For most of my career I was fortunate to be part of a major Fortune 500 company. I had insane career growth opportunities (IMHO) and real adventures in learning, leading, traveling and challenging myself. When I became a single mom, I had a manager who understood I needed to work at home when my daughters were sick or having one of those northeastern snow days. I worked with a team of people who supported each other and me. I was able to earn a good living, grow my salary and eventually shop places other than Goodwill.
But the pursuit of perfectionism, the responsibility I felt to my team, to my director, and to the job – not to mention my daughters – eventually ate away at my health. One year I was hopping (rapidly) into work on crutches with my left foot in a cast and with my right wrist in a splint. I needed carpal tunnel surgery from overworking my right hand while developing our intranet pages, and I couldn’t see my way clear to make time to have that surgery done. At the same time, I was taking care of a house and a yard — the kind with big maple trees that covered the lawn with several feet of leaves in the fall — with the help of a 7 year old and a 10 year old.
I was super mom.
I get anxious just thinking about those days.
In order to balance everything my daughters needed with what my job needed, I took my laptop with me to their sporting events, sat up until midnight working, and had little recreation or relaxation. By age 18 and 15, my daughter were clear that they never wanted to be part of a corporation like mine.
And it was hard — no, impossible — to stop working at that pace. One time, a subordinate reminded me that when I put in extra time or worked the weekends sending out emails, my team also felt compelled to work those hours. It was not my intent. In my head, I just kept thinking “If I can do this one thing or answer these 5 emails, I might get caught up.” Or – “If I don’t answer promptly people will think I’m irresponsible and won’t trust me.” Or – “I have to prove that I can do all this.”
In the “glory days’ of this company, we worked so well as a team that I always felt supported even on the worst days when Payroll was in danger of not running. But as the recession hit and our work got restructured (translated “outsourced”), the workplace became increasingly intense. Failure was highly visible. My manager wanted answers – wanted to be able to reach me by cell phone anytime anywhere. So I accelerated my efforts.
I want to be clear – I worked for a company that counted “wellness” among its initiatives. We had a fitness center on campus. (I never had time to use it.) We had safety meetings quarterly. (I raced in and out of these in a panic to get back to “real work.”) We held seminars on stress management. (I rolled my eyes and said if I spent any more time away from my desk I was going to lose my mind.) I always thought that somehow I could catch up — exceed expectations, meet the tight project timeline and budget, control the outcomes so that everyone would be happy.
Instead, I couldn’t sleep. I overate and gained 40 pounds. I couldn’t verbalize what I was feeling and so there were walls between me and my closest companions. I knew I needed to re-focus on my health and so I started taking Yoga classes and marked Wednesdays as a day I absolutely needed to leave on time to get to my yoga class. I say no one had respect for that boundary I set because I missed almost every yoga class. I never got out of work on time despite my constant reminders to everyone that I needed to leave. I was a “victim” of everyone else’s needs. In truth, I didn’t feel like I had permission to leave for something as silly as a yoga class — even though it was after work hours.
The final awakening came when – instead of helping me get back on track – my HR rep said “you’re acting like you’re bi-polar.” I remember I just stared at her. And what I thought was: no one cares; no one cares WHY I’m stressed, depressed and anxious; and furthermore, I’ve just demonstrated a weakness that is going to get me eaten alive in this corporate jungle.” And so I left.
It took me a year away to really stop beating myself up and give myself the freedom to take time to have friendships, exercise and healthy eating fill in the gaps in my brain. And yes, I do mean gaps in my brain. Because it is my belief that being “on” all the time and trying to please everyone created poor judgement and decision making. I think of it now like being impaired by alcohol or drugs while driving a car. In the long run, my employer didn’t benefit from my endless hours of work; and my family and friends shared in my stress.
I have to say, I’d been jaded and doubtful that any wellness initiatives by a corporation would change my experiences. But I’ve been wrong.
Today’s wellness is deeply embedded in corporate cultures at the best companies. It is no longer just for the sake of controlling medical insurance costs. Rather, smart, progressive employers are looking at all aspects that make their workplaces “great places to work.” And that’s why and how I came to contribute to The SAP Guide to Employee Well-Being.
Note the name – well-being. This isn’t just about wellness. It’s about every aspect of our lives. And it is most successful when leadership in the company takes the first step, sets the example, and encourages their teams to follow.
The following initiatives combine to create a holistic program:
Social Well-Being. The number of adult Americans with no close friends has tripled since 1985.
Physical Well-Being. Only 1/5th of adults meet the CDC’s Physical Activity Guidelines.
Psychological Well-Being. 77% of people experience regular physical symptoms as a result of stress.
Financial Well-Being. 72% of Americans reported feeling stressed about money at least some time during the past month.
All taken together, programs that address the entire worker, define a progressive, responsible employer, don’t you think? That’s where I want to be working.