Updated: Mar 23
Might there be more to that exhaustion you're feeling?
It's time to stop being proud of how busy and tired you are and be alarmed.
As faithful readers of my blog, I know that you’ve been asking the people in your life how they are over the past few weeks. If you haven’t, make sure you read this post on the importance of asking the question ‘how are you?’, really listening to the answer and then answering honestly when you're asked.
When you did ask a friend or a colleague how they were, did anybody’s answer say that they weren’t tired? It may not have been that they said it, but it may have been the bone-weary sigh with which they gave their answer. They may have said that they’re so busy and that they’re just not sleeping well or can never get enough sleep.
What about busy? I bet almost all, if not all, of those who you asked said that they were busy. We've linked busyness to our self worth and value to society. We'd question someone's contribution to society - or at least the workplace - if they didn't say that they were busy.
Busyness is ubiquitous. Busy at work. Busy in the evenings. Busy on the weekends. There’s just never enough time. We feel like we are constantly fighting the clock.
Tell me, did you have these discussions over a quick coffee or a quick lunch? Did you or the person with whom you were talking feel time pressured? You know what I mean. Did either or both of you look at your watch or phone regularly to make sure that you weren’t late for your next appointment? It was so great to have that coffee and chat for 12 minutes, wasn’t it? I bet it was a great talk. I'm sure that you made promises to catch up for longer next time.
Whatever. These promises are empty words until there are actual plans made.
Busyness and tiredness are part of the modern condition, aren’t they? Technology was meant to help with this. Alas, it overpromises and under delivers. We were promised greater flexibility, but we feel connected to our work 24/7 through the device in our pockets and handbags. Working in a hyper-competitive environment in which we feel compelled to excel can make us feel that we must be across everything all the time. It simply does not do to be caught flatfooted in an emergency, or – even worse – kept out of the loop when anything is going down.
The pace of work is relentless. There are senior-level visits and meetings to organise, speeches, minutes and cables to write, teleconferences and videoconferences to dial into, seminars and functions to attend at breakfast, lunch and in the evenings.
Then there’s keeping up life at home, isn’t there? What’s happening in our family’s or friends’ lives – be they with you at post or back home? We need to balance our kids’ school concert tomorrow - or our friends staying with us and wanting us to take them exploring - with all the work that needs doing for that delegation’s visit scheduled for next week. Of course we get it all done. We’ll just work back later or work over the weekend. It's just part of the deal. Of course we need to get the work done.
We love being useful and important and making our contribution to the wider strategic goal. But wouldn't it be nice to work at a less manic pace for a little while? At least until we catch our breath or have a decent sleep.
We’re really looking forward to our next holiday. But that’s not for a while yet. For now, we long for the pace will calm down and we can catch our breath.
You and I both know that time won’t ever come.
What’s the problem?
You already know what the problem is. There’s too much happening. Too little time. So much to juggle. So many plates to keep spinning. We know that we need to slow down, but we can’t.
We feel like we are burning our candles at both ends and in the middle. Our lives are filled with obligations and there’s very little time to rest, recover and connect with ourselves, each other and the community.
There are many, many reasons for this. Some fault lays with the environment in which we operate. There are never enough people or time to do the work that can be demanded of us. We serve multiple bosses: the public, our political bosses, our supervisor and senior agency leadership. Some days it feels like they all want their pound of flesh. In fact, it’s a rare day when they all don’t want their pound of flesh.
Some fault lays within us. We want to do a good job on everything. And, generally speaking, we do more often than not. But when you’re in a race to get ahead and get noticed, we often want to put our mark on the work being produced by others, so we spend time doing work that we don’t need to do.
We want to be the best diplomat, parent, child, sibling, cousin and friend that we can. We don’t want to disappoint the people in our lives.
So we disappoint ourselves. It’s just easier that way. I’ve already written about this in ‘Are you the ‘yes’ diplomat?’. We stop prioritising our needs and put others and their needs from us ahead of ourselves. Rather than say no, we sacrifice our sleep, our recreation time, our relationships. Our physical activity suffers. We jettison the stuff that replenishes us.
It is little wonder that we are physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted. We run on fumes and pretend to ourselves and others that our energy supply is boundless.
In all this running around, being all things to everyone all of the time, where’s the time for connection?
