Working Smarter

River of Mortals: How to Seize Time on This Planet While You Still Have it

Posted by Joe Robinson

Varanasi sunset

The ancient city of Varanasi on the Ganges River in India has a sunset cruise unlike any other in the tourist book. The attraction isn’t beer, romance, or the last colors of the solar show. Instead, the main event is the funeral pyres along the river.

My boat, filled with Indian tourists, chugged upriver to some 40 yards from one of the outdoor crematoria. Then the barefoot boy steering it turned off its engine. On shore, I could see a shape atop a platform engulfed in flames five feet high. The talking stopped. A few took photos or videos. 

It seemed invasive to me, but death is not a subject kept from public view here. It’s out in the open, a daily reminder of where things are ultimately headed—and we don’t know when. This can be instructive to all of us, a motivation to seize the time we do have to live life to the fullest and have better work-life balance, something we can let all manner of things get in the way of. 

Noting the elephant in the mortal room is helpful on another very important front too. A big part of the fear of death is the fear of never having lived. Another reason to leave no life experiencing on the table.



The ill and dying come from all over India to leave the mortal world on the banks of the Ganges, whose waters they believe guarantee redemption for believers. The river is sacred to Hindus, known as Mother Ganga, named after the goddess Ganga. 

While the family of the individual at the cremation site mourned the loss, they would also be gladdened that their loved one had departed at this auspicious location.

It’s a scene that has been repeated for hundreds of years in one of the oldest cities in the world, known for a long time as Benares. Traces of settlement here reach back to 1800 B.C. Enter its labyrinthine alleyways off the river, and you are back in a medieval warren of narrow passages, some blocked by cows, sacred here, and folks selling homemade food, candles, statues of Hindu gods, and bamboo fans.

Once known for its silk fabrics and sculptures, Varanasi today is renowned as a spiritual hub. It’s the nexus of two of the world’s major religions—Hinduism and Buddhism. Buddha is said to have delivered his first sermon in the fifth century B.C. at Sarnath, a town outside Varanasi that has some very interesting Buddhist sites, including the ruins of a massive fifth-century A.D. temple complex and a museum of remarkable artifacts dug up from it.

Pilgrim in Ganges

Temples and offering sites line Varanasi’s riverbank ghats, cement steps that lead down to the Ganges to help the faithful immerse themselves, bathe, or collect its murky water, which, though held sacred, is highly polluted.

I threaded my way to the river through throngs of pilgrims dressed in orange, some of whom had walked upwards of 100 miles, some barefoot, to collect water from the Ganges to bring back to their local Shiva temples in a ritual known as the Yatra pilgrimage. One young man without shoes was limping. He’d hurt his foot on the long walk from his village, but he said he would keep going. He was almost there.

Pilgrims on Yatra

An old sadhu, or Hindu holy man, with a long gray beard chanted in the middle of the street, where cows dozed. Religious songs blared from speakers as pilgrims pushed through a din of motorcycle horns and trishaws. It was rush-hour at 5:30 a.m. 


Though the practices along the river might seem shocking or morbid to some, maybe we could use a shock. We are expert at evading the topic of mortality most of our lives in the West, aside from those in the medical, law enforcement, or CSI murder mystery fields. It can give us a false sense of security and lack of urgency about taking care of the life side, a sense that there’s plenty of time left. There’s always tomorrow.

Boat cruise

The writer Paul Bowles had a great take on this illusory expanse of tomorrow in A Sheltering Sky. “Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems so limitless.”

A friend of mine had a heart attack and died at 41. One of my best friends died in a work accident last year, with a recreational vehicle he’d just purchased to cruise the U.S. in retirement parked outside his house. Michael Justice was one of the best photographers in the U.S. He had documented the world’s largest pilgrimage, some 15 million people, in Allahabad, up the Ganges from here and had done some great work in Varanasi. My trip on the river was in tribute to him.

Heather Burcham thought she had plenty of time, but then the Texan came down with cervical cancer in her late-20s. As I reported in my book, Don’t Miss Your Life, once she learned the disease was terminal, she decided to get as much living in as she could, taking up skydiving and putting her remaining strength to work to lobby for a state law to support a vaccine that could prevent young women from contracting the disease. I saw her on an ABC News report. She said something I won’t ever forget, “You are so lucky. You get to live every moment.”

And we are. Except we often don’t realize our good fortune, remaining caught up in worries and trying to fill our time, instead of focusing on ways to make the time fulfilling. How do we do that? Not by waiting for someone else to do it for us.


It starts by becoming the entrepreneur of your life. The science says that our overriding mandate is to determine the content of our life, to put our stamp on it, to write our own script, to participate and not be a spectator, because that is when we satisfy core needs, such as autonomy, competence, and relatedness, or connection with others.

Varanasi sign crowd-1

There is no arena better for doing that than in our life outside the job. This is where autonomy lives, in our choosing of how we want to experience our world. Researchers have found that 50% of our potential happiness is genetic. Sorry about that. Another 10% of potential happiness is circumstance, the state of your health, the environment you are raised in. Again, sorry. The good news is that we control the other 40%, which falls into a realm known as intentional activities.

The key to sustainable happiness, as researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky and Kennon Sheldon have reported, is initiating intentional activities and then sustaining them. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at how we can get started on a life of no regrets. Keep in mind that we regret more the things we don’t do than what we do. It’s called the “inaction effect.”


1. Get rid of stress. The culture tells us to suck it up. Don’t. When we don’t dispute stress and resolve it, we think about it. That’s what drives stress, rumination. Stress suppresses the play equipment in your brain. The last thing a part of your brain that thinks you’re going to die that second wants to do is have fun. Stress is a story, a false belief we tell ourselves about the stressful event. We can and have to turn stress off and turn on stress management to open up receptivity to life.

2. Identify engaging life activities. Engagement is the key. Passive activities, such as watching TV, don’t cut it. The average state of someone watching TV, says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Optimal Experience, is a mild depression. Go online, research areas of interest. Make a list of affinities, local activities, potential hobbies, summer vacation destinations, road trips, and bucket list items.

3. Initiate to participate. Just do it. Get going. Jump in without worrying about whether it’s perfect or you have everything figured out, as you did as a child. Make a commitment to live like Heather Burcham. Now.

4. Learn something new. Where can you go, what can you do to learn something new today? The brain’s party drug, dopamine is triggered at the mere prospect of something new. It’s called the exploration bonus. We are all explorers, if we follow our interests and curiosities.

5. Travel more. There’s nothing that turns on the brain’s satisfaction equipment like travel. The brain craves novelty and challenge. That is the definition of going somewhere you haven’t been before. Travel immerses us in novel experiences, wakes us up to our lives and offers insights and reflections, like those that come on a river trip in Varanasi, that remind us of things we need to pay attention to.

6. Use the play mind. The work mind doesn’t know how to play. This is because its focus is all on results. Play and the life side is about the experience, not where it’s going or an instrumental payoff. We do it to do it, for the fun, amusement, challenge, not to get anything external out of it.

We are going to have three questions at the end of our days, said Erik Erikson, the great psychologist who studied the stages of life and worked with seniors: 1) Did I get what I came her for? 2) Was it a good time? And 3) Did I do what I wanted?

When we proactively put life on the calendar, we can answer a resounding "YES" to these questions and insure a life without the regrets of inaction. 

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Tags: live life, living life to the fullest, life is short, Varanasi, Ganges River, core psychological needs, pilgrimage to Ganges

Secondhand Stress: 8 Ways to Resist the Stress of Others

Posted by Joe Robinson

Secondhand stress

The Delta pilot came bursting out of the locked door of the gangway that led to his plane in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where his departure was stuck on hold. “What’s going on here?” he yelled, throwing his arms in the air in exasperation. “I have never seen it take this long to get a flight off the ground!”

