As I sit here, sniffling and coughing from whatever bug I've caught that's kept me working from home for the past week, I wonder to what degree I'm sick by my own hand, as opposed to the hands of chance. Perhaps I'm feeling needless guilt, but I did just wrap up some pretty revealing talks with leading medical experts about the growing problem in Silicon Valley and beyond of startup founders pushing not only their industries' boundaries, but also those of their bodies and minds.
Entrepreneurs are athletes. If you think that's a stretch, consider this: The word "athlete" derives from the ancient Greek word for "combatant in public games," itself derived from the Greek works for "prize" and "competition." However, if you're like most startup founders and employees, you aren't taking care of yourself as diligently as conventional athletes do to maintain peak performance. The occasional all-nighter is glorified in startup culture, even though it'd be regarded as idiotic by any sports team's coach. Running a successful business is a marathon, not a sprint, so optimizing for long-term performance is a must for sustainability.
"Walking time bombs"
That's what Brad Jacobs, an integrative medicine physician based in San Francisco, calls those in high-performance work environments who work themselves well beyond a well-balanced lifestyle. The issue is so pervasive in the Bay Area that local companies such as Google have tasked Dr. Jacobs and others to run special courses for their executives on managing workplace stress.
According to Jacobs, the problem for millions of overworked people lies partly in biology. There are certain people who in their 20s and 30s have a lot of energy and are highly productive. In fact, Dr. Jacobs says that for reasons we don't fully understand, some people have an increased capacity to generate energy (genetics, specifically differences in the mitochondria, may play a role). As these people move into their 30s, 40s, and 50s, they don't recognize that their metabolism is slowing and that their capacity to restore their energy is diminishing.
This shift can also affect the body's ability to regulate stress hormones. When the body is in a constant state of stress, stress hormones remain at elevated levels. Prolonged stress also leads to the body being in a prolonged inflammatory state, which can result in weight gain, sleep disorders, concentration problems, anxiety, depression, heart disease, and digestive problems. As you can imagine, none of this is conducive to trying to excel in the workplace. "If you don't pay attention to that shift, you end up burning yourself out," says Jacobs.
Gautam Sivakumar, a leading innovator in health care technology and founder of hospital software startup Medisas, knows this all too well. "We used to see patients from high-stress jobs all the time, and we told their families to watch out for symptoms of exhaustion and depression," he told me. "Now that I'm inside startup culture, I see how destructive it can be. Some of the bravado associated with not sleeping enough and being fueled by ridiculous amounts of caffeine is dangerous."
So what are business owners to do to ensure both their own and their employees' well-being? It's not about working less; it's about recognizing the need for balance, and working smartly.
1. Make healthy living a priority in your company's culture.
Psychologist Benjamin Corsbie works with groups and individuals in Northern California on strategies for maintaining health and peak performance. His advice starts with a very basic premise: "The number one thing that's important is to take a step back and think about the basic needs for a human."
Corsbie says there is evidence suggesting that an increased feeling of empowerment and control over the rhythm of your day can go a long way in addressing burnout and stress. He suggests simple steps to achieve this, such as allowing people more independence to decide their work schedules, to take breaks, and to work from home from time to time.
With a change in culture, people will take better care of themselves, which can yield surprising returns. For instance, that smartphone you put next to your bed and immediately turn to in the morning to check notifications? Turn it off. Jacobs points out that the evening is when you consolidate your memories. When you sleep, new neural connections and ideas are formed. By waking up and checking your email, you move into a reactive mode. If you instead meditate or write for 15 minutes upon first waking, you will be far more creative and innovative, and will come up with ideas you wouldn't think of otherwise. You can always check your email 15 minutes later.
2. Remember that even though you're in an office, you're still putting strain on your body.
Poor office furniture ergonomics and poor posture can lead to repetitive strain injuries and back problems that stress the body. Jodi Mainwairing, a certified massage therapist in San Francisco, works mainly with athletes, but also with office workers. She says that "sitting in front of a computer for 8, 12, 16 hours a day is not the movement that the body was created to do," nor was it designed for making the same repetitive motions when typing. Massage can counteract some of this in the short term, but real change starts with how we sit and move. "We're retraining people in their 30s and 40s to move correctly," she says.
3. Start with the easy things to improve.
Jacobs also lays out a simple plan for healthy living by focusing not on your weaknesses or strengths, but in between. For example, let's say you wish you were getting more sleep, eating better, exercising more, and experiencing less stress, but that you also hate exercising and like to eat fatty foods. Jacobs says that's okay. Start with focusing on one item on the list, like stress. Take 15 minutes to run or do yoga, or five minutes of meditation or writing at the beginning and end of the day. With less stress, you will sleep better. As you sleep better, you will make wiser food choices.
On the topic of sleep, Jacobs recommends not only turning off your cell phone, but all electronics. He points out that studies show that blue light, emitted by most electronics screens, decrease melatonin levels by 50 percent (melatonin is a molecule that helps you fall asleep). "Turn off the lights, turn off the screens, make love, brush your teeth, stretch, read, write some thoughts, go to sleep."
Speaking of which, it's getting quite late. Time to shut down and heed the doctor's orders.