Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

CNN’s Epic Failure Of Values On Affordable Care Act Coverage

In the space between Chapter’s 1 & 2 of Busting Your Corporate Idol: How To Reconnect With Values & Regain Control Of Your Life, here is an old school post about values and priorities.

As  rule, I don’t talk about political issues here, but the way the media handled the Supreme Court’s healthcare decision has pulled me close to the fray.  This morning CNN had a countdown clock on screen until the time of the SCOTUS decusion on the Affordable Health Care Act.  10:00 came and went, and still no decision.  The announcers acted like the kid that had to go to the bathroom, but won’t leave because they are afraid they will miss something.  And as my daughters and I watched, we felt the tension.

Then, it flashed on the screen.  People were seen running out of the courthouse, and the decision was in.  The individual mandate was struck down.  This is a law that has divided the country.  Some people see it as a door to bring health care to tens of millions of people, others see it as an unwanted government encrouchment on individual liberty.  This is a core values issue.  So with the decision in, CNN immediately started talking about the presidential election. “What would Mitt Romney do?”  Really?

But something did not smell right to me, so I switched to MSNBC, which had the opposite on the screen: Individual Mandate Upheld.  So then I went to the NY Times website.  And they said something like this.  “The Supreme Court Decision is in.  We are reading it, and when we understand what it says, we will release a flood of coverage.”

CNN had it wrong.

Values On Display

Every company has a set of shared values that define its culture.  They often don’t correlate with the set of the values in the company handbook, and certainly include some subtle and unconscious behaviors by employees.  It’s like the story about the fish that doesn’t know what water is – it’s hard to see the things we take for granted.  Values set priorities and guide decisions.

Values Drive Priorities Which In Turn Influence The Underlying Values

The Times and CNN both had the same data, but acted in very different ways, which I think reflects different underlying values in those companies.

For each news organization, which is more important, getting there fast, or getting it right?

I see a lot of handwringing about the 24 hours news cycle killing the quality of news.  Well guess what, I wanted to know the answer right away, went to the NY Times website (which I routinely check multiple times a day from my iPhone) and was told it was more important to give the right answer.

CNN:  This is a mistake that didn’t need to happen.  If you really care about quality, look in the mirror and figure out how to drive a cultural change.

A Quick Note On Freedom

While we’re talking about about healthcare, lets talk about freedom.  If you hated your job, had 2 years salary in the bank, would you quit your job if it meant that your family lost its health insurance till you found a new one?  No way.  In Chapter 1 of my book Busting Your Corporate Idol, I made reference to the two months my wife and I spent preparing for my departure from the corporate world.  And a major topic was health insurance.  If my wife didn’t have a secure job at a company with great health insurance benefits, I would not have become a stay at home parent, and followed my dream to be an author.

I recently interviewed a VP at one of the twenty largest companies in the world.  He lives in a house well below his means because it gives him freedom.  A large mortgage is unquestionably something that constrains choices – that bill needs to be paid, and that can mean going along with things at work that may be personally distasteful.  He maintains a good work life balance in part because he knows that he could, in a pinch, take a salary cut and not lose his house.

And health insurance is even a bigger deal financially than a mortgage.  The number one cause of personal bankruptcy?  Health insurance bills.  (More here.)

Severing the link between employment and health insurance will go a long way towards correcting the chronic overwork epidemic in the United States. Why?  Because it will be one fewer reason that people stay in unhappy work situations.  The Affordable Care Act is an important step in severing that link.

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Discover How I Avoided Burnout


Did 70-Hour Work Weeks a Decade Ago Lead to Adrenal Gland Fatigue Today?

Rat Race by Ethan Block via Flickr CC

A guest Post by Dawn Pier

In 2002 I quit my job, sold almost everything I owned and moved to the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula to follow a dream to learn to surf.  Eight years later I had undergone a complete transformation from an unhappy, stressed out, overweight research scientist to a woman content, fit and fully ensconced in the Baja life.  My 70 hour work weeks and frequent travel were long behind me. Early in my tenure in Mexico, I founded a community conservation organization to protect the most important coral reef in the Sea of Cortez. Now I surfed almost daily, picked up odd jobs, and maintained a large estate to support myself. For all intents and purposes, I had an ideal and laidback lifestyle.

In 2011, however, I began having difficulty waking up in the morning. My morning tea didn’t seem to be doing the trick any more and gradually I turned to coffee – a beverage I normally avoid due to the severe effects it has on me – to help me get going in the morning. Despite being passionately obsessed with surfing, I found it increasingly difficult to rally the energy to get out the door and to the beach. Gradually, I began to crave salt like it was a drug and responded by eating potato chips by the oversized bag. I craved red meat and converted from a virtual vegan to a steak and hamburger obsessed junky. A year later, I had gained almost 20 pounds. I sought medical help, but the tests all came back normal. Frustratingly normal.