He was steaming, but one of the gate agents did not respond in kind. She said calmly, “It’s a system problem with the booking, and we are working on it.” She said it with a smile and didn’t let the captain push her buttons. 

After he turned around and went back to the plane in a huff, she told her colleague. “I don’t know his job, and he doesn’t know mine.”

It was the perfect reaction to a scourge that spreads stress like a virus: the contagion of secondhand stress. She did two things that made her immune to his stress. She didn’t take it personally and separated his emotions and the cause of them from hers.


I wish I’d had it on video as a teaching instrument for most of us who are little more than mood marionettes, picking up on the stress of everyone around us. The reality is we are born to be copycats, at least when it comes to the emotional information on the faces and expressions of others around us.

Humans are designed to pick up on the mood and physical expressions of others, thanks to brain cells called mirror neurons.These cells cause us to mimic the emotional states of others, from laughing, to crying, to yawning.

We’ve all experienced the stereo yawn. You don’t even have to see the other person yawning to uncork an epic yawn. Hearing it is enough to send our simulation equipment into the actions of mock sleepiness, even if we’re not sleepy at all.

It’s all part of the equipment we have evolved as social animals to bond with others, size up threats, and increase our odds of being able to navigate the mysteries of the emotional world. Yet the simulation gear doesn’t work too well when what we are mirroring is other people’s stress, which we pick up in the form of secondhand stress.

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The authors of a study on the physical components of stress contagion, (Dimitroff, Kardan, Necka, Decety, Berman, Norman, 2017), report that “the ability to ‘catch’ aspects of another person’s emotions may serve as a relatively fast and effective way of understanding another individual’s affective state, which likely enhances one’s ability to be a successful agent in a highly complex and dynamic social environment.”


Understanding others is great, but do we have to pick up their stress in the process? As if we don’t have enough angst of our own, we are also sitting ducks for the pass-along anxiety of coworkers, spouses, friends, bosses, family members, neighbors, and cable news commentators, passed along through mirror neurons.

One of the earliest studies to confirm the contagion of stress was the Trier Social Stress Test. The investigation showed that stress-related cortisol and alpha-amylase were released not just in the bodies of nervous people asked to speak spontaneously in front of a group of judges, but also in the observers watching the speakers. It’s not just that we feel for them in their predicament. We feel like they do, their chemistry mirrored in ours.

Dimitroff et al took the exploration of the effect of others’ stress further. They wanted to see if viewing people in distress, watching people speaking in front of a group or watching videos of stressed-out individuals could cause a contagious cardiac response in the observer to reflect the jacked-up heartbeat triggered by the stress response. It did. The study showed a direct correlation, an increase in cardiac response that varied depending on the level of stress in the speakers or videos.

Subjects were able to clearly separate people who weren’t in the stress zone from the subtle and not-so-subtle cues that pulse rates of speakers or people on the videos were racing. Being able to read others emotionally is a finely tuned art that aids social functioning, but it’s hard to turn off, since it’s an “autonomic,” reflex behavior.


To keep secondhand stress from constantly triggering the survival equipment, we have to be able to find the off-switch. We want to be understanding of the plight of others, but we also need a separation. We can’t do our jobs if we are absorbing the anxiety and grief of others all day. This is a particular challenge for those who work in emotionally intense industries, from health care, to social work, and emergency services.

So let’s take a look at some things we can do to catch ourselves and resist the stress of others.


  1. Identify where the stress is coming from. Is it yours or is it coming from someone else? Ask: Whose stress am I picking up on today? The plight of someone going through difficulty is concerning, and we want to be understanding. As bad as it may be for them, though, their stress is not a life or death event for you. You are not under mortal threat. So the stress you are picking up from them is a false alarm.


  1. Talk to the person about the habit. If there is someone raising your pulse rate through impatience, anger, hostility, cynicism, unrealistic expectations, or negativity, call them on it. Let them know that a particular behavior of theirs is counterproductive and transfers strain to you and others around them. Tell them about mirror neurons and encourage them to leave their emotional hot potatoes in the microwave.


  1. Separate yourself from the event/person. Keeping distance between others’ emotions and your own is crucial. Like the Delta gate agent, you want to be able to see that the cause of the stressful behavior of others is not you but something in their own impatience, pressures, and issues. For anyone working in emotionally challenging fields, such as social work or health care, you want to feel for your clients and patients, but you don’t want to feel like them, because if you do, you run the risk of undermining your own health and ability to help them. Emotional distancing doesn’t make you less caring, just less of a potential burnout case.


  1. Don’t take it personally. Taking events personally is one of the biggest drivers of stress. It gets the ego into it, which sets off a boil of irrational emotions. In the case of secondhand stress, the art is to see that it’s personal for the person doing the stressing, not you. The cause of what that person says or mirrors to you is within their head and subject to the irrationality of their caveman brain’s fight-or-flight equipment.


  1. Exercise choice. Like guilt, secondhand stress is a manipulation by others. It may be unintentional, but it nonetheless takes your free will out of the process and leaves you a spectator in your own emotional life. That doesn’t work for humans, since one of our main core needs is autonomy, having agency over our lives. The next time someone mirrors stress, refuse to have them dictate your emotions. Tell yourself you determine the content of your life. If I grab someone else’s stress, then I will drop it, because it’s not mine.


  1. Stop mirroring others’ negative emotions. When people transmit negative emotions, the default is to pick up on that cue and go negative too. Instead, don’t respond in kind. React to complaining with positive body language and comments. Change the subject. Don’t feed the beast.


  1. Shift Mood. Moods are ephemeral. They can change in an instant. We don’t have to go with the first rote emotion that comes up from our mirroring equipment. You can crowd out the negative emotions of secondhand stress by shifting attention to a positive event or exercise. The University of North Carolina’s Barbara Frederickson has found that shifting attention to gratitude, for instance, can switch off the physiological effects of stress instantly. Think about something you should be grateful for and suddenly, your blood pressure goes down and your digestion starts up again, as the stress response is shut down. Music is another great mood shifter, so have some music handy that lifts you up, and turn to it when secondhand stress bites.


  1. Try a Secondhand Stress-Free Zone. Let’s take a cue from the social sanctions on smoking, and have your team or organization print up signs and bumper stickers to place around the office, declaring it a Secondhand Stress-Free Zone. Explain what that means, and that rampant stress transmission can be as harmful as nicotine.

When people around us understand that they are unwitting drivers of the poor health of people close to them, we can all start to get more control over our reactions, which will be healthier for the stress inflictors too.

The emotional life of humans is a cauldron of reflex fears and false alarms. When we bring awareness to the role that the moods and emotional displays of others have on us, we are no longer puppets in the dramas of others. We have less consternation to wade through to tackle the stress dramas we are starring in.

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Tags: contagious stress, mirror neurons, secondhand stress

Work Identity and Self-Worth: What's on Your Life Card?

Posted by Joe Robinson

Feet Palm Tree Medium

EUROPEANS SAY they know only two kinds of Americans, college kids and senior citizens. They are the only Yanks they see traveling in Europe. The vast demographic between those two groups is a mystery. Of course, we know why. From mid-20s until retirement, heads are down, immersed in the scrum of career, family, and mortgages.

Yet those are not total life-breakers, if not combined with another bigger issue: identities wrapped up in one side of the work-life hyphen. We define the self through labor in the U.S., unlike in many other lands, so self-worth tends to get tied up in what we do and identity with what’s on the business card. Yet what we do for a living is only a part of who we are, known as a persona, a social handle for others.

The real you is much more than the work I.D.—it’s a mix of your enthusiasms, interests, friends, family, humor, creativity, a whole bunch of things that come from the life side, your actual experience of living, in other words.


