America's Workers: Stressed Out, Overwhelmed, Totally Exhausted

It’s really all of the above. We do talk about how busy and overwhelmed we are all the timethink about how we talk to each other. “How are you?” “Fried. You?” “Same.” When was the last time someone said, “I’ve been doing absolutely nothing.” We usually launch into an exhausting laundry list of stuff.

But we are also, truly, doing more. We’re working more hoursmore extreme hours at one job at the upper end of the socio-economic spectrum and cobbling together several jobs to try to make ends meet at the lower end. Our standards for what it takes to be a good parent, particularly a good mother, are insanely high and out of proportion to all reality. Working mothers today now spend as much or more time with their kids as stay-at-home mothers in the 1960s and '70s. I found that fascinating.

We all feel like we’re not doing enough for our children, so in our guilt, we do, do, do, and overdo: more lessons, more teams, more sports, bigger birthday parties, more educational outings. And we all feed off each otherparticularly as we look to the future, see a changing global economy and so much uncertainty about what “success” will look like. There’s so much fear and we’re so worried that our kids will somehow be left out, or left behind. That’s part of what fuels the craziness of the parenting merry go round.

And as for choresman, all you have to do is open up any magazine and you’ll see that, for women, you can never be enough. Debora Spar, president of Barnard, called it the “triple whammy” in her recent book Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection. You have to keep house like Martha Stewart, parent like Donna Reed, work like Sheryl Sandberg, and look like Jennifer Anniston. That’s nuts. We all know it’s nuts, and yet it’s hard to break away from those cultural expectations.

I asked Peter Senge about that. How to try to live and work in a sane way when you’re in the middle of insanity: a voracious workplace that will eat you alive, friends and neighbors who raise eyebrows if you pull your kids out of some competitive activity. He gave some important advice: Create your own community, a network of like-minded people. Humans are wired to conformthat’s why these cultural pressures, however silly they may seem, wield such power over us. So find a group that fits your values that would make you happier to conform to.

To tack back for a moment to one thing you mentioned earlier ... on the griping ritual we all take part in: Do you think that sort of reciprocated venting can contribute to our stress, rather than have the, I suppose, "normal" effect of venting—that is, to let off steam?

YES! I can’t tell you how many years I bitched and moaned about how much I did at home and how unfair that felt. I always had so many people willing to chime in about how they felt the same. Then we all went back to our lives, bitching and moaning, and picking up the dirty socks and mumbling under our breaths and seething. It never changed. Maybe I felt a little better because I wasn’t alone, but all it did was reinforce this notion that men were getting away with murder and my life sucked and I was justified in being so pissed off all the time.

But it wasn’t until I met Jessica DeGroot and got to know her work with the ThirdPath Instituteshe’s been working with couples for nearly 20 years to get them to a point where the division of labor feels fairthat I began to see how poisonous that bitching and moaning is. I had to see what part I was playing in how out of whack things had become. I had to learn to see things from my husband’s perspectivewhy he’d felt stuck at work and I felt like I had to be the default parent as the mother. And it wasn’t until we began hammering out common goals and standards, dividing things up, making all the invisible work I did visible and talking, that things really began to change. Jessica is a big proponent of what she calls “active listening”where you get to bitch, cry, worry, fret, get angry, but all in the service of figuring out where you really want to go and how you can try little experiments to get there. The other person listens, doesn’t judge or chime in, but is there to support you as you figure it out.

In talking about busyness what I found fascinating was spending time in Fargo, North Dakota, of all places, where the researcher Ann Burnett has spent her career tracking the rise of busyness and living a fast-paced life as signs of importance and status. When one woman at the focus group I was observing burst in, and explained she was late by spilling off a lengthy list of all the stuff she “had” to do, how she was double booked for another meeting and then got stuck in traffic (and I looked out the window and saw only a handful of cars on the street), I first thought, wow, she sounds like I do, rushing in late all the time, and spilling off a list of all sorts of stuff I’d done. And then I thought, wow, what traffic? That’s when it hit mehow we sometimes create busyness in order to conform to this social ideal, that to be worthy is to be busy. I don’t say this to blame people. I do it, too. But the only way to change it, if we don’t like it, is to first be aware of it, be aware of our that urge to conform, to be worthy, to be enough, drives us sometimes unconsciously.

Yes! I notice this a lotfrom men toooften framed around “I get XYZ million emails per day.” Beneath the superficial complaint, the subtext frequently seems to be an assertion of that person's importance. It drives me nuts.

Ha! So true. I notice it all the time, particularly in workplaces where face time, extreme hours, and 24/7 total work devotion are prized (did I say media?). I worked through the night on a killer breaking story a few months ago, and I came into the office really grumpy the next day. When someone asked why, I snapped that I’d been up all night. “Oh yeah,” the person said, “Well I’ve been up for two nights!” It’s funny. I truly was complainingafter all the research I’ve done for the book about peak human performance science, how to get the best, most creative work out of motivated workersI knew that staying up all night may be necessary sometimes, but as a general rule, is nuts. And the other person was still very much in the grips of the one upmanship busy-petition. At that point, I stopped, and thought: Okay, you win. But I’m going home at a decent hour tonight.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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