Pardon? What's that you're saying to the screen? Did you just say that you went and got coffee or had lunch with someone this week? That you're good and what I'm writing doesn't apply to you?
To be clear, that 12-minute coffee you had with a friend where you were both looking at your watches or phones and tried to ‘out-busy’ each other doesn’t count as connection. Neither does that rushed lunch. In fact, no social interaction where you felt rushed and compared busyness stories counts.
When was the last time you felt that thrill of connection with your significant other or a friend? You know the feeling (well, at least I hope you do), it’s the one where you get a small shiver as you really communicate and connect with another person. It comes from really being seen; really being heard. It does for me, anyway.
Here’s a thought: could that exhaustion you’re feeling actually come from a lack of meaningful connection? Here's another thought: Could that exhaustion be a symptom of loneliness?
Before you dismiss this last question on loneliness as the domain of the sad, old and/or needy and not at all applying to you, read on.
An article in the June 2017 edition of the Harvard Business Review called ‘Burnout at Work Isn’t Just About Exhaustion. It’s Also About Loneliness’ by Dr Emma Seppällä from Stanford University and Dr Marissa King from Yale University links this exhaustion we feel to loneliness. Please read it. It’s short and it’s sobering reading. It’s a lesson in how we can be lonely but surrounded by people.
For the mid-career diplomat
We mid-career diplomats are not alone. Exhaustion is a symptom of modern life. Perversely, we see this busyness and exhaustion as something of which we are proud. It shows that we are doing our bit. We are committed. We are ready for promotion. We are ready for that posting. “Pick me!” we’re saying “Look at how I can handle it all!”
I see you saying that and wanting to be believed. I said it too. I desperately wanted everyone to believe it. And I was good at it. I fooled so many people that I could do and be it all. I even convinced myself for a long time.
I see you.
You need to keep reading.
The article by Seppällä and King cites research by John Cacciopo and Sarah Pressman (University of Califorina, Irvine) about how loneliness affects us physically, mentally and emotionally.
Critically, research conducted by Pressman shows that loneliness reduces longevity by 70 per cent.
Here's the thing: Obesity reduces longevity by 20 per cent. Drinking by 30 per cent. Smoking by 50 per cent.
Whoa. Think about that for a moment.
I asked Dr Dougal Sutherland, a clinical psychologist from the Victoria University of Wellington and Umbrella Wellness and Resilience Awareness Training NZ, for his thoughts on the link between exhaustion and loneliness.
He writes that 'loneliness is one of the features of depression. It can occur even when we’re busy connecting with others, but lacking connection in a meaningful way.' Note 'meaningful', please.
'Loneliness can lead to insular thinking – where you focus more and more on your own thoughts and your own negative state.' It's this point that resonates for me. Our focus on our busyness and exhaustion puts us into a non-virtuous cycle. Dougal continues, 'Without the input from others around us we become a closed-loop system, losing the benefit of any external feedback. Over time that can lead to a spiralling down in our mood and mental state, which in turn can lead to a decline in our physical well-being.'
Unless you're having meaningful connections with people consistently, you're at risk of the physical, emotional and mental effects of loneliness. I don't mean that you have to get real with everyone. Not at all. You need to be real at least with those people with whom you can be you. Genuinely, authentically, humanly you.
So, how are you handling this exhaustion and social disconnection? Be honest with yourself: Could this exhaustion you're feeling be loneliness?
This week, I challenge you to:
1. pay attention to your inner voice that tells that you can fit one more thing into your work day. If you’re like me, this voice can be seductive and make the difficult appear easy. This voice likes to believe that the sheer force of your will can alter the space/time continuum. This voice often leads me away from switching tasks and connecting with others;
2. pay attention to when you answer the question 'how are you?' with anything relating to being 'busy' or 'tired'. What are you really trying to say when you answer with those words?; and
3. make time this week - and defend it fiercely - to go for lunch or coffee with a friend. Knowing that you have someone who understands is often enough to establish a meaningful connection. Before you dismiss this as a decadent indulgence, I promise you that treating these as real, unmovable meetings will have you approaching your work with more clarity. To make it interesting, whoever talks about their tiredness and/or busyness first has to buy coffee the next time.
This post covered the central themes of loneliness, competition and connection.
Important notice: All views expressed above are my own and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.
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