Now there’s definitely nothing wrong with the productive side. I lead productivity trainings, so it’s something I’m partial to. The performance/accomplishment component is essential for our core need of competence and is one of the keys to well-being.

It’s just that we get so one-tracked that we can wind up missing out on the living we are making for ourselves. When all worth comes from output, there’s no value in input, which is also bad for work—no recharging, stress relief, new ideas, plenty of negative affect. We wind up defaulting to the only worth we know, performance, skip an engaging life, have trouble getting a life on the agenda, and forget who we really are.

A former casting director I know in Hollywood opened up a side business as an identity detective. He helps professionals, such as doctors and lawyers in particular, retrace who they are/were before the career. They dig back through high school yearbook comments, old love letters, and sports activities to try uncover the essence of who they were before they became known as their job. 

We need some evidence too of our own lives. I suggest a business card for life. In my work-life balance trainings I have folks create their own life cards, on which they describe themselves by an interest, hobby, something they used to do but shelved, something they always wanted to do, like learn a musical instrument.

They could be a "travel enthusiast," a "dog whisperer," a "gourmet chef." When we have an identity outside the job, we are more apt to take part in it. Many, though, have trouble coming up with anything, because they have been told there's no value outside the office.

When we don’t participate in our life, we quickly lose touch with the skills and goals of play, curiosity, and exploration that make a fulfilling life happen.

The life side takes a different skill-set than the work mind. The goals are intrinsic, meaning we act for no payoff or result. We try something fun for the sake of it. The output goal is so rote, though, that we may skip a softball game or a vacation. What am I going to get out of it? 

The need for an instant payoff makes it hard for adults to learn, try something new, or stick with a leisure activity long enough to learn it. The double-whammy of not acting for an external reward and worrying that you might make a fool out of yourself by doing something you haven’t tried before keeps many adults sidelined from fun and stuck in spectating after work hours.


Even the words “play” and “fun” seem unworthy of adults, slackerish. That’s because we never learn the value of stepping back from performance mode. Idle time is the devil’s time. Or is it?

The University of Maryland’s Seppo Iso Ahola has found in his research that recreational activities reduce stress. They operate as a stress buffer, taking our mind off problems and building up our resilience. No matter what’s happening at work, you can climb on a bike or jump in a dance class, and the positive emotions soon crowd out the negative that drive tense work thoughts. Iso Ahola says that the more engaged leisure life you have, the higher your life satisfaction. That doesn’t sound too devilish.

It's time to revalue time off-the-clock from notions that are antithetical to the whole point of the work and counterproductive to quality output, since engaged leisure activities provide the recharge our chief productivity tool, attention, needs to get work done with less effort and stress. These fun outlets vitalize mind and body, allowing us to bring a positive frame to the office.

Researcher Laurence Chalip at the University of Texas has found that engaged leisure activities increase positive mood through more self-control and social support. Overwhelm and stress on the job make us feel out of control. At ease in activities we like to do, especially those that can advance our mastery skills, we bring control back to our day. We also tend to have fun with others, so we get an internal payoff for one of our core needs, connection with other people.


And it gets better. The University of Montreal’s Robert Vallerand has discovered that having a passion, an activity that you do on a regular basis that you love, can add eight hours of joy to your week. Vallerand’s research shows that we internalize mastery activities, and they become a part of our identity. “I’m a runner." "I'm a musician.” 

These self-images serve as bulwarks of our real identity and are not subject to other people’s approval, so they provide ongoing self-esteem and root us in positive events that inform our memories, our ongoing status report, that we like our life. How important are these off-hours attributes of identity? Play scholar John Neulinger called passionate play pursuits none other than the “central life interest.”

Alan Waterman of the College of New Jersey says when you’re engaged in activities of personal expressiveness, ones that are self-chosen and that advance your life goals, you are operating from the “true self.”

So far from being a waste of productive time, recreational activities, play, fun, and hobbies are the road to who we really are. Getting a life I.D. as well as a work I.D., then, is essential for the complete picture of self-image and unlocking the experiences that tell us we are doing what we are supposed to be doing here—determining the content of our lives through participation in it. 

No doubt, this is why a study out of Princeton led by Alan Krueger found that of all the things on the planet, what makes humans the happiest is participating in engaging leisure activities.

Engagement with life is a proactive affair. You are the entrepreneur of your life. No one can make it happen except you. You have to put leisure activities on the calendar for after work, on the weekend, and make sure to take every day of your vacation. Take your life calendar as seriously as work appointments, because these are events of the highest order, your appointment with life.

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Tags: play,, getting a life, get a life, positive mood, work and life identities, work life balance and play, self-worth and work identity

Slam Dunking Job Stress and the Mental Health Taboo

Posted by Joe Robinson


IT'S ONE OF THE FEW REMAINING TABOOS left in the closet: mental health. This is particularly true when it comes to the wellness of the brain on the job and conditions invisible to the naked eye, such as stress, anxiety, and burnout.

Few speak up about these health and job hazards, out of a fear of being seen as weak or less promotable, and it's making us sick. Millions suffer in silence, the very condition that fuels more stress through what happens when we don’t talk about and manage demands—rumination.


This is why it was big news when one of the top stars in pro basketball, six-foot-ten inch Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers, stepped forward to tell the world about his struggles with anxiety. Outwardly Love seems the calmest player on the court, but inside it's a different story.

He had to leave a couple of games because of anxiety. One panic attack left him gasping for air on the locker room floor and thinking he was going to die. His heart was beating out of his chest, and he could barely breathe. He thought he was having a heart attack, which is what everyone thinks who experiences the profound terror of a panic attack.

He was taken to a hospital, where doctors gave him a clean bill of health. Without an obvious physical disorder, some teammates and many fans started questioning his commitment to the team and toughness. After a period of intense speculation about whether he was a slacker or malcontent, he decided to open up.

Love admitted he suffers from anxiety and depression, a family issue from way back. The revelation lifted a huge load from his broad shoulders, and people started to understand that this All-Star athlete, a giant of a man and fierce rebounder, had a medical condition, except, instead of it being a knee or hamstring or physical problem we can see on a scan or x-ray, it was in his brain. Lebron James shook his hand and told him he had helped a lot of people with his disclosure.

There’s a great article on here about Love and the challenge of getting NBA players to seek mental help. One insider estimates 40% of the players league could benefit from a mental assistance program, and the league is now making them readily available. Yet few players think they need assistance, primarily because they think a session with a mental health expert makes them less tough and might affect their valuation on the market.


The story got me thinking about what I see in the corporate world and how similar it is. People suffering from high stress seldom seek out the help they need. People who would think nothing of getting a broken arm fixed, endure months and years of high job stress, which is doing much worse things to their bodies and brains. They have been led to believe they are supposed to take stress as a badge of courage. To admit anxiety is almost to admit defeat. You can’t handle it.

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Wrong. Courage comes, not in enduring punishment and getting sick, but through speaking up and resolving demands and getting healthy. Stress has to be challenged, contested, and disputed, or it doesn’t go away. You can’t do that unless you can get it into the open and admit to yourself, your spouse, a friend, a coach, a counselor, or a supervisor that the bottleneck, deadline, high stress levels or pressure are not sustainable, that something isn’t working, and that it’s draining you and your productivity.

When management doesn't get any feedback to the contrary, it's assumed all is well, but when people speak up, it can lead to adjustments that can solve the stressors and to training programs of the sort I lead, in stress management or work-life balance. The most common phrase I get from clients is that work-life balance or stress management "keeps coming up on our surveys of employees."

It's also good idea to speak out, because it's much healthier to do so. Studies show that verbal expression of emotions reduces stress (Pennebaker) and suppressing emotions increases anxiety (Roemer). 

