What if your manager sat you down and said these words to you?

“As a condition of your continued employment here, it will be necessary for you to adhere to the following…

  • work must consume you, your time,
    and your energy
  • you must never say no to a
    work-related request
  • you must be reachable by phone or
    email at all times, day or night, in the event of a crisis at work
  • you must be thinking about work and
    planning for work when you are with your family or friends
  • you must miss many dinners with
    your family in order to meet work obligations
  • you must choose to forfeit your
    vacation rather than fall behind and have to catch up on work
  • you must be available by phone and
    email in order to continue work during those rare occasions when you do
    take vacation
  • you must prioritize your clients’,
    your customers’, and your colleagues’ time zones over your own and be
    available to work according to their schedule
  • you must frequently forget and miss
    your family’s special events and occasions in order to be on conference
    calls and/or meet aggressive deadlines,
  • you must be willing to lose touch
    with friends
  • you must put your hobbies and
    life’s pleasures on hold for the sake of work
  • you must give up proper sleep, skip
    lunch, and sacrifice your health and happiness for the sake of work
  • in summary, you must pledge to
    consistently put work before all else—even your greatest needs and wants.”

What would you say in reply to such demands?

This was the question I posed to a group during a training class I led many years ago. The group of managers and directors came through the doors disgruntled and rattling off about the leadership team to which they reported. Though the air conditioning was loudly whirring on full blast on what was the hottest and most humid day of the summer so far, the air in the room was thick with heated discontent.

Being one of the smaller spaces in the training facility, the room had a single small window flanked by white shutters. On the wall opposite the window, there was a huge multimedia LCD screen that acted like a mirror when not in use. Seated at tables facing the screen, the group had been “strongly encouraged” to attend this training and made no secret of the fact they were resentful and angry. It was evident from the beginning that they clearly missed and desired work-life balance. It was also evident that they placed the blame squarely on their company (human resources, leadership, their own managers, the company in general, etc.) for their lack of it.

As this group of managers and directors listened to each condition on the list of “hypothetical terms” of their continued employment, they grew more and more vocally disgruntled and belligerent. To my surprise, they were not at a loss for certain choice, four-letter words of protest! I let this go on for a few minutes so that they could vent and get it all out of their systems. As the last person uttered a “humph,” crossed his arms in front of himself, leaned back defiantly in his chair, and glared at me with a look of indignance, I knew it was time for me to make my move. I calmly and confidently met his gaze and held it for a moment. Clearly, the group of his colleagues with whom I worked a few months earlier had not prepared them for this encounter with me.

For the first time since they had arrived, the room was quiet. Even the air conditioner had paused its constant whirring. In that moment, I took a deliberate step forward, and in a dramatic show I leaned in conspiratorially. In a measured whisper, I said to them, “I can promise each of you that your managers will never mandate that you do any of this. And do you know why? Because. You’re. Already. Doing. It. On. Your. Own.”

The Personal Cost of Busyness

On that day, the stark realization for every person in that room mirrored what many of us must face. When we claim that we lack work-life balance or life harmony or work-life fit or work-life integration or whatever catchphrase we are using this season, what we are really saying is that we have failed to take ownership and control of our own lives. Our lives have been hijacked, so to speak, and we are complicit in the hijacking. We have failed, and that can leave a bad taste in our mouths. And yet, the awareness and admission of failure and its causes are what can ultimately put us on the path to establishing work-life boundaries that support what we most value and want out of life.

We are not meant to wander or spin our wheels in the wilderness for forty years. But when I talk with busy people who remain overworked and unfulfilled in jobs that utterly exhaust them, that is exactly what is happening.

How did we arrive at this place? What happened? Did we wake up one morning, look over at our still-sleeping partner lying beside us, think about our children also still sleeping in their beds, and decide that we would jeopardize everything and put work before all else? Did we think fondly of good times with friends, revel in memories of hobbies and pastimes we enjoy, and decide that these are unnecessary and frivolous life-extras?