The downward spiral continued almost imperceptibly, but by May of that year, I was dragging my ass in a way I had never experienced before. Despite copious amounts of coffee, it took three hours for me to feel awake each morning and by afternoon my energy level crashed and my head spun. I couldn’t concentrate and my writing began to suffer. One afternoon when, overcome by dizziness, I had to take to my bed, I knew something was seriously wrong.

I happened to be on the island of Maui at the time and was fortunate to find a doctor who took a proper history. He asked me if I was under stress.  At first I laughed at the idea that I could be stressed out. From the outside looking in, I had it made: living surrounded by nature, the ocean at my front door, surfing, eating a diet full of organic whole foods. But when pressed, I had to admit I was still a total stress monkey. “Sounds like adrenal gland fatigue,” he said confidently.


I’d heard of the adrenal glands and knew that they had something to do with the fight or flight response and the release of adrenaline. Then he pointed out that adrenal gland fatigue often results from the accumulation of stress over years. “Did you have a high stress job or lifestyle before you moved to Mexico?” he asked. I laughed recalling the decade I spent in an unhappy marriage, masochistically chasing after scientific accolades and suffered from severe insomnia. He nodded and asserted that this disease was the overdue payment for my previously unsustainable lifestyle.

A blood test confirmed the doctor’s diagnosis. Fortunately, my adrenal gland activity was depressed, but not stopped and with low level hormone replacement, dietary changes including cutting all caffeine, limiting sugar and alcohol, practicing a simple diet called food combining, I began to feel better. Nevertheless, I still feel wiped out if I do too much, stay up too late or party too much. Like all things in life it’s a balancing act.

Looking back on those years of hard work I wonder if there was anyone who could have convinced me that it wasn’t worth the long-term damage I was doing to my health. In North America we’ve been hoodwinked into believing that this is the normal path of a well-adjusted productive member of society (emphasis on productive). The stigma attached to taking a non-traditional path and doing what we love, instead of what earns us a big paycheck – not that these things are mutually exclusive – is substantial.

I still struggle periodically with my decision to step off the work wheel and wonder if I will regret not dedicating myself to something “more significant.” But then I remember that had I not left the rat race to follow my dream of learning to surf, I never would have had the time and opportunity to start writing. In a classic example of cosmic reinforcement, one passion has led me to another.

But I know one thing for certain.  Be it as scientist or a writer, I will never again be a 70-hour-a-week workaholic. Life’s just too short and the waves too much fun!

Dawn Pier is a formerly landlocked Canadian who is a surfer, writer, environmental biologist, and universal truth seeker (not necessarily in that order). Currently, she divides her time between Baja Mexico and the SF Bay Area, writing her memoir filled with adventures in conservation, love, and life off the grid in a tiny Mexican village. She publishes a personal blog and is the East Cape amiga for a new website 

Passover, Work, and Corporate Idolatry

Passover, Work, and Corporate Idolatry

Remember This Day by Tim Sachton via Flickr

In this season of Passover and Easter, I’ve been thinking about work.

The Last Supper was a Passover Seder, which is a ritual meal that tells the story of the Exodus from Egypt.  In many ways, Passover is like Thanksgiving, in that family gets together, and remembers a historical event.  What is particular about Passover is the detail in which the story is told, how Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.  Participants in the Seder are exhorted to make a personal connection to those freed from slavery.  There is a lot to connect to.  This year I connected to my own experience of going from a 90 to a 60 hour work week.

Passover is all about freedom

The Exodus from Egypt is a seminal event in the history of the world, remembered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims who together account for over half the world’s population*. The Exodus, although less salient for the worlds 1.3 billion Atheists, has been highly influential on the secular world as well.  Harriet Tubman, hero of the Underground Railroad was nicknamed  Moses.  So imagine my surprise when I found that a sizable portion of the Israelites wanted to return to slavery in Egypt.  Why?  Why after generations of slavery, when finally offered the chance at freedom, would anyone want to return to slavery?

The voices to return to slavery were particularly acute at times of uncertainty, when the Hebrews were trapped against the shores of the

Edward G Robinson as Dathan

Red Sea, or when Moses was absent for forty days and the people began to doubt whether he would return.  There were two types of people who argued for a return to Egypt.  The first were self-serving people like Dathan, who collaborated with the Egyptians and betrayed Moses to Pharaoh for personal gain. When later exiled by Pharaoh with the rest of the Jews, Dathan continued to advocate for a return to Egypt, presumably so he could regain his wealth and privileges.  (Dathan was played by Edward G. Robinson in the movie The Ten Commandments.)