The ostrich approach is the first instinct, but it’s a waste of health, performance, and life too, since stress suppresses the play equipment in your brain. You can’t have fun when a part of your brain thinks you are about to die every second of the day. The false belief and catastrophic thoughts of stress will keep orbiting the brain until you convince it there is no mortal threat and turn it off.


When we switch off the false danger signal of non-life-threatening stress, the stress response stops in four minutes. Yet almost none of us are taught how to do this by managing the thoughts that cause stress.

We don’t know how to turn off catastrophic thoughts and increase perceived control over demands, the key to shutting down stress. We don’t know that it’s not others or external events that are driving stress—it’s the stories we tell ourselves about the stressful events that fuel stress. These are stories we can change and deactivate as triggers when we know how to reframe appraisals from life-or-death autopilot to manageable.

Stress does its damage when it lasts for a prolonged period of time. So nipping it in the bud by addressing it head-on is crucial. Chronic stress left unchallenged can lead to burnout, the last stage of chronic stress, and to depression, stroke, and other serious health problems.

I work with many people in my coaching and stress management training practice who have had chronic stress long enough that it has morphed into burnout. They typically have had chronic stress for six months to a couple of years. That takes a huge toll on the body, from heart problems to insomnia to irritable bowel.

Yet breaking through the stress cycle usually only takes three or four one-hour training sessions. As the optometrist says, “Which is better?” Three or four hours? Or upwards of a year or more of anxiety? 

Many of my male clients come to me because their wives have convinced them to seek help. This is why it's so important to talk to loved ones, friends, and family members about stress and anxiety issues. They can help us see beyond the emotional impasse to an outside solution.

In 2018, it’s still hard for men, but also women in the ruggedly individualistic culture we celebrate, to come to terms with the fact that they can't figure it all out themselves. A social worker I met told me she didn't tell her supervisor or even her husband about how overloaded she was until she was in the hospital with a nervous breakdown.

The stigma on mental health can make it seem we are not as capable as others, if we need some help. But stress isn’t about capability; it’s about a brain that wasn’t built for the social stresses of the modern world. We have defective brain architecture that makes us prone to go off unless we know how to manage reactions.


Since we are not psychics, we don’t know what’s in the heads of the people around us. I can guarantee you, though, that there are plenty of others who may not look it but feel the way you do, who are struggling to manage intense pressure every day. Even top professional athletes, such as Kevin Love.

Stress left unmanaged can build to high anxiety levels that can tip over into panic. If you have ever experienced a panic attack, you know you don’t want to have another one. It’s a condensed burst of terror that sends blood pressure sky high and heartbeats pounding like bass drums. It’s sheer panic that comes from a feeling of being trapped, like being cornered by a grizzly. It mimics a heart attack, but it’s simply a state of intense anxiety that has a finite duration. Twenty minutes, and it’s over.

Yet, as Love discovered, once it happens, you live in fear of it happening again, the biggest fear being that others will see you having it. It can lead to avoidance of anything that might trigger another attack, which can lead to seclusion and aversive behavior that leaves you isolated and fearful.

Love took the hardest but surest step to end the syndrome. He disclosed his vulnerability, sought help, and did so under the glaring lights of television cameras and Twitter feeds. He got help, and now he knows that talking about his mental challenges was the best thing he ever did. So much so that he is helping many others who have reached out to him for advice. He is now looking to set up a foundation to help young boys manage anxiety and depression.

“I think I found my life’s calling,” he told

Finding ways to manage reflex reactions and emotions is a life calling for all of us. Reaching out puts us on the path to awareness and knowledge, without which we are at the mercy of events, and with them, master of those events.

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Tags: job stress, mental health, mental wellness, speaking up, panic attacks, Kevin Love

Searching for Boundaries and Balance in Mumbai

Posted by Joe Robinson


THEY GET TO WORK at 9 a.m. and often don’t leave the office until after 9 p.m. The competition for the top jobs is fierce, so no one wants to be seen as having less stick-to-itiveness than the next person. The work ethic is enshrined in the culture and religion of the land, devotion to the divine seen in every task you do.

The place? India, not the U. S., something I discovered while leading a work-life balance training for the Reserve Bank of India in muggy, monsoon-soaked Mumbai. The religions may be different, but each helped forge a habit for overdoing it that would lock millions into a queasiness about boundaries that has been further aggravated by an always-on world at the command of digital devices.


The two countries also share the stress load that comes from overperformance, compounded by white-knuckle commutes that make L.A. gridlock look like Fargo’s in comparison. Yes, there are lanes painted on the road, but they are a formality. Three lanes are a waste of space when you can cram in between them with every possible conveyance—tuk-tuks, motorcycles, trucks, pedestrians, bicyclists, rickshaws, carts pulled by humans or horses, and cows and water buffaloes in cities like Varanasi--to create five or six lanes.

Traffic in India

Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, is the financial and film capital of India, home to the most prolific movie hub on the planet, Bollywood. It's a hectic mix of British colonial structures, gleaming high-rises, and slums.

And a sign of India’s growing future. The nation's economy is growing fast, upwards of 7%, and for the first time it is no longer the home of the most impoverished people on the planet. Nigeria is. Tech companies are flourishing and Indian cable TV has hundreds of Hindi-language channels. Barefoot tuk-tuk drivers use the GPS on their smartphones to navigate the chaotic streets or watch videos in gridlock.

Yet some executives in India know that the long-hours, work-until-you-drop style is a prescription for burnout and poor performance. General manager of RBI Academy and Welfare, the human resource division of the Reserve Bank of India, Dr. Vijay Shekhawat reached out to me to come to Mumbai and provide some tools for stress management and work-life balance to leaders with some of the toughest work schedules, which combine their normal jobs and oversight on the boards of Indian commercial banks.


We dug into the factors that drive overwork—mechanical momentum (habit), the cultural overlay of their own work ethic, guilt, fear, and what I call the performance identity. Just as the Protestant work ethic derived from beliefs that idle time was the devil's time and all work was a glorification of God, so too Indians viewed work as the path to the Hindu deity. Work can be the way to self-transcendence if it's done without regard to ego and external personal gain.

Like the American work ethic, the Indian work ethic has been largely secularized for the upwardly mobile track, which results in a very similar sense of self-worth derived from output. I was struck by how similar the performance ID in India is to that in the U.S., a belief that all worth comes from external output.

Yet the job is just part of who we are, a persona, a social handle for the world to peg us. When we think it’s the entirety of our being or validation, we get fidgety in a free moment and find it hard to relax if we’re not getting something done. Life can’t get on that calendar, because it leads to squirminess without production.

There’s a study that Mark Cullen of Stanford Medical School did in which he looked at super-successful retired executives who made lots of money on Wall Street. Two days after they walked out the doors of the company into retirement they felt worthless. They weren’t producing anymore. They had no leisure skills.

Achievement is an important factor for our core need of competence, but we can find ways to feel it outside the job as well. In fact, mastery activities in the leisure-skill world are some of the most potent in delivering competence since they combine with another powerful core need, autonomy, as we gain abilities in a pastime or hobby.

We need a balance between achievement and the internal gratification that comes from intrinsic satisfaction and experiences on the life side of the work-life hyphen. As I reported in my last blog, balance is part of the human mandate, built in to our physiology, which offsets activation and tension with the parasympathetic system of rest and digest.


Balance is also a resounding feature of the most famous symbol of India, the Taj Mahal, thought to be one of the most synchronous pieces of architecture ever created and an apparition I found myself staring up at on a very early morning side trip. As I stood gaping at its seamless use of marble and decorative patterns and scripted phrases from the Koran, every inch was in symmetry to the rest of Shah Jahan’s fabled ode of love to his deceased wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

On either side of the courtyard surrounding the monument, out of view of most images of the Taj, which was designed as a mausoleum for Mumtaz and also holds the remains of Shah Jahan, there are two large, identical temple-like structures. One is a mosque still used today, and the other is its twin edifice, which is there for no reason other than to balance out the mosque. Nothing askew here.

