How We Can Fight Stress at Work

An Interview with Author Brigid Schulte

August 4, 2015

Chief Marketing Officer, NBBJ


Last year Brigid Schulte’s book Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time was greeted with wide acclaim and bestseller status — and for good reason. Despite the technological amenities at our disposal, we feel more stretched than ever, clinging to the idea that we can find balance — even if we don’t know how exactly.

I recently had the pleasure to meet Brigid at the WorkHuman Summit in Orlando. The premise of the conference was to harness the power of the emotional connections we have with our colleagues to create a work culture that allows us to stay true to ourselves so that we experience more meaning in our lives — not just our work lives. It has been a year since Brigid’s book came out (the paperback version was just released) and I wanted to know: have our views on work changed?

Tim: Do you think there’s now more of a mainstream movement to reconcile meaning and work?

Brigid: When I first proposed the book, the general sentiment was: “We haven’t figured out this work/life stuff, so we’re never going to figure it out.” But my publisher ultimately got it. I didn’t want to write a book about the experience of feeling overwhelmed — I wanted to take a very serious look at why we find ourselves in that state so often and what exactly we can do about it.

When I first started my research, the only answer that came up was to “drop out of life.” Because otherwise, if you stay engaged with the business world, you’re just going to be miserable — that’s just the way it is. If you really want to be happy, quit and move to Maine and become a farmer.

At the same time, two pieces came out that spoke to the very quandary I was investigating: Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article “Why Women Can’t Have It All” and Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. That’s when I realized I was much more interested in changing “what” we’re dealing with, than defining “why” and “how” it happened. An important question for me began to take shape: how can you get a sense of meaning and engagement — a sense of joy — every day when you go to work? I wanted to know if we could really transform the way we work.

I wanted to figure out how we can be fully human without freezing men into the breadwinner role and women into the caretaking role. How can you live a life of meaning where you create a bridge between the meaning you have in your public sphere and the one you get in your private one? How can you have love and connection throughout your life, with a sense of play and lightness in both?

I’m thrilled that the mainstream media, including Harvard Business Review and Fast Company, are now producing serious pieces on how we can achieve work/life balance. More companies are also examining how employees can cope better with stress. Millennials are saying they do not want to be overworked. They do not want to experience fear, panic and disengagement; they want their lives to be meaningful and not solely shaped by work. No other generation has stood so firm on the issue. Baby Boomers want to work differently as well. They still have an awful lot to offer, but they don’t want the 90-hour workweeks of their past. So you’ve got pressure from the generations on both ends of the workforce, and this has led to a fascinating movement about meaning, happiness, joy and authenticity. I can see it spreading throughout the country.

I recently did an “Inspired Life” Q&A for The Washington Post with Sara Lazar, a Harvard neuroscientist, on how meditation can literally change your brain’s neuroplasticity. That piece got more than a million views in one week, and people are still reading and sharing it. That says to me that there is a real hunger to do things differently.

Tim: What are some of your key takeaways from the WorkHuman Summit on how we should do things differently?

Brigid: The most important thing is that there is a conference about how human beings work these days. So much of the reporting I do for The Washington Post is about how we work very inhumanely. Businesses are results-oriented; they’re all about succeeding by powering through, despite uncertainty, and cutthroat competition. It has taken a toll — Gallup polls routinely find that about 70% of all workers are disengaged at their jobs and very unhappy. Yet we spend the majority of our time at work. If happiness is the joy we experience as we move toward being our full selves, as the Ancient Greeks saw it, and as happiness researcher Shawn Achor says, then it is time that we bring our full selves to work. Especially as research shows that when we’re happy, in a positive mood, we actually achieve more, and workplaces are more productive, which only improves the bottom line for businesses.

My biggest takeaway is we’re talking about business in terms of happiness and meaning. People in the United States are obsessed with and compelled to work, but their unhappiness means they are not living up to their full potential — and I don’t just mean work potential, I mean life potential.

