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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Case for Personal Sustainability

Lately I’ve heard lots of people mention how long they’ve been working. 12-hour days. 30 hours at a stretch to get out a proposal.

I’m guilty of this, too. In fact, two weeks ago, I attended a conference where 12- and 14-hour days were the norm (full disclosure: I wasn’t “on call” the whole time but got to attend sessions as well as work at them). When I got home, I worked long and hard to catch up on all the unfinished business that accumulated while I was out of the office, and to meet my current writing deadlines.

It cost me. I had severe neck and shoulder pain for more than a week, even after repeated applications of yoga and a myotherapy massage. No one could explain the reason for the pain.

But I think I know what caused the trauma—the long hours, and the lugging of a bagful of books, pamphlets, and other paraphernalia, including my laptop, and the walking long and far on hard surfaces like concrete and concrete-covered linoleum, even though I wore flats (I gave up heels long ago) that unfortunately had nowhere near the support of my typical off-duty shoes: clogs, sandals, running shoes.

No, I’m not complaining or looking for a merit badge. I realize that the pain was my body reminding me to take better care of myself.

I am the only one who can do this. And so I did. I took five days away from the office—and my laptop—to give my body a break, and to refresh my mind by hiking.

Maybe you’ve been working long hours and though you’re not exactly complaining, you’re sort of proud of your work ethic. Maybe your body hasn’t called you on it yet—at least not overtly. But it will.

Metaphysical mumbo-jumbo? Not so to the NIH, which is funding a research study to explore the connection between environmental stress and human diseases. Here’s what the NIH Call for Research says:

Everyday stressors from one’s environment modulate physiological pathways, leading to transient and permanent biological changes. … Exposure to stressors can lead to alterations in nuclear, cellular, or organ system function and/or structure. These changes can be characterized at molecular, cellular, or physiologic levels and measured grossly in target tissues.

I hope that the next time you hear yourself telling your friend, your partner, or a business acquaintance how much you’ve been working, you’ll stop and ask yourself what it’s going to cost—and if there's a better way.

A work ethic is a good thing. But so is personal sustainability.

Because even though it’s hard and goes against our work-addicted culture, you are the only one who can take care of yourself. And the only one who really wants to.


Anonymous CarynW said...

Thanks for writing about this. A lot of people stress themselves completely out, or go to work when they're sick and should be in bed, and then wonder why they never have any energy. Of course, the people who need this reminder the most are the ones who feel like if they don't keep holding the world together, it'll fall apart, so they just have to keep on keeping on. But maybe you'll reach some borderline people, anyway!

12:56 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

One has to question if all of this stressing and "working" is effective and efficient. I agree with Carynw in the ego centric feeling that the world will fall apart if they don't grind at that grindstone. If it can't get done in the normal workweek, there is a problem If you aren't taking care of yourself, do you really expect someone else to care?

9:42 AM

Blogger Joanne said...

Good points, all!

4:38 PM


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