Taj temple

There is quite a bit askew in our work style these days, which has repercussions on performance and health. Here are some brief cites we discussed in Mumbai for what the science says happens to us with chronic overperformance and with work-life balance:

— Sixty-hour weeks reduce productivity 25% (Clifton)

— People who have good work-life balance work 21% harder (Executive Conference Board)

— WLB increases productivity 10.6% (Federal Reserve Board)

— WLB tripled shareholder return (Hewitt Assoc.)

— Working more than 51 hours a week results in a 29% greater risk of cardiovascular disease (Yang, Schnall)

— People who work more than 55 hours a week have a 33% increased risk of a stroke (Kivimaki)


Boundaries aren’t a frill in an unbounded digital world; they are a necessity to avoid the emergency room and burnout that grinds performance down to going through the motions. They are also a choice we can all make, since ignoring boundaries is mostly a byproduct of reflex behavior and fear of being seen as less than gung-ho.

I shared with the Mumbai audience an anecdote from my friend Tom Freston, former head of Viacom and MTV.  “At the end of the day, I was waiting for my managers to leave, so I could leave. And they were waiting for me to leave, so they could leave.” 

The Indian executives smiled, because they live that standoff every working day, as do millions of people around the world. What if we could be smart and productive enough to go with the science, instead of the fear? How different would our lives and output be?

The job is not a triathlon in pants. Endurance is for sports, not performance, as any brain researcher can tell you. We have limited powers of attention, which are shredded by excess time on task.

As India joins the ranks of modern nations, with a thriving tech field and growing entrepreneurship, it has a chance to learn from the mistakes of industrialized nations that bought in to the “more hours are better” trope. I salute Dr. Shekhawat and his colleagues for opening the conversation to a more successful road to performance and for knowing there can be no progress while operating on the same old unconscious reflexes. 

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Tags: overwork in India, long work hours, overload causes

The Work-Life Balance Imperative: Why Excess and Overload Are at Odds with the Human Mandate

Posted by Joe Robinson


When your car is out of alignment, you know it. It drifts into the other lane when you take your hand off the wheel, and you wind up fighting your own vehicle to stay on the path. So you take it to the shop and get the wheels balanced. When humans are misaligned by overwhelm, 60-hour weeks, or five hours of sleep a night, we know it too.

That’s because our physiology was designed to function with all systems operating in tandem at a level the brain can manage most efficiently, known as allostasis. It’s another way of saying we are born to be balanced.

When we’re not, we drift out of our physical and mental lanes into exhaustion, stress, and serious illnesses and diseases that burn up our health and performance like unbalanced wheels burn rubber—for nothing.


You wouldn’t know it from the state of the world or the sales of Tums, but staying aligned is a favorite topic inside each our heads and bodies. In one study, researchers measured what happens in the brain when it’s confronted with crazy, dissonant music with no discernible melody. The MRI scanner captured brain neurons furiously firing away, trying to find something, anything resembling a pattern.

They were looking for harmony, things in melodic equilibrium. Finding none, they couldn’t do their job, which is making sense out of the scrambled hash in front of us every day.

Another study measured what it is that people like about good dancers, which obviously we do, considering the number of dancing contests we have on the air and the appreciation of clever footwork going back to Fred Astaire and Soul Train. Researchers digitized the figures of the dancers, so the study’s participants wouldn’t be distracted by looks or clothes to go for the coolest or most beautiful person's moves. It turned out that what we are attracted to in the best dancers is their symmetry, the flow of body movements—harmony once again.

Balance is an aspiration and a mandate, from balanced minds, to meals to work-life balance. Someone who is unbalanced we tend to want to give a wide berth to.

We can see that maintaining equilibrium is an essential part of the physiology and not a frill by the body’s own balancing acts to counter stress. As Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky puts it in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, “a stressor can be defined as anything that throws your body out of allostatic balance and the stress-response is your body’s attempt to restore allostasis.”


When a threat overloads capacity to handle it, it sets off autonomic activation of the body’s defense system to cope with it, the stress-response triggering an alert that gushes hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol, jacks up blood pressure, rounds up energy stores in the body to push blood to the arms and legs to fight or run from the danger, and stops energy storage, unneeded when life is on the line.

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The activation process burns up energetic resources, such as fats and sugars, which have to be replaced. No problem. The body’s counterbalance squad, the parasympathetic system, is there to put a brake on the hyper-arousal and fuel-burning with its mandate—rest and digest. It makes us hungry for foods that can help us replace the lost nutrients (which can wind up to be junk food, if that’s what’s handy), and serves to calm us down after the threat is gone.

When the activation system of stress isn’t shut down, and we can’t return to allostasis for long periods of time or chronically, it can lead to any number of major health issues that we could term diseases and syndromes of imbalance. Irritable bowel. Hypertension. Diabetes. Stroke. Insomnia. Back pain. Adrenal dysfunction. Chronic fatigue syndrome. We get sick when we can’t counterbalance the forces throwing our system out of whack.

A mind out-of-balance because of excess demands and the chronic stress that results from them has less attention and focus, which undercuts performance on the job or anywhere else. Stress constricts the brain to the perceived crisis of the moment. You can’t plan or see the big picture. Emotions are on a hair-trigger. Rapport with customers or colleagues plummets.

It takes more effort for a fatigued mind to get anything done. Every task seems more difficult than it is as the strain of rumination keeps minds projecting an obsessive loop of worries.

One of the afflictions trending these days in many workplaces is Attention Deficit Trait. It’s not something you are born with, like Attention Deficit Disorder, but it mimics the symptoms—highly distracted, hard to stick with a task, flitting from one thing to the next, time urgency, shrunken attention span. It’s a condition that comes from overstuffing brain cells with excess demands, information overload, and various short-circuiting that comes from trying to do too much without a clone at your side. It’s your brain’s warning light that the gray matter is severely unbalanced.


We tend to procrastinate about things we don’t feel have value. Clearly, balance shouldn’t be one of those things. It is invaluable, crucial to our health, critical thinking, performance, and outlook. When we don’t pay attention to it, the default is to overload, chronic stress, burnout, and an unconscious mechanical momentum that perpetuates all of that.

Taking work-life balance seriously is a process of proactive self-management and awareness. We need to be aware of stress when we are in the middle of it, aware of emotional reactions and moods when we are in the middle of them, aware of where boundaries are needed, aware of demands that overwhelm coping ability, aware that we have to engage in work recovery processes after the day is done to enable the body’s balancing resources to shut down the activation of demands and start the re-creation process.

With awareness, we can catch ourselves and do what we need to dispute stress, solve challenges, restore the body’s natural recovery processes, and find the counterbalance to get back to where we once belonged, as Lennon-McCartney once put it.

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Tags: work-life balance and productivity, work-life balance and stress, physiology of balance, work life balance and the mind

The Best Stress-Buster We've Never Heard Of

Posted by Joe Robinson


The greatest motivator isn’t on an auditorium stage or audio book. It's a force that lies within all of us. It’s the drive of self-motivation that comes from an internal propulsion system that drives us toward achievement and progress, a hidden resource that can dramatically cut stress and increase work-life balance: mastery.

Whether you are trying to improve a 10k running time, or learn an instrument or ballroom dancing or yoga, the call of self-mastery propels you to do better—or less worse than you did last time, as one aikido enthusiast told me.


We are designed to continuously improve our skill at pursuits we are interested in and practice them regularly for the learning and self-challenge itself, intrinsic motivations shown to increase persistence and accomplishment. Studies show that students learning a musical instrument stick with it if they are self-driven and not forced by parents or peers.