No, it goes much deeper than an overnight phenomenon. Simply put, the root cause is busyness, which has evolved to be associated with status, productivity, earning potential, and self-worth. Around the globe, companies are in the business of earning a profit—so is it any coincidence that the word business is really busyness?

While eating lunch during a company’s annual conference at which I spoke earlier last year, I sat with a group of three senior managers from one of the “big four” accounting firms. At one point in the conversation, one of the men started talking about a presentation he was currently working on for a prospective client. He mentioned that he’d only had about five hours of sleep the night before because he’d been so consumed with the presentation.

One of the other senior managers promptly spoke up to offer that she, too, had been losing sleep because of a particularly high-stakes presentation she was working on for a current prestigious client, and that she’d consistently slept only four hours for each of the past several nights.

As I watched and listened to what was happening, the third senior manager sat up straighter in his seat, looked at both of them, and said, “The current engagement I’m on with my team has been so intense that, for months now, my regular sleeping schedule has been only four hours of sleep a night, and I have also been asked to take on some additional mentoring responsibilities. So, my schedule is going to get even more crazy busy.”

He then sat back in expectation of what the other two would say. They gazed at him with what I can only describe as a weird admiration and nodded their heads. In that moment, it hit me. I was occupying a front-row seat, watching a contest to determine which of these senior managers was the most important. The head-nodding ritual was the conceding of defeat. The deciding factor in the competition boiled down to which of them was the busiest. In other words, importance was synonymous with (1) how much sleep was lost to work, (2) whether the lost sleep was related to a prospective or existing client, (3) the perceived status of the client or the engagement, and (4) the duration of the engagement. The “winning” senior manager obviously scored bonus points when he was given the opportunity to become even busier by taking on more responsibility.

Imagine if I’d also been a senior manager at the firm and joined in the conversation with, “Hey listen, I got seven hours of sleep last night.” What reactions do you think I would’ve received?

· “Must be nice to get that much sleep.” [envy veiled in sarcasm]

· “Sounds like you’re slacking off.” [slacking off of work, that is, which makes someone a slacker]

· “How did you manage that?” [surprise coupled with sincere curiosity about how anyone could be in the senior manager role and get that much sleep]

· “I can’t even remember the last time I got that much sleep.” [a longing for and reminiscence about how good it is to get real sleep]

· “Were you sick or did you oversleep or something?” [disbelief that getting seven hours of sleep could be intentional given the demands of the work]

These hypothetical responses reveal and confirm the larger issue of how busyness (or lack thereof) has become conflated with value, worth, status, importance, etc. As such, the conversation between the three senior managers is not unique. Similar conversations are happening all the time. Whether it is done inadvertently or not, a spirit of one-upmanship is alive and well when it comes to who is busier. Because workplaces reward, recognize, compensate, and promote busyness, being busy is now code for one’s importance and status.

Companies are very clear about what they want from us; they demand our best. The reward is the opportunity to keep our job and to gain recognition and the potential for advancement to more busyness, signified perhaps by a new title.

Our family and friends desire the best from us; they also desire the best for us. The reward is the contentment of connection and belonging, and the satisfaction that comes with being loved and cared for, a reward that persists in the face of a company that may prioritize profit, product, and process over its people.

I know of individuals who are so busy that they buy themselves expensive toys with the rewards they earn from their busyness and then have no time to enjoy the toys because they are too busy. Busyness that comes with toys can especially distract us from the important. The cycle is vicious and is perpetuated by all of us. Because yes, busy people are complicit in it.

Ask yourself these two questions: (1) How would I respond to a colleague who tells me she got even less sleep than I did last night? and (2) How would I respond to a colleague who tells me that he got seven or more hours of sleep last night? Or perhaps the better questions are: (1) How have I responded? and (2) What does my response say about me?

There’s a subtext to the lunch conversation with the senior managers. The one who spoke first and had only five hours of sleep is married and has three children. The one who spoke next and had only four hours of sleep is also married and has no children except for two dogs. The “winner” is married for the second time and has two children, one from his first marriage and one from his current marriage. Though we spent time talking about spouses, children, and pets, none of these was mentioned during the “competition.” No one spoke about the impact of their busyness on other areas of their life. The impact on sleep was mentioned, but not as a negative impact on themselves or anything or anybody else; it was touted as a measure for busyness, i.e. importance.

