How Corporate America Fried My Brain

Have you heard the one about how long term stress reduces brain function? Well I guess I hadn't.

Not so very long ago, I was working a high-stress corporate job. The pace was incredible my team and I spent two years working 10 to 18 hour days to try to implement a global software solution.

I knew things felt harder that they should have been. I knew that I wasn't getting enough sleep. I knew that I barely had enough time to eat. And when I did eat, I knew that I was eating the wrong things.

Over the course of one 3-month period, I spent five weeks overseas. When I got back to my hotel room at night, I started the second (or third) shift to connect with my team back in the US. I seriously ate food that I purchased at the train station. (Don't feel too sorry for me. It was life-sustaining and delicious, thank you, Marks & Spencer!)

I didn't take my vacation time, I barely got enough rest, and I found myself angry in traffic, angry at my desk, angry at home, none of which was consistent with my normal "voice of reason" personality.

When I finally took some time off, in the holiday session at the end of a year, when many, many others are also away from the office I started to feel refreshed. Literally, I started to feel less like an animal and more human. Less likely to devolve when an image didn't load into PowerPoint. Less likely to curse – softly or loudly – while driving.

It also gave me the leisure to do a little reading. None of this should have been a surprise to me, but it turns out that long term stress is very bad for your brain.

My first inclination was to blame my work situation. After all, the project was putting all the pressure on, trying to force us to meet impossible deadlines. But what I thought about it a little more, I realized that I had some say in how I spent my time.

The company didn't hire me to become less and less effective. They hired my experience and my brain power. No matter what kind of timeline we face, it's in our best interest – both my best interest and the best interest of my organization – to keep me creative, thoughtful and productive.

My days now are not perfect… But… My percentage of 15 hour days has decreased significantly. I get much more rest, at least six hours of sleep most nights and often seven or eight (yes, I still have some work to do here). I eat regularly, and more often, the calories I ingest are healthier ones.

Want to know what I changed?

  • I say no to meetings that don't have a clear agenda, or reach out to determine the agenda.
  • I say no to meetings when it's not clear how I will contribute to the agenda.
  • I keep a close eye on the length of my workdays, and try to limit days to 10 hours or less, when I can. (Let me assure you, the work will still be there tomorrow.)
  • I take my lunch and a snack to the office on days I commute, and try to work from home at least two days a week.
  • I get up and walk over to talk to a colleague instead of IM-ing.
  • I protect my team from themselves by reminding them to shut down when l see them online in the darkest hours of their time zones.
  • I set priorities, and I encourage others to set their own priorities. (Or, if they don't have their own priorities, I go the tiniest-bit-Machiavellian and ask them to adopt mine.)
  • I make sure we are working on the right stuff, as a team.
  • I push back – hard – when my batteries are starting to drain, when I get pressure to stay longer, do just a little more, or pick up an item from further down the priority list.
  • When absolutely necessary, I put everything on hold for a meditation break, even if I have to book a conference room for some quiet and privacy.

These changes haven't totally eliminated brain-sapping stress from my work life, but they have almost negated its impacts. I'm able to think more clearly, make better decisions, focus on either speed or quality (or both) as required. Everybody – me, my team, my organization – is remarkably better off when I refuse to let work fry my brain.

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