The same is true of dieters. If they are losing weight because they want to and not externally motivated by the pressure of others, they are more likely to reach their goal. Students motivated by grades, an external metric, will drop a tough class, such as physics, while those whose goal is to learn will persevere even if it means a “C” on their records.

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester have documented why intrinsic motivation and the mastery compulsion it fuels are so powerful. We all have an overriding need to determine the content of our lives. Activities that let us experience mastery help us do that, allowing us to steer a course we have designed.

Self-mastery satisfies two of the three core psychological needs Deci and Ryan identified that all humans seek to satisfy—autonomy and competence. And if we do the activities with others, we gratify the third need, relatedness, or close social connection with others. Satisfy these needs, and we are gratified in a lasting way that external goals—money, success, status—which are ephemeral, can’t approach. We don’t really buy the fickle approval of others that comes with external metrics, so they don’t stick with us. Mastery, though, is self-validating. 

We can experience mastery on the job in work that we find challenging, and as we get better at our craft for its own sake, which can tap the competence need. But where we can really advance our mandate to be skillful is outside the professional world. Autonomy and competence can be best satisfied in our time off-the-clock.


Besides making us feel great and touching off a dopamine dance of satisfaction when we learn and advance our abilities, mastery also happens to be one of the best stress management tools on the planet. Work recovery science, which looks at the ways bodies and minds need to recover after a day of pressure and tension on the job, places mastery activities at the top of the list of strategies that can separate us from work stress and the thoughts of work that keep us ruminating about the day's events.

Relaxation and recreation are also good work recovery options, but mastery if the most effective at cutting stress. It fires up your competence, confidence, esteem, and sense of control, in addition to the learning and progress, which make you feel you are moving forward in life no matter what is happening on the professional side.

Mastery activities also have something else going for them. They force us to pay full attention to the rules and moves of the activity. The more attention we have on what’s before us, the less stress, which lives in the other two tenses.

There is a complete cutoff of the thoughts that drive stress. We are able to completely detach ourselves psychologically from work and work thoughts, which researchers say is the key to the recovery process from the overactivation mode we have been in all day.


The only competition in self-mastery is yourself and no goal except for developing your abilities. That’s the learning process, something we used to be very good at. As kids, we jumped in without worrying if we were good at it or not, and that’s how we learned.

Anyone who has ever seen a class of first-graders waving their hands, so enthused to answer a teacher’s question that some kneel on their chairs to try make their hands go higher knows that learning is exciting. Though we lose that spirit as we get older and worry too much about what others will think, that spark of mastery is still alive and well.

We just have to put on our kid hat again and do these five things we once did without thinking about it:

Don’t wait for an invitation

• Be eager to try something new

• You don’t need to know how

• Jump in without thinking about what anyone else thinks

• You want to try because you’ve never tried it before

Mastery activities trounce stress because they also contain the two keys to sustainable happiness. Kennon Sheldon of the University of Missouri and Sonya Lyubomirsky from the University of California Riverside have shown in their research that staying happy comes down to two proactive choices: initiating intentional activities and sustaining intentional activities.  

This puts mastery pursuits squarely at the center of a happy life. Mastery activities are a work-life balance insurance policy, making sure you indulge in the things that provide purpose and fun and connect you to your real life and that you actually have one.

Research from the University of Montreal shows that if you have a passion, you can add eight hours of joy to your week. Is that something you could use?

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Tags: leisure activities and happiness, stress management at home, mastery activities

The Best Employee Retention Strategy Ever: More Vacation Time

Posted by Joe Robinson


Most companies spend a lot of time building customer loyalty and usually know what to do to get it. Yet there is a lot less attention paid to another kind of loyalty that is just as important: employee commitment, and the much less known routes that make that happen. That's a big mistake in a strong job market with a couple of generations that have well-known commitment issues. 

Take a look at these numbers from a 2018 Deloitte survey. Some 43% of millennials don’t plan to stick around for more than two years and almost two-thirds of Gen Z, 61%, want to bolt within two years. Only 28% of millennials want to be at their company five years.

This is a ticking turnover time bomb, but there is a hidden tool to stem the outflow and improve the morale of employees to such a degree that they feel so respected, they don’t think about going anywhere else: more vacation time.


Mary Miller, co-owner of Jancoa, a cleaning firm in Cincinnati, says adding a week of vacation to her two-week policy reduced a 360% turnover rate to 60% in two months and lower as time went on. “The three-week vacation has been the most successful retention program we have ever had,” Miller told me. Productivity shot up, as did sales and profits.

“We realized that, with the money we were putting out for recruiting, training, and background checks for new employees, the extra week of vacation really cost us nothing.”

Stats from the Society for Human Resource Management show that it costs 90% to 200% of an employee's salary to replace them with somebody else.

How can another week of vacation make the difference in someone staying, instead of plotting to leave? It might have something to do with the fact that researchers (Hershfield, Mogliner, Barnea) have found that people who value time more than money are happier.

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When companies offer three weeks, for instance, over the standard one or two, it’s a perk that pays off in better work-life balance, which increases life satisfaction, and that in turn boosts job satisfaction. You need time to get recuperative benefits (two weeks to cure burnout) and go anywhere out of the country. Talk to people who have good vacation policies, three or four weeks, and they don't want to go anywhere else and lose that benefit.

People feel valued by a generous vacation policy, and that is the most important factor in employee engagement, which can result in the team working 21% harder, according to the Corporate Executive Board.


When Bart Lorang, CEO of Full Contact in Denver, Colorado, wanted to increase the appeal of his company to top software engineers so he could compete with tech hubs in California and Seattle, he decided to offer a sweetened vacation pot. Not only would he offer unlimited vacation time, but he would also give his employees a $7500 stipend to pay for their vacation. Recruitment and retention concerns solved.

The kicker on the $7500, though, is that you can only collect the money if you really take your vacation and stay unplugged the whole time you’re on it. He wants brains reset when they come back, because he knows it results in better work and fewer mistakes.

Competition for the best coders and computer geniuses in the tech world is fierce, so they have to provide serious perks to attract the top people. One of the most popular is the unlimited vacation policy. Employees can take the time they need, as long as all the work gets done. It is becoming commonplace for tech firms to adopt unlimited vacation. It attracts the best people and helps keep them there.

Millennials and Gen Z employees are particularly attuned to vacation policies. They value work-life balance and travel more than baby boomers, but they have less vacation time than boomers to take vacations. Additional vacation time goes a long way to give these two cohorts the sense they can have a life as well as a job.


The appeal of vacations may seem self-evident. Turn off stress, cure burnout (Hobfoll, Shirom), cut heart attack risk (30% in men, 50% in women who take two vacations; Brooks, Gump), relax, have fun, explore new places and foods, and live your life as fully as possible.

Yet there are deeper reasons why vacations can have a profound impact on outlook, attitude, and commitment. Humans have three core psychological needs that are paid off on a vacation like nowhere else: autonomy, competence, and connection with others.

We need to feel like we are writing our own scripts, the research of Ed Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester shows, and vacations give us that opportunity to determine the content of our lives to the max. We choose where we’re going to go, what we’re going to do.

We get from here to there using skills that make us feel competent. And we spend quality time with family and friends and make a host of new friendships that satisfy the need to connect with others. These are powerful souvenirs that make us feel intrinsically gratified. They translate to the positive outlook that we bring back to the job, and make us feel good about ourselves and the company that provides time to recreate, recharge, and discover our lives.

The energizing nature of a trip loaded with fun, positive emotions, and powerful new experiences increases productivity on return. You have more focus, and it takes less effort to get the job done. Reaction times have been shown to increase 40% after a vacation (Rosekind) and productivity along with them. Attention is the chief productivity tool, and a holiday restores it to working condition in the same way that a good night’s sleep rejuvenates an exhausted body or a charger brings your cell phone back to life. 