When we factor in the true cost of busyness, what might we determine? Have we weighed it all? Math was never a strength for me, and quite frankly, I was never good at it. I am good, however, at recognizing what doesn’t add up. For me, I know I must do the math for what in my life adds to or subtracts from my overall well-being and my overall life satisfaction. Sitting at the lunch table with the senior managers that day left me wondering if they’d done the math for themselves and their own lives. Had they ever stopped to determine the cost of their chronic busyness?

O-Syndrome: The Modern-day Phenomenon

Do any of us even remember when our lives became so busy that we had to strategize what to cut in order to fit in all the to-do’s? Sleep is not the only area to be trimmed for the sake of work. Because work comes with its own set of deliverables and accountability methods, it systematically began to devour much of our time. We started developing the modern-day phenomenon I call O-Syndrome: over-worked, over-stressed, overburdened, overloaded, over-committed, over-obligated, overtired, overwhelmed, overextended, over-scheduled, and just plain over it!

Work, work, work. Busy, busy, busy. Many working professionals exhibit all the signs of a life that is preoccupied with their jobs. It’s an unhealthy and stressful lifestyle for many people, and yet they consistently place the blame on forces outside themselves.

Have you ever seen a juggler perform? Think of O-Syndrome as juggling multiple balls in the air without letting any of them drop to the ground. Juggling requires high levels of skill in precision, timing, and concentration. The juggler must continuously focus on tossing one ball in the air while simultaneously catching another so as to always keep multiple balls in the air while still handling the others. Now imagine continuously doing this act every day for a year, five years, ten years, and more. If you view O-Syndrome through this lens, do you then recognize it in yourself? If your constant lament is not enough time, not enough rest, not enough sleep, not enough exercise, not enough leisure, not enough me time, etc., the odds are that you are thick into O-Syndrome.

Here’s a checklist designed to shine a spotlight on this elephant in the room that’s been way too comfortable for way too long:


Place a check beside any aspects of O-Syndrome you have experienced within the past six months.

· Overworked—juggling multiple balls in the air for ten hours or more daily

· Over-stressed—feeling that one or more balls is in danger of falling and doing everything possible to prevent it while still maintaining all other balls in the air

· Overburdened—keeping multiple balls in the air even though they have increased in size and weight

· Overloaded—taking on one or more additional balls while keeping all balls in the air

· Over-committed—helping others keep their multiple balls in the air while maintaining your own multiple balls in the air

· Over-obligated—being available no matter the time or day to help others keep their multiple balls in the air while maintaining your own multiple balls in the air

· Overtired—caring for your multiple balls has left you with little to no time to care for yourself and little leftover energy to engage with loved ones and friends

· Overwhelmed—thinking constantly about your present and future balls, the weight of your multiple balls, and the strength and skill required to maintain your multiple balls in the air

· Overextended—having only two hands to keep your multiple balls in the air when more hands and longer arms are clearly required

· Over-scheduled—blocking off meeting and teleconference times on your calendar even across multiple time zones in order to strategize about collective balls, troubleshoot collective balls, plan for bigger balls, etc.

· Over it!—with fatalistic resignation, you go through the motions of keeping your multiple balls in the air.

The odd thing about O-Syndrome is that, unlike any other dis-ease, people who have it know they have it but feel powerless to do anything about it. They just determine that there’s no other alternative and resign themselves to living with it.

My Wake-up Call

If you live in the U.S., you probably remember where you were and what you were doing when you first heard the news of the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001. I remember that I was working on staff for a Fortune 500 company as a business communications manager. I was in the middle of a big meeting when the CEO sent out a global communication to all staff urging us to leave work and go be with our family and loved ones. I remember that every cell in my body tried to simultaneously process and shut out what was happening. My heart rate went up, but my brain slowed down. Not remembering how I got there, I found myself back in my office and on the phone with my husband, coordinating pick-up of our two children from childcare. He would pick up one, and I would pick up the other, and we would all meet up at home. I can still remember how I felt when all of us were at home…together…safe…together. In our television-less cocoon of safety, we blocked out the ongoing news coverage, protecting and shielding our children with our best attempt at normalcy.

