?
As for your philosophy of life, the question is what is really, really important in life. Where do you see—right now—meaning in your life? Have you discovered that for yourself? Victor Frankl, one of the leading neurologists and psychiatrists of the 20th century, dedicated much of his life to the question of “the meaning of life”. He was convinced that the search for meaning is a basic motivation that every human being has. If, according to Frankl, somebody can't assert the “will to meaning”, feelings of senselessness and worthlessness arise. These can lead to aggression, addiction, depression, despair and suicidal thoughts. It can also cause or intensify psychosomatic diseases and neurotic disorders.
There is most likely no general meaning of life per se, but rather a question of realising the meaning of the moment in any situation. Viktor Frankl once said that beautifully: “Life has the meaning we give it.”
As far as your leisure activities are concerned, here's a tip: It's great to pursue a hobby, just make sure it's a current one. It almost doesn't matter what that is— whether you take on an honorary position or perform mediaeval music on period instruments. You don't have to prove anything to anybody—just have fun with it.
Your living situation is also quite important because we spend most of our time at our home. Your home can be a source of relaxation, inspiration and well-being, although it doesn't have to be. It matters whether I live in the countryside or in the city or what the infrastructure and the neighbours are like. Like a furniture chain recently said in its advertising: Are you living or just occupying a building?
Step by step to a better quality of life
So looking at the overall balance of the seven areas of your life, what does it look like? Does it look evenly positive throughout? Then congratulations! But for most of you, it'll probably resemble a zig-zag. Be careful if one or even several of the areas are deep in the “red zone”, because that will impact the other areas as well. If you're in poor health, for example, this could impact your job performance. If your job drains too much of your energy, your kids will notice. An abysmal partnership will negatively affect your job morale and your health.
If you find you have several areas needing improvement, don't try to address them all at once. Just concentrate on the one with the most negative impact. Here's a sure-fire way to crash into a burnout: trying to achieve a ten in every area. It's just not possible! I've tried. I can't be there 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to play football with my son, paint with my daughter, go to the cinema with the other two older children, make my wife happy from morning to night and hang out with my mates, while I regularly exercise and lift weights as I contemplate life...
So remember to enjoy life! It could be your last chance!
Ralph Goldschmidt, born in 1963, studied economics, International management and sports in Cologne and Milan. He is a lecturer at several universities as well as a member of the German Speakers Association and the Global Speakers Federation. He founded and led two successful companies and has worked as an executive coach and trainer with many (top) executives.
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