It is a common narrative; “I simply don’t have the time for anything other than work during the day”. This will be accompanied by; “I can’t push back on demands made of me at work”, “the long working days are the cultural expectation”. When buying into this story, often exercise, spending time with loved ones, and healthy sleep routines quickly succumb to the demands of the working day.
Let us closer examine the above narrative, and stories more generally.
Human beings are, and always have been, story creators and tellers. Throughout history we have used language to conceptualise and make meaning of our experiences. We use the stories of others to thicken and cement our own narratives of how the world works.
Stories are powerful. They produce neurochemical changes; stories of horror trigger the release of cortisol (the stress inducing hormone), stories of love trigger the release of oxytocin (the connection hormone). This is why it is possible to feel palpable fear during a horror movie, or to experience elation at the underdog athlete winning Olympic gold.
What then is likely to be the emotional and behavioural outcome of buying into the story of “I don’t have time for me during a working day”? Hopelessness. A lack of motivation. A self-perpetuating cycle of not taking care of oneself. These feelings and behavioural patterns further cement the ‘reality’ of the story, making it seem factual.
Mental health clinicians frequently hear this story from clients who are close to, or at, the point of, burnout. Burnout often occurs where work pressures and long hours culminate in the individual seemingly having no time for anything other than work.
As my colleague Dr Saliha Afridi says so eloquently: “I don’t have time = it is not a priority.” The things that protect us from burnout, such as a good diet, exercise, good quality sleep and connection with others, require effort. Cooking fresh nutritious food or donning the gym shoes at 6.30am for a high intensity treadmill run (other forms of physical anguish are available) require us to schedule, plan, commit and physically exert energy. When we lack energy because of long working days, it becomes straightforward to buy into the ‘I don’t have time’ story. But given the direct correlation between poor sleep, poor diet and poor exercise levels with burnout, how can these things not be prioritised?
The goal here is not to kid ourselves; our working hours may be long, our boss may be demanding, it can be difficult to prioritise calling a parent. The goal is simply to be open to the idea that there are other versions of the so-called ‘realities’ of our experience, and the more we repeat and unconsciously buy into these stories without question, the more we come to see them as reality when in fact they may not be. They are simply one version of reality.
Given what we know about stories and their power, let us generate some alternatives.
My working hours are long versus my working hours are sometimes long, but less intense on some projects.
My boss is an absolute tyrant versus my boss has expectations from me and everybody on the team.
It is impossible to find time to call my mum versus I am prioritising time to call my mum.
Let me tell you a story
Jim (40 years old, a consultant), was on the verge of burnout when he first consulted a psychologist and was absolutely certain he did not have time for anything during the day other than work.
This was his alternative narrative some weeks later:
“I used to get hooked and caught up in the ‘I don’t have time for exercise’ story. But I have realised, nothing is more important than my physical and emotional wellbeing, and I prioritise this. Despite the perceived expectations of me working 12 hours per day, I pushed back. I don’t log on until 8.30am. Prioritising areas of my life outside of work has not impacted my performance review, quite the opposite in fact. I make time in the morning to have breakfast with my kids, take the dog for a walk and prepare my lunch. There is more to me as a whole person, not just work. I choose to prioritise a lunch break, even though the ‘my colleagues think I’m workshy’ story tries to hook me. Maybe some colleagues think I am workshy, maybe some admire me for nailing the ‘work-life balance’ thing. They are both just stories. I know which is more helpful for me to buy into.”
So, as we come to a close, the question becomes; what stories have you been buying into?
This article was originally published in Arabian Business in February, 2021.