There are no adequate words to express the wave of love and relief I felt knowing we were all connected under one roof even though the world seemed to be crashing down around us. And of course, our world then was hundreds and hundreds of miles from the nearest attack but that didn’t matter. Even if our roof had come crashing down all around us, we’d all be together.

The events of that day had such a profound effect on me that it culminated in a journey I’m still on today. I took a long, hard look at my life and decided from that moment forward to strive to make every aspect of my life meaningful—both my home life and my work life. My decision to choose joy, fulfillment, good health, and good relationships has presented me with various challenges over the years; the challenges and my responses to them have shaped me and my values. Did I find the courage to live in a way that matters most to me despite the tremendous pressure to live otherwise? Yes. But once I found the courage, I wasn’t done. I’ve had to be deliberate about finding it and re-finding it repeatedly. And the pay-offs have been more than worth it.

I still look back on the good that resulted from the terrorist attacks, the magnitude of which shaped an entire generation. During the aftermath, many people took a long hard look at their own lives and made major decisions: some left hated jobs to pursue their passions; some who had endured a bad situation changed that situation; some asked for new assignments at their existing job; some reconnected with their faith and others sought faith for the first time. The list of changes that people made in their lives is endless.

For many, their comfortable foundation had been irrevocably changed. Comfort has an oxymoronic quality to it, in that we can feel comfortable even with what we don’t like because it’s what we know. O-Syndrome holds us captive with the relative comfort of what we know versus the unpredictability of the unknown. What if I leave my job to pursue my passion and it doesn’t work out? What if I leave a bad situation and end up in one that is even worse? What if I hate the new assignment I asked for? What if…what if.

Uncertainty gives O-Syndrome enormous power over us, and the fear of the unknown keeps us in bondage.

Your Call to Action

There are likely many of us busy, high-achieving professionals who continuously try to figure out how to get it all done and how to make it all fit, who struggle to hold our relationships and families together amid the growing demands of the companies for which we work, and who may be (even if we never planned it) passive bystanders in our own lives. If you’ve ever felt as if your job controls your life or that you’re stuck without choices or options, I encourage you to go back to your roots –your source –and reconnect with your life’s priorities.

Because I am a parent, you will hopefully understand when I say that, ultimately, I want to spare you from the heartache and pain of making huge missteps in life and then becoming stuck where those steps have taken you. At the same time, I respectfully recognize that each of us must find our own way and be free to make our own choices and then learn from those choices.

I work with and coach so many that repeat the same refrain to me. Though the words vary, the sentiment is the same. Most recently, I received this comment from a very talented, high-performing individual who has been egregiously used up and under-valued by his company, “I am struggling with feeling de-valued and like an interchangeable part” [emphasis mine]. Notice that this person doesn’t even feel viewed as a unique individual, but as a part.

In my coaching practice, I never tell individuals what to do. The issue has never been about someone else telling any of us what to do. Instead, it is a matter of being disrupted, stopped in our tracks, and stripped of all except what and who we hold most dear so that we can connect with what we already know to do. Because yes, we already know what to do. It’s part of our design. What will we see in our own lives with more clarity when we become blind to the world around us? What will we do when our values are laid bare before us?

An introspective journey will not be easy. It requires a tremendous amount of courage. What the company values and defines as its success can exert great pressure on our life. But you know this already. I am inviting you, challenging you, and even daring you to determine success for your life. To define and articulate what you really want for your life and how to have it on your own terms. The stakes are high. If you define it wrong, you’ll get it wrong. Clarity gives you increased courage to start making decisions aligned with your priorities. Your company has already defined success for itself. Have you defined it yet for you?

*excerpted and adapted from O-Syndrome:
When Work is 24/7 and You’re Not