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Can You Be Ambitious At Work And Still Look After Your Health?

Shannon Harvey

I sat across from my tanned, lean, sparkly-eyed friend and thought, whatever she’s on, I want some.

This friend leads hundreds of people in the highly competitive, always-on, ever-innovating travel industry and in the last few years we’ve bonded over our shared struggles in dancing the work-life two-step. But when we caught up for breakfast this week, our conversation wasn’t about how to cook healthy family meals in a hurry, or swapping time-management book recommendations. None of that was relevant to my relaxed, smiling, untroubled friend as she sat eating her organic muesli without a care in the world.

So what had changed? Was it meditation? A new diet? A brilliant health coach? No, my friend was simply on… a sabbatical.

My breezy breakfast rendezvous got me thinking this week about the very delicate balance between my work, my life, and my health. As someone who lives with an autoimmune disease which is exacerbated by the turbulence of a fast-paced life, I couldn’t help but wonder if it’s possible to be ambitious at work and still look after my health? In order to be more like my friend did I need to chuck it all in and get outa Dodge?

If you’re interested enough to click on this blog, I don’t need to tell you that things in many work places are out of whack. We all know that well paid jobs usually come with long working hours. One in five parents working full time is putting in five extra weeks a year in unpaid work just to keep up with the demands of the job. Here in Australia more than 40 percent of us work more than 40 hours per week. Overwork has become the norm – both admired and expected.

Around this time last year I was pondering the work-life-health conundrum when I devised a simple experiment to see if it was possible to tick all the boxes on an ambitious working parent’s daily “Should Do” list. As I raced through my day doing everything that experts and society at large expect we should do in various aspects of life, I learned that I was on a mission impossible. Doing “it all,” every day would take 28 hours. The conclusion? There is a distinct work-life time-deficit and many of us are paying off the shortfall with our health.

Taken to the extreme, the consequences of overwork are devastating. In 2013, the death of a 21-year-old intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch sparked a much needed discussion about a culture that compels hopeful investment bankers into working 100-hour weeks. Moritz Erhardt, a bright and ambitious young man from south-west Germany hadn’t disclosed to his would-be employers that he was on medication for epilepsy, a condition that can be triggered by exhaustion. He had a seizure in the shower of his London flat after working for 72 hours straight.

Sadly this is not an isolated case fuelling a media beat-up. In the US, more than 120,000 deaths per year are associated with work-related stress such as long working hours, job insecurity, and work-family conflict. In China they call “death by overwork” guolaosi, with a staggering 600,000 incidents estimated each year.

For me, the heartbreaking part of Erhardt’s story was that one of his bosses at the bank was quoted as saying that there was no particular urgent project the young man had been working on to warrant the long hours. “We are used to working with people who are ambitious and want to over-perform,” Bob Elfring told The Guardian. In other words, the young man compromised his health simply because he was ambitious.

But is the bond between career ambition and long working hours necessarily bound in blood?

A couple of years ago I made a choice to forgo what would once have been my dream job in the media. My personal aim – to live well, despite being diagnosed with Sjogrens disease – meant that I made a professional decision to remain an independent journalist, giving me flexibility and autonomy. But this by no means amounts to checking out. In the last five years I’ve made a feature film, written a book, started making the next film and had two kids. But my average work week is much closer to the recommended 38 hours and a long way off the 52 hours being worked by some of my ambitious CEO friends.

Having a mortgage and raising two kids means I’m not in a position to take a year-long sabbatical like my equanimous breakfast date, but I do realise that I'm in a very fortunate position to be able to pursue a career that gives me a lot of latitude. I know the pressure many experience at work is not by choice. To be really honest, my work gives me such deep purpose in life (which as I've written about before, comes with host of health benefits) that I’m not sure that I’d give it all up even if it was an option.

But I guess what I’m really saying is that for me, health is not the sacrifice I’m prepared to make to the gods of success. I think Goldilocks might be onto something when she insists on her porridge being not too hot and not too cold. Too much ambition compromises my health and makes my life miserable, too little makes it meaningless. It’s a work in progress, but I think I’m on the verge of getting it just right.

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