Tim: In your book you observe a correlation between the amount of control people have in their lives and the degree to which they feel happy and engaged at work. As an advocate for more romance in business (not the “Rom-Com” kind, but the thrilled-to-be-alive kind), I believe we need to be able to lose control, take risks and feel comfortable with the unknown. That seems like a contradiction. How do you reconcile that?

Brigid: I don’t see it as a contradiction. When people feel overwhelmed and stressed out it’s because they feel out of control — but not in the way that you’ve described it. There is great value in allowing yourself to be swept away, towards something very cool and surprising behind a door you’ve never encountered.

But when I talk about a lack of a control, it’s analogous to getting the rug pulled out from under you. It’s a surprise, but not in a good way. You feel like you don’t have a say in how you spend your time. People with flexible schedules, or white-collar jobs, have some measure of control, even if they can’t always predict their workflow. Yet there is often an expectation that they must work all the time — as though somehow it’s never enough. Then you never feel in control because you can never measure up. It’s a form of management by fear, keeping you off balance. Many workers, since the recession, also are fearful that they’ll lose their jobs again, or that they’re expendable, so they stay late or work all hours in an effort to show how committed they are. That also leaves them feeling they have little control.

To your point about romance: unpredictability has two faces, just like control. There’s the unpredictability of “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s a shock to my system,” versus: “this is cool, surprising, and drawing me in.” In my book I examined the negative side of unpredictability, and in your book you looked at the positive side.

Tim: Now that we’re aware of the risks involved in being overwhelmed, and developed strategies to minimize them, do you think this could lead us to the opposite extreme, where we feel underwhelmed — even bored? Do you think there is some value in having overwhelming experiences because a part of us likes to feel stressed?

Brigid: That’s an important point, because if you’ve got so much stress you can’t see straight, then you can’t think effectively. When your heart is racing and your palms are sweating, that’s not a good place to be. On the other hand, hanging out on your couch without much to do will leave you feeling slothful and unmotivated, which isn’t good either. This is why we are wired for novelty and challenge.

When we expose ourselves to new challenges that are novel, unpredictable — in a good way — we rewire our brains. The brain literally makes new neural connections. That keep our brains fresh, which keeps our lives fresh. Each of us has a sweet spot where we are challenged but not overwhelmed, and that is where we find our motivation and grow closer to our potential.

A little stress is good; we couldn’t have evolved as a species without it. You need the stress of a challenge — but then you need to release it. Constant stress will eat you alive and shrink your brain; those are things to watch for. But a little stress, sparked by a new challenge, is actually a good thing.

Tim: Ten or fifteen years ago, Jeremy Rifkin published a book called The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream. You write about Denmark in your book. I’m originally from Germany, but I have lived in the U.S. for many years. Here we’ve had an explosion of interest in mindfulness and work/life balance. But it seems like our interest in the U.S. was actual policy in Europe already years ago. Are our issues with stress and overwork an American issue, and can we catch up?

Brigid: We have a long way to go before we ever catch up. The United States is really different, and much bigger than, for instance, Denmark, which has a population the size of Los Angeles. The sheer scale and diversity in this country makes it unlike any other place in the world, and that’s what makes it so challenging.

What’s happening now is that we’re finally beginning to have the conversations that European countries had in the early 1970s. What’s important for us is that we have necessary and difficult conversations across our diversity and our differences of opinion. We need to come up with an American solution, or solutions, that give our work meaning, help our businesses flourish and make our lives worth living.

Tim: What’s next for you?

Brigid: That’s a great question. I came back to The Washington Post because it’s a great platform from which to write about these issues and continue the conversation. And that, along with the book, has kept me really busy! I’m hoping to make some time to think about what’s next for me, what’s my next challenge and my next book. I’ve been exploring what makes for the good life, how work is changing, the search for meaning and second acts, and how we love and connect as humans. I’m not sure I have those answers, but maybe in a moment of downtime, inspiration will come! I think what’s different now is that I sit with uncertainty rather than avoid the discomfort and cover it up with busyness. I trust my instincts more. That, even if I don’t know the answer right away, if I take the time to pause, it will come. I’m learning that just creating space around uncertainty can make you feel like you’re moving forward.

Image courtesy of Benjamin Watson/Flickr.

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