24/7 Philosophy Is Creating Epidemic of Weary Workers

Medically Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD
From the WebMD Archives

April 18, 2001 -- Tired? Beat? Worn out? Frazzled? Join the club. Total exhaustion is 'in,' and it's sweeping the country like a virus, according to a pair of Atlanta-based market researchers.

But before the news adds to your stress level, know that experts say that there's a cure for working to death that will restore balance, relieve stress, and refresh the spirit.

Bonnie Ulman and Robert Simmerman, PhD, who run the Haystack Group in Atlanta, tell WebMD that super or hyper exhaustion is a phenomenon of the last 10 years. "What we've found is that unlike burnout and stress of the '70s and early '80s, super exhaustion has several qualities that resemble a virus. First it does seem to be 'catching,' psychologically," says Simmerman.

He says, for example, that a super-exhausted husband who is physically and mentally depleted will 'spread' the 'virus' to his wife, who will then become 'depleted.' Mom and Dad will both spread it to children. "When that happens, there is really no place for these people to go to become replenished," he says.

Simmerman and Ulman have produced a detailed study of super exhaustion. An unnamed client commissioned the study, which will be released in a few weeks, they say. Although they would not quote directly from the study, the partners agreed to discuss the study in a general way.

Ulman says that the booming economy of the last 18 years promoted hyper exhaustion with "the 'you snooze, you lose' approach to business that tells people they should be working 16 hour days." She says that many people regard exhaustion as a badge of accomplishment.

Simmerman says that former President Bill Clinton is a good example of this approach. Clinton was well known for "pulling all-nighters." But Simmerman says that in recent interviews the former president has admitted that he sometimes made judgment errors when going too long without sleep.

President George W. Bush, on the other hand, is on record as a supporter of a 9-to-5 approach to the presidency and is also "a believer in power naps. We are going to be tracking the public and media reaction to President Bush," says Simmerman.

But irrespective of presidential lifestyles, Ulman and Simmerman say that super exhaustion is hazardous to the nation's physical, emotional, and economic health. Simply put: Tired people make mistakes, act irrationally, and are probably not as productive as they claim to be.

Beyond making errors or bad judgment calls, exhaustion can make you sick, says Stephen Lamm, MD, a New York internist who is a frequent guest on radio talk shows and is the author of The Virility Solution.

More doctors are seeing patients whose primary complaints are "feeling overwhelmed or fatigued. Often these complaints can bring on medical consequences or symptoms," Lamm tells WebMD.

Although Ulman and Simmerman say that society heaps praise on those who take a 24/7 approach to their career, Lamm says that attitude may be changing. "If one looks at a profession such as medicine, you can see that attitudes are changing," says Lamm. "Medicine no longer permits doctors to work the kind of hours we used to work." For example, New York law now bans 24-hour on-call schedules for doctors-in-training.

So is there a cure? Yes, say an endless supply of experts offering ways to restore balance in one's life.

Richard Chang, PhD, of Richard Chang Associates Inc., an Irvine, Calif. performance-improvement training company, tells WebMD that most people who claim to be exhausted "haven't found their life's passions." The difference between those who have found their passion and those who haven't is the difference between toiling through a day's work or "being enthralled with what one is doing." Being "enthralled" doesn't mean shorter days at the office -- even more hours may actually be spent at work -- but "you will lose track of time and your energy level will actually be higher."

Taking a cue from the everything-you-need-to-know-you-learned-in-kindergarten philosophy, Chang's first inspiration for a passion-based approach to life comes from his first business: a lemonade stand he started when he was 8. Since then, he's authored two books on his approach, The Passion Plan and The Passion Plan at Work.

Anne Warfield, a consultant who runs Impression Management Professionals in Minneapolis, says that "creating a life plan and then sticking to it" can alleviate hyper exhaustion. The plan, she says, "includes everything you want -- health, family life, career."

With the plan in hand, one can sit down and "decide what you need to do to accomplish the plan goals." She says that she and her husband mapped out their life plan three years ago and since that time "our lives have completely changed."

For example, Warfield says that she and her husband decided to work together in the consulting business so that they could determine their own work hours, an arrangement that allows for more time for family meals and outings with their children.

L. Michelle Tullier, PhD, an Atlanta-based time management consultant and the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, tells WebMD that most people feel overwhelmed or exhausted when their values come into conflict with their priorities.

She says, "there is nothing wrong with living a values-based life, but when faced with day-to-day realities [for example, balancing work and family], people experience high levels of guilt and stress when their values collide [as in, 'I love my kids more than my job but I must go on this business trip']. My solution to this quandary is to recognize that values and priorities are two different things."

Tullier says values "provide the overall framework for how we lead our lives; they provide a broad set of boundaries and rules for living that keep us feeling fulfilled, stimulated, and connected. But our priorities are the guidelines we use for everyday survival. They keep food on the table, help us meet our day-to-day obligations to others."

When what "[we] must do on a given day doesn't mesh with our overall life values, we feel guilty and stressed leading to a sense of exhaustion," Tullier says. In her work, Tullier helps clients understand "how their values and priorities must differ at times and how a balanced life can never be achieved only using values-based time management. Day-to-day priorities must be factored into the equation. When this is done right, guilt and stress are reduced dramatically and one feels much more in balance."

Or if that doesn't work, Hyrum Smith tells WebMD that one can just write "your own constitution. Write down what really matters to you." Smith believes so much in this idea that 18 years ago he invented an easy way to write this personal constitution: the Franklin Planner. The planner is named for Smith's inspiration, Benjamin Franklin.

"Today there are more choices, more options for people, so that makes it even more important to know what really matters most to you," says Smith.

Smith says he has now switched to the digital version of the planner but says that it is still "bringing calm into my life."

Does the prospect of penning a constitution or life plan see too daunting? Not to worry, says Julian Ford, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. He tells WebMD that one can tackle hyper exhaustion with a "30-second to one-and-a-half-minute stress break. Just stop everything. Take a deep breath and ask this question: 'What is most important about what I am doing right now?'"

This brief break, says Ford, is "extremely refreshing because it allows one to refocus the mind." Ford says that he recommends taking stress breaks several times a day.

The signs of hyper exhaustion extend beyond yawns and blank stares, say the experts. One of the most common symptoms is anger, often accompanied by profanity.

But if stress has you resorting to expletives, Jim O'Connor, president of Cuss Control, has a solution: an attitude adjustment. "What makes us swear so much is anger, frustration, and irritation, but we can change all of that with a change in attitude," he tells WebMD. O'Connor, who runs a public relations agency in a Chicago suburb, says that when he adjusted his own attitude he found life a lot less stressful and less tiring.

His approach is pretty simple. "I was using a certain four-letter word way too much. When I realized this I made a conscious effort to change. I started substituting 'forget it' or 'fix it' instead of the nasty F word. It works"

Simmerman says he, too, likes the simple approach to tackling the symptoms of hyper exhaustion. His own advice? "Remember the old seventh grade science book? It said that a healthy life required a balanced diet, exercise and eight hours of sleep. That was good advice then and is good advice today."