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Health or Wealth? Finding the Work-Life-Health Balance

Shannon Harvey
I was giving a talk recently to a group of people interested in hearing more about my road to good health after being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. The audience was made up of people looking for ways to get healthy and find balance in this crazy-busy world. During the question and answer session after my talk, one woman spoke of her difficulties in making healthy choices while holding down a high-stakes, all-or-nothing job. She loved her work but she wanted to know if I thought she needed to quit in order to reclaim her health.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked this question in the last few years since I released my film. It’s one of the great dilemmas of our time. It’s as if we are all jugglers with balls in the air – one ball is family and friends, another is work, and another is our health. Often, when we turn our focus too much on the work ball, the others come crashing to the ground. In my case, it was my health.

I responded to the woman’s work-life-health dilemma by telling her of my own recent decision making process after a phone call came out of the blue, offering me a great job opportunity. Just two years ago, this job would have been a dream come true – An amazing, multinational media organisation. Tick. A chance to lead a team of great people and make great content. Tick. A chance to reach a large audience and make a difference. Tick. I’d be crazy to turn it down, right?

Weeeeell, actually when I thought more about taking my ‘dream’ job, I realised it would have required me to spend two to three hours of my day commuting in Sydney’s traffic. It would have meant long hours in the fast-paced media environment and less time to spend with my two little boys. I’d have to be constantly “on”, attached to my smart phone, keeping up to date with the mass media controversies and conversations. Just writing about it now makes my shoulders tense.

During my deliberations, I canvassed my family and friends to get their thoughts. Their opinions were split. Some thought it would be crazy to take it. Others thought I’d be crazy not to. When I explained to one person who was in the “go for it” camp that I felt my health would suffer, his response was “Oh, don’t worry about that, you wouldn’t have time to think about your health,” with no irony intended.

His words were symbolic of a common attitude to the general work-life-health balance. We live in an age where success and achievement is often valued over and above our health and relationships.

Let me put this another way. In the US, there’s now increasing awareness of the dangers of concussion associated with playing football in the NFL. When ESPN magazine conducted a survey of 600 high school players, coaches, parents, and trainers about their attitudes toward head injury, the responses were fascinating. In reply to the question “Is a good chance of playing in the NFL worth a decent chance of permanent brain damage?” 134 of 300 players said the risk is worth the reward. That’s 45 percent of players said they would risk being permanently brain damaged for the chance to play in the NFL. One star player said, “It’s a health or wealth question. I choose wealth, and I bet lots of other players will too.” Nearly one in five coaches thought it was worth it too. "I played the game myself, at a high level and I'd have said the same thing I'm saying now: Football is a profession, and people go to great lengths to reach the top of their profession,” said one coach from Pennsylvania.

It’s not just aspiring young football players who are risking their health to pay for their potential careers. The Modern Family Index 2017, which provides a snapshot into the lives of working families from across the UK recently found that:
  •  A third of parents reported being burned out often or all the time
  •  Four out of ten parents say that work intrudes to stop them spending time with children often or all the time
  •  50 percent of parents agreed "my work life balance is increasingly a source of stress"

The report was funded by Working Families, a charity seeking a better balance between responsibilities at home and work, which has now declared September 23 to be “Go Home on Time Day.” In an age where 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, the idea behind the initiative is to start a national conversation about the UK’s work culture, by simply asking for one day of the year that people go home on time.

We live in a time when words like “frantic”, “overwhelmed”, and “crazy-busy” are used to denote pride, dignity and honour in the work that we do. If you’re a busy person, you’re a somebody, you’re going somewhere, and you’re achieving something. But alongside this busyness comes chronic stress. 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. And this isn’t just a Western phenomenon; the Japanese even have a special name for death by overwork – karoshi, with an estimated 10,000 incidents each year. In China they call it guolaosi, with a staggering 600,000 incidents estimated each year.

Am I the only one who thinks there’s something wrong with this picture?

One of the first areas in my life that I needed to address when I began to recover from my illness was my stress. I’m not talking about the good, healthy short-term kind of stress. I’m talking about chronic stress that lasts for weeks, months, and years. This is the kind of stress that is linked to a greater risk of depression, heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, upper respiratory infections, poorer wound healing, and increased susceptibility to infectious illnesses, not only because in it can lead to allostatic load (when the brakes on your stress response get worn through and a runaway train of inflammation can promote the development and progression of many diseases) but also because this is the kind of stress that makes healthy choices much much harder. When we’re stressed we’re too busy to cook nutritious meals, we’re too busy to exercise, too busy sleep, too busy to see our friends and connect with people in meaningful ways.

As you’ve probably worked out by now, I didn’t take the job. All this isn’t to say that I now kick-back and put my feet up. I work hard; writing this blog, promoting my book, researching the next one, and developing new film projects. But the hours are on my terms. I have busy periods where I have to work late or on the weekend, but on the whole my work day rarely starts before 9am and finishes after 5pm. The 30 second commute to my desk at home is more than manageable and if I need to go for a meeting, it’s a 10-minute bicycle ride to the office, along the gorgeous Manly beach front.

Do I wonder if I’ve made the right decision? Almost every day, especially when I hear about my peers who are kicking goals and making waves. But the thing about having all the balls up in the air – family, friends, health and work – is that if our health ball drops, it’s made of glass and shatters. Our careers, on the other hand, are made of rubber. They bounce.

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