Ron Kelemen of the H Group in Salem, Oregon told me that he doubled his income when his company switched to more vacation time, as he took a month off himself each year to go snowboarding or visit Costa Rica. Relaxed and energized brains do more focused work.


Adding another week of vacation isn’t that hard to do. It starts with a quick change of the vacation policy. It has to be followed up, though, with organization. Employees should choose their vacation times at the beginning of the year, so that everyone knows when coverage will be needed. When holidays are figured in to the workflow and operations of the company, it all runs much more effectively than the seat-of-the-pants approach, where nothing is planned and there's no contingency for when it's time for someone to go on holiday.

Another key part of smoothly run vacations is crosstraining. Have teams learn each others’ jobs, so they can fill in when colleagues are out. This works when people are ill too. That’s what Kelemen does in his company. He says crosstraining builds incredible teamwork, since you owe your vacation to others filling in for you and vice-versa.

So the vacation strategy brings stellar teamwork, more productivity and focus and a feeling that the organization values employees’ lives. That makes you feel a part of the team, not apart from it. It's human nature that people want to stick around where they feel they belong. 

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Tags: vacations and work-life balance, vacation time, vacations and employee retention

6 Bogus Excuses Why We Don't Take All Our Vacation Time

Posted by Joe Robinson

Beach couple-1

We can come up with excuses for just about anything. Inventing false justifications is a talent for which all humans are Picassos of creativity, and it can extend to things that seem downright unbelievable—like why you can’t take a vacation.

This particular excuse is an American talent, if you can call handing back the best time you have all year to live freely and fully a talent. It’s more like self-sabotage, aided and abetted by instant technology, time urgency, and a belief that if you aren’t in contact with the digital world for 15 minutes, you might miss something earth-shattering. Yet when we fall prey to this reflex, what we really wind up missing is our lives.


A survey by Project: Time Off showed that more than half of Americans (55%) left vacation days on the table. That amounts to handing back your paycheck and working for free. That doesn’t add up.

That’s certainly true for the rest of the industrialized world, such as Europe and Australia, where not taking all your vacation time would be certifiable. “You’d be considered stupid, if you didn’t take your vacation,” Zurich, Switzerland native Sybille Hartman told me. “Leisure is like a people sport in Europe. It’s very important that you take this time. It’s something you’re proud of. The topic at work is often about holidays.”

Small Travel girl Slovenia

In Europe, people are either talking about the trip they just had or the one they are planning. It doesn’t really go that way in American offices because of a variety of false beliefs and myths about productivity, technology, and identity that drive real-appearing reasons to avoid living your life—like I might get laid off if I take all my vacation days, or there would be too much email when I return, or I might miss something.


The latter is one I get in my coaching work with people whose chronic stress has developed into burnout. I find out that the person hasn’t taken a vacation in years. Why? Something important might happen while they are gone. They worry everything would fall apart if they took a holiday.

What’s falling apart, though, is their health. The human physiology is designed for rest and maintenance to counter the activation and demands in our life. When there’s no interruption of the demands driving the stress response and a chance to recharge lost energetic resources, major medical blowbacks occur.

This is why vacations have been shown to be such a great stress management strategy. They cure burnout (Hobfoll, Shirom) over a two-week period of regathering crashed emotional resources. Vacations reduce the risk of heart attacks in men by 30% (Gump, Mathews) and in women who take more than one vacation a year by 50% (Framingham Heart Study). There is no health food that can give you that benefit.

It’s time to dispense the smelling salts and come to our senses. Excuses that keep us from living DON’T MAKE SENSE. What is the work for, if not for allowing us to live our lives to the fullest and participate in experiences of recreation, relaxation, and exploration that satisfy one of our deepest needs—autonomy, the feeling that we are determining the content of our life.


This is what researchers say our brain neurons want more than anything else for long-term fulfillment—writing our script to search out novelty and challenge. Nothing delivers those two qualities like a vacation. So why would anyone want to forego this awesome payoff?

Well, it turns out that some pernicious and bogus excuses are pretty darn good at holding back our lives. Let’s detonate them now:


1. Might Miss Something. The fear of missing out is part-worry about an emergency or problem happening not on your watch, but mostly these days it’s about technology addiction. Constant email checking and interruptions erode impulse control, leaving more and more of us with no ability to regulate impulsivity to check constantly. That leaves the thought of not checking mail for a week or two terrifying. Some 62% of Americans check work email on vacations (Travel Leaders), while 77% of British holiday-makers don’t, according to a new survey by Panoramic Villas.

The fear of missing something is a projected anxiety that fuels overwork and burnout when we don’t have clear understandings about what constitutes an emergency as well as contingencies to take care of problems while we’re on vacation. Emergencies should always be handled by phone, not email, so we don’t have to be checking messages every five minutes even when we are home. The key is to plan ahead and designate someone else to take emergencies while you are on holiday. Put that person’s contact info on your email autoresponder so work problems don’t preempt your living time.

The key to work recovery, the physiological and mental recuperation from stress and tension, is psychological detachment from the sources of stress and work thoughts. That can’t happen if you’re checking in on holiday.

2. Things Will Fall Apart. This is another baseless fear. It stems from the center-of-the-universe false belief that you are holding the world together and that your departure would spell doom. This comes from deep in the American identity, the performance identity, which makes us believe we are our jobs. In fact, the job is just part of your ID and not even the lion’s share. It’s what psychologists call a persona, your social handle. It’s hard to pull away from the job for a vacation, when you believe that worth comes only from performance.

We can’t live our lives to the fullest unless we have identities outside the job as well as on. What are your interests, enthusiasms, affinities? Start identifying them now and head for the direction your brain wants: curiosity and exploration. And keep in mind the thought of things falling apart is just that, a thought, and thoughts aren’t real. Only experience is.

3. Too Much Email. It’s hard to believe, but I hear this one a lot. I can’t take my vacation because there’s too much email when I get back. Try saying that one more time, only thinking about what it is you’re saying. You are going to give up your best living time of the year because of EMAIL? The solution: Put a message on your email autoresponder stating that no email will be read by you or even received by you until you return from your trip. Leave the name and number of someone people can get in touch with while you’re gone, if an issue pops up.

4. Too Busy. This all-purpose excuse is very effective at getting people to be so consumed in the next to-do that they are willing to waive their just rewards for working their tails off for a year. It’s a self-infliction that comes from a brain addled by time urgency and overwhelm, i.e., the stress response, a false alarm that makes every minute of the day an emergency and forces us to make every minute on and off work jammed with productive endeavor. We can’t relax, because we’re too busy.

The mental block of “I’m too busy” is another false belief. There is no emergency, unless you want to consider the abdication of life as one. The way around this block is to remember that it’s not an emergency; it’s a speed trap. Ask yourself the real question: AM I TOO BUSY TO LIVE? Plan your vacation at the beginning of the year. Get it on the schedule for yourself and the company. This is one of the secrets of European vacation time. Everyone plans their big holidays well in advance, and everything is figured out in advance into the workflow of the company and the life plans of the individual, so it’s not the interruptive obstacle it’s made to seem here.

5. Too Guilty. Some of us fall prey to the bravado displays of workaholics around us or feel guilty about the burden we might inflict on others if we take our vacation. Schedule your time off for a less hectic time in the schedule, give plenty of notice, and there is no reason for guilt. You earned the vacation, and that vacation is on the books of your company’s policy for some reason, say, like permission to actually take the time off. Refuse to shave a minute off your vacation time because someone wished you “happy loafing.” The fact that some people choose to be work martyrs and miserable as a result is not your problem.

