Paid for by Capital One
In today’s corporate culture, there is a prevalent mindset that success is the result of an unrelenting commitment to our jobs. To get ahead, the thinking goes, you have to be willing to make sacrifices, work longer hours and be more tenacious than anyone else.
But amid record levels of burnout, stress and disengagement, performance experts have begun to question the wisdom of the nose-to-the-grindstone approach. New studies show that rather than leading to sustainable success, a single-minded devotion to the workplace can actually have the opposite result: sabotaging performance, creativity and energy. While hard work is certainly a keystone of professional progress, it can quickly become a detriment when taken too far.
“There’s a societal pressure that’s developed that we need to be on call and available for our jobs 24/7,” said Michelle Gielan, a positive psychology researcher and the author of Broadcasting Happiness. “But the formula right now is broken.”
Fortunately, new wellness tools and strategies for combating burnout have also been recently substantiated. And rather than forcing us to choose between wellness and performance, these approaches connect the two, relieving stress and replenishing energy while increasing productivity, financial well being and creativity.
The long-burning causes of today’s burnout epidemic
Emma Seppala, author of The Happiness Track and co-director of the Yale College Emotional Intelligence Project, charts the causes of today’s rampant burnout back to America’s roots, in particular the Puritan work ethic. While that philosophy has its share of positive outcomes, we’ve recently come to understand the negative side as well.
“People have this misconception -- especially in the U.S. -- that in order to be successful they have to sacrifice their well-being,” Seppala said. “But when we don’t prioritize our well-being, we're actually not generating our own best potential.”
Seppala cites two numbers in particular that demonstrate the well-being crisis facing the American workforce today: almost 50% of employees say they are often or always exhausted due to work according to the General Social Survey, and just over a third of American employees report being engaged at work according to Gallup.
Gielan points to the corporate pressure that’s developed to squeeze more out of less, pushing employees to generate more ideas and results with less support and guidance.
Well-being and wealth: peas in a pod
In response to worker dissatisfaction, which Gallup estimated costs the US economy $500 to $600 billion each year, companies have tried implementing various workplace wellness strategies, from meditation rooms and free food to unlimited vacation.
But the most effective solution, say leading researchers like Seppala and Gielan, is more personal: If professionals want to ratchet up performance, it often comes down to having the right mentality.
“We started to look at the connection between our mindset and our professional well-being,” said Gielan, who regularly works with executives on transforming their professional outlook. “Those who are rationally optimistic enjoy higher levels of financial well-being, better performance, and deeper relationships with their families.”
Gielan’s experience with the power of optimism complement Seppala’s work, which has shown the detrimental effects of stress on performance, and the importance of emotional intelligence.
“We secretly prize and value stress because we believe we’re more productive when we’re in that state, and then we wonder why we come home so freaking exhausted,” Seppala said. “When we learn how to detach and relax, our brains release those creative juices and we can actually be innovative.”
Skills, Not Traits
Despite the overwhelming evidence showing the importance of happiness and optimism, it still begs the question: How does one become happy and optimistic? Most of us consider optimism or pessimism as inherent traits tied to our deeply embedded world view, and happiness as an elusive and unrealistic goal.
For Seppala and Gielan, their research into the connection between well-being and performance has always been accompanied by practical exercises to manifest those attributes in our everyday lives.
Gielan recommends three easy steps one can take on a daily basis to become more optimistic: gratitude, by listing three unique and specific things you’re grateful for that day; progress, by focusing on the “smallest measurable step you can take toward a meaningful goal;” and connection, by taking two minutes each day to e-mail someone new with a note of praise or gratitude.
On Seppala’s side, she recommends fully disconnecting when on vacation or at home, so that it’s easier to fully connect when you’re at work, and managing energy better by addressing stress and anxiety through breathing exercises, yoga, and meditation.
“We’re all human beings and we all face stress, but nobody’s been taught how to deal with it,” Seppala said. “But when you look at the science, and you look at the results, prioritizing relationships and wellness are probably the most important things that you can do to amass wealth and be successful.”
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