Most people who wanted to return to Egypt were not self-serving, but simply afraid of change and/or the uncertainty of the road ahead. The Dathans of the world prey on the fears and insecurities of other people.  Dathan argued that servitude in Egypt would be better than death in the desert.  I can’t help but notice the way that Dathan positioned slavery as mere servitude.  I am reminded of the way some of my former managers would spin things to encourage me to work over the weekend.

Freedom from chronic overwork

Over the course of one year, I went from working 90 hours per week to working 60 hours per week.  My job title never changed, but my boss did – seven times that year.  Not one of my seven managers said “Greg, you are working too hard.  Let me take this off your plate.”  I needed to liberate myself in the midst of a chaotic and highly political environment. The details of that year are a story for another day, but what was key was a revelation that my devotion to the company was a modern form of idolatry.  I realized that “doing what is best for the company” was an adoption of a company-first value system, and this Corporate Idolatry was at the expense of my family and my personal health.  By reconnecting with people-first values, I was able to drastically cut back my working hours.

Idolatry was very much a part of the story of Exodus.  Not only were the Hebrews enslaved, they worshipped the Egyptian gods.  The story of Passover makes it clear that the Hebrews were not freed from slavery until they cried out to the one God for freedom. On a metaphorical level, Passover is the story of people who chose an uncertain future that carried the promise of freedom over the known path of slavery.

I made as much money working 60 hours as I did working 90 hours. In a sense, I was working those extra forty hours for free.  I obsess about those 30 hours, in part because I think working for free is a form of slavery.  Why did I do it for so many years?  But that too is a post for another day.  Today, I am thankful that I am free.

*For more information on the number of people in different religions, check out The Big Religion Chart, which lists the world Jewish population at 14 million, Christians at 2 billion, Muslims at 1.3 billion and Atheists at 1.1 billion.

If you like “Passover, Work, and Corporate Idolatry” you may also like Discover How I Avoided Burnout, an excerpt from my book Busting Your Corporate Idol.

Apple Wins The Corporate Idol Award For February

Apple is not evil.

Apple is not good.

Apple is an Idol.

As shown in recent articles in the NY Times and elsewhere, Apple is a corporation with a value system that makes rapid manufacturing a higher priority than safe and humane working conditions.

As a loyal Apple customer, I was shocked to read about the horrific conditions in the Chinese factories where iPhones and iPads are manufactured.  As a student of corporate culture, I can understand how it happened.


To summarize the news accounts:

  • Hundreds of people injured by chemicals or explosions at iPad manufacturing plants over the last few years, even after repeated warnings about safety issues
  • People living in overcrowded dorm rooms, working seven days a week, and having pay withheld as punishment.
  • Former consultants and employees at Apple assert that the company is more concerned with continued product delivery and avoiding embarrassment than solving the problems

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple responded to the stories in the Times in an internal email, published by the website 9to5MacAs a company and as individuals, we are defined by our values. Unfortunately some people are questioning Apple’s values today… We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain. Any accident is deeply troubling, and any issue with working conditions is cause for concern. Any suggestion that we don’t care is patently false and offensive to us. 

I agree with Mr. Cook – this is an issue of values.  But values are measured by actions not feelings.  I take Mr. Cook at his word – they do care about the people.  But they care more about delivery times and costs.  The NY Times quotes a former executive who describes an internal debate. “Executives want to improve conditions within factories, but that dedication falters when it conflicts with crucial supplier relationships or the fast delivery of new products.”  This illustrates something I learned from interviewing many people in the corporate world: when the rubber hits the road decisions are driven by the overriding value system of the company. Apple’s true values are revealed by the decisions of its employees.

Mr. Cook’s goes on to describe Apple’s ongoing efforts to make changes.  For example it now will allow independent auditing of working conditions in its supply chain.  Apple’s changes are described in terms of the advantages to the business, not in terms of human values.

Apple was in a unique position to lead the industry by taking this step [to allow outside auditors]… These are the kinds of actions our customers expect from Apple.

What we will not do — and never have done — is stand still or turn a blind eye to problems in our supply chain.  I was really surprised as I read the last sentence.  I thought he was going to say “turn a blind eye to human suffering.”  I guess that is why I am here and he is there.

The email never says things like “we are doing everything we can to correct safety and labor issues as quickly as possible.”   It doesn’t say “We need to do more for worker safety, even if it means things need to go more slowly.”  The Times quotes a former Apple executive who says “We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on.  If half the iPhones were malfunctioning, do you think Apple would let it go on for four years?”


Chris O’Brien wrote in the San Jose Mercury news, “Conditions have never magically improved on their own.  Progress happens because people demand it.”

A company is tone deaf to morality, but hears a threat to its profits loud and clear.  I am not tone deaf to morality, and my purchasing behavior will change if Apple doesn’t change the way it treats its workers.