What Happens When We Work Too Hard? A lot.

Greetings from Washington, D.C. where earlier this week the sun shone and afternoon temperatures reached 72 degrees. It was what we in your Nation’s Capital call the February Tease; every February, and usually after a nasty cold spell, we experience a perfectly spring-like day.

And then, winter returns with a vengeance.

I fear that not too many of us in the D.C. area broke free from office and work obligations on our lovely spring-like day this week to just be present, to feel warm sun on our skin and clean air in our lungs. Being present doesn’t come easily to people who work too hard at jobs that have lost their meaning.

Sadly, our commitment to work often supersedes our commitment to our health and well-being. An online article appeared last week in which the writer lamented that his hiring manager at a media company expects him to show up for work even when contagiously sick, rather than to wimp it out at home. So, coughing, wheezing, and contagious, the writer arrived at the office, operating well below his typical level of effectiveness, and exposing others to his infectious illness.

In this article recently posted at EHS Today; the lede brilliantly describes the impact of working too hard:

“Although some boastful types might suggest they give 110% on the job all day every day, we all know that’s just not possible. Nobody is capable of performing at peak efficiency at all hours of the day, and yet too often the expectations of senior management are that every employee — and especially those whose performance is measured in terms of productivity goals — start the day at the top of their game and then sustain that level until their shift ends. But that mentality of constant go-go-go is actually reducing a company’s productivity, not enhancing it.”

We don’t take proper care of our mental and physical health. And by extension, we don’t take enough time off for vacation, or staycation, or just to recharge. More often than not, our value seems to be measured against the comparative cost-effectiveness of machines and AI. We are humans, not machines, and the devaluing of our human experience has reached epidemic levels.

What is more, working too hard has cost American companies greatly through lost productivity that runs well into the billions of dollars, annually.

No wonder why so many of us burn out or rust out on the job.

Among our guests last season on The Tightrope with Dan Smolen podcast was nationally recognized wellness expert Charles Glassman, MD. Through the first-hand accounts of his patients, Dr. Glassman has become acutely familiar with the deleterious impacts on workers that work too hard:

“Our brain is funny; its primary functtion is to keep us safe from danger. It has us believe that in order to insulate us from such, we must work harder, meaner, and longer to stay ahead of potential competitors who can rip the rug out from under us at any moment. But the reality is, when we are well rested and reflective rather than reactive, we put ourselves in a better place; a place that is well insulated from the ultimate danger of meaningless or, even worse, toxic, self-destructive work.”

As someone who has successfully merged conventional medicine with wellness best-practices and next-practices, Dr. Glassman counsels his on-the-job suffering patients to work smarter rather than harder. But, quite often, he orders his patients to take their hard-earned vacation time.

Like Dr. Glassman, I feel that for us to get to a place of doing meaningful work, we must first be of sound mind and body. Frazzled people fall into a meaningless-trap; the work that they do is rendered transactional and devoid of purpose, but also the work lacks fun. And many of them do not use, and ultimately lose, their accrued vacation time out of fear that taking it will be perceived by management as a sign of weakness.

When we work too hard, we suffer.

So, what can we do about it? Dr. Glassman urges us to find purpose everyday “doing something [that you] love, something that provides meaning.” That, he says, gets us to a place of working smarter where our value to hiring managers and clients is maximized, but where we also take better care of our health and well-being and live better, happier lives. A podcast listener named Laura, who heard The Tightrope podcast episodes featuring Dr. Glassman, followed his advice. She writes:

“I work for a D.C. law firm. The work is hard and some days are just brutal. But, during lunch hours, I try to get out, take my camera with me to [McPherson Square], and snap nature photography to my heart’s delight. I’m told that I’m pretty good at photography, and, I hope to turn my creative passion for it into a meaningful side-hustle.”

Let us get to a place of meaningful work through a full-time job, a side-hustle, or an entrepreneurial endeavor of our dreams. But to do that, let us first transform the transactional nature of work into something that is actually relational. In other words, let’s aspire to do work that is not merely remunerative (pays us), but that has a profound effect on us, helps support people and communities, protects the planet, and is fun.

Podcast listener Laura’s nature photography side-hustle may gain the intrinsic value needed to provide her life great and lasting meaning. And when Laura takes that camera with her on an amazing eco-tourism vacation, she will surely derive that great and lasting meaning.

Our best days lie ahead.

DAN SMOLEN is executive producer and host of the podcast, The Tightrope with Dan Smolen. Listen and subscribe to us by keywording “The Tightrope with Dan Smolen” on Apple Podcasts. Also, please rate us and offer suggestions for future guests and topics.

Photo credit: Working Sick, iStock Photo.