6. Might Get Laid Off. We live in a time of high job insecurity. It has made some feel that taking a holiday could be a strike against them and mark them for the next layoff. Giving up your vacation in the hope that defensive overworking will protect you from future cutbacks is a false belief standing on the neck of your life. I have talked to and interviewed many who were laid off even though they didn’t take their vacations. Trying to control what can’t be controlled is a futile exercise. The most memorable example of this is a woman at a large Texas tech company who barely took a week of her four-week vacation she had accrued after 15 years at the company. Then she got laid off. “Where did my life go?” she asked me, looking back over the years of untaken vacations.


All of the excuses for not taking vacations are byproducts of the biggest false belief, that time off is substandard to time on, and therefore, indulging in it is a waste of productive endeavor. All the research, not to mention common sense, tells us that this is not true. Time off is the engine of time on, providing the energy, focus, and fatigue-busting that helps us get the job done faster with less effort and the life satisfaction and positive emotions that make life worth living and increase job satisfaction along the way.

Part of the process of blowing up excuses to not take vacations or all the time we have on them is understanding the value we are walking away from. Vacations are nothing less than the time of our lives, which I’m sure you would consider a valuable thing. And you would consider it more valuable once you got out on a holiday for a couple of weeks of fun and head-clearing.

Push past the irrational fear and see how wrong the thoughts in your head are. An account executive I talked to in Lansing, Michigan, Anita Salustro, hadn’t taken a real vacation in years because she thought everything would implode while she was gone. A friend of hers at another branch of the office took a three-week vacation, so she decided to take a one too. She had an amazing time, and when she returned, the world was still spinning on its axis. 

“It was all in my head, as it’s in the head of so many people I know. I survived it, loved it. I realized that there’s life outside of work. My company didn’t fold.”

Tags: vacation time, vacations and excuses not to take all our time

Risk Factors for Burnout: The 6 Burnout Triggers

Posted by Joe Robinson

Stressed out guy-1

In an unbounded, lean-staffed world, burnout is never too far from jumping up and taking down any of us. What used to be the domain of mostly the people industries—education, social work, and health care, burnout has become a problem for everyone.

The last stage of chronic stress, burnout is the final stop after a prolonged bout of excessive stress that drains energetic resources until there is no remaining capacity to cope. All that remains are the signal dimensions of burnout: complete exhaustion—mentally, physically, and emotionally—depersonalization and cynicism, and an inefficacy that comes with reduced productivity and low morale.


It’s a strange, mysterious state to be in for most people who wind up with it, since they tend to be the hardest workers, the achievers, the most conscientious. They have always been able to bring more to the job than the average person—more endurance, stamina, intensity. But now it’s gone. What happened?

In a nutshell, their coping resources were drained over a prolonged period during which the stress response remained activated 24/7, unleashing a tide of defensive resources, from hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to jacked-up blood pressure velocity. At a certain point, the backup energy supply runs out, and the resulting fatigue is so startling that the burned-out can hardly recognize the person whose name is on their driver’s license.

Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

The bigger secret of burnout is that, yes, it can be set off by an individual overdoing it in the face of severe demands, but it’s often the byproduct of structural and organizational factors too. Researchers have identified risk factors in organizations—burnout triggers—beyond individual stress reactions that play a prime role in burnout.

The more we can become aware of these warning signs, or imbalances between the person and job, the more individuals can avoid the burnout treadmill and organizations can keep their talent from flaming out and running up health and retention costs. Some 40% of people who leave their companies cite stress as a factor.


Humans are the social animal, and that’s certainly true at the office as everywhere else. We are designed to connect, relate, and support and when that doesn’t happen in overloaded organizations people operating in isolation beyond coping resources can get trapped on the burnout treadmill, where pessimism and negative emotions fester. Burnout scholars Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter have documented that when we don’t pay attention to the human side of work, there are consequences—bad health to bad performance.

“People who are burning out are likely to withdraw from the job, both psychologically and physically,” she and Michael Leiter report in The Truth About Burnout. They invest less time and energy in their work, do only what is necessary, and are absent more often. In addition to doing less, they do their work less well. High-quality work requires time and effort, commitment and creativity, but the burned-out individual is no longer willing to give these freely. The drop in quality and quantity of work produced is the occupational bottom line of burnout.”

What they are describing is a decline in attitude and output that comes from disengagement in the work. It turns out that the main dimensions of burnout are the opposite of employee engagement—energy, commitment, and effectiveness. No management team would knowingly order up a prescription for burnout if they knew it would gut engagement.

Yet in a world where autopilot reflex is the driving force, action precludes thought and burnout triggers can become entrenched while everyone is up to their eyeballs in mechanical momentum. Let’s take a look a look at how group and interpersonal dynamics in the organization can create burnout triggers. Here are six warning signs identified by Maslach and Leiter, known as the Areas of Worklife Model, that can transform stressors into a much bigger problem: burnout.



Excessive workload is always the aggravating factor for burnout. When demands constantly push physiologies beyond capacity, energy sources are overloaded. Nobody wins when we do more than we can do well. If you are bringing home work and leaving late chronically, this doesn’t end well. You might be able to handle the work of an ex-colleague who hasn’t been replaced for a little while, but you and managers need to insist on getting the support, or the department will soon be down another person. The risk of heart disease and diabetes increase threefold with workweeks more than 51 hours. Excessive hours keep you from recharging and recovering from stress, allowing chronic stress to entrench, which crowds out positive emotions, which are absent in burnout.


Researcher Robert Karasek identified the chief driver of workplace stress, lack of job control, or latitude. Stress is a function of how much perceived control we feel we have over the demands coming our way. The goal for managers who want engaged staff should be to encourage more autonomy in how people do their jobs. More flexibility leads to more sense of control and more self-responsibility. More micromanaging leads to less latitude and more stress. Discuss ways you might be able to play a bigger role in how you manage email, deadlines, your schedule, or other stressors that create a work environment that feels out of control.


Extreme workload wears away at the energy and loyalty of employees. When overload becomes the expectation and there is no compensating reward for the extra effort or even a sense of gratitude, it is human nature to feel you’re on the short end of the stick. This is the breeding ground for disengagement. Having to make efforts continually beyond the call of duty or job responsibilities without recognition or reward deepens loss of trust and lack of commitment. People who put in a lot of effort and get inadequate rewards are twice as likely to have heart disease (Siegrist).


There is an implied contract for most of us that we will be treated in good faith. When that trust is broken, cynicism grows. As workload grows along with profits that don’t get spread around, loyalty fades and bitterness sets in. In the era of downsizing and restructuring, many feel their efforts are not valued, promises are not being kept, and everyone is replaceable. This climate added to chronic overload can ramp up the withdrawal and cynicism of burnout.


High-turnover, mergers, and constant changes within organizations can hollow out support systems and leave employees estranged as they try to do more than they are equipped for. Alienation is the route to cynicism, a main dimension of burnout. People feel more depersonalized when there is a sense that no one cares, and engagement disappears. The risk for burnout grows as trust fades. Be as proactive as you can and communicate with managers and lobby hard for support. Finding teammates and mentors who care can provide a critical buffer to the forces of overload.


People are more likely to embrace the vision of the company they work for when it reflects their values. Having a good fit on values can spur people to go beyond the extra mile. But when those values are contradicted by policies or behaviors that are at odds with deeply held values, the mismatch can lead to an acceleration of disengagement and withdrawal.

Burnout, then, is often a two-way street. The chronic stress that sets it off may start with incessant high demands that drain an individual’s coping resources. The experienced burnout, though, can be deepened by the social layers of organizational distrust and lack of support and reward.

Since the damage of burnout to individuals and teams is super-costly, from absenteeism to cardiovascular treatment, to depression (which is seven times more costly to treat than the average workplace malady), to tanking productivity, the status quo has to be challenged and solutions found. There is a healthier road to success.

Tags: burnout, social support and burnout

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