The world of journalism is reeling with the sudden death of Tim Russert, famous for NBC’s Sunday interviewer on Meet the Press. Praise is pouring in from all directions for this excellent journalist, a loving family man, a generous, kind human being, a devout Catholic, who enjoyed baseball. So why did he die so young? Not a word has been said about that.
Russert was only 58, a vulnerable age group for high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart attack, all of which he had. He was surely taking all the appropriate medications. His doctor probably cautioned him to ease off, maybe take a vacation. He had just come back from Rome with the family. But did his brain take a break as well? At 7am he had done his radio show and was preparing for the next task. It was not to be.
The most important legacy he left to all those workaholics out there is “stop, take note and change. You might be next.”
I caught a glimpse of Tim Russert about three years ago moving fast to catch a plane at Washington’s National Airport. Since I make it my pastime at airports to look out for stress profiles, he caught my attention before I quite realized who he was. Raised shoulders, a slight paunch, loose neck muscles suggesting sleep apnea, flushed face – maybe from high blood pressure or running – looking anxiously at the board completed the familiar but not unusual picture. Airports are populated with workaholics.
Workaholics put in many hours and their brain works non-stop 24/7. They crave for their work. Their highs are work-related which make them feel indispensable. They wake up early to get to work ahead of the rest, maybe catch up with someone in another time zone. They do not get enough quality sleep. They get their boost of energy from coffee and a donut. The day is filled with problem-solving tasks, preparing and worrying about the next event, sending adrenaline, cortisol and other stress hormones pouring through their veins.
Most of the day is spent sitting at meetings or in front of the computer. A token exercise break may help or cause even greater stress depending on what thoughts run through their brain while pounding the treadmill. They stay late to catch up, take a briefcase home, have a meal without listening and call it parallel processing. Then back to the computer. When not following this routine they are running to catch the next flight, have a drink, a junk meal and an uncomfortable night in a strange bed. Their drive is self-perpetuating.
Workaholism is an addiction like any other. Something has to give and often does. With any luck it is only poor health. Or it takes its toll on the family, who are left confused and perplexed. Relief found in having a drink or a relationship with a work associate only complicates matters. Men are more vulnerable because they have a higher dose of invincibility and single-mindedness.
Workaholism kills. Like any addiction it is treatable:
1. Step one is to recognize it for what it is.
2. Step two is to address harmful lifestyle changes that individually have unhealthy consequences, but together are disastrous. Cumulative sleep loss causes weight problems and may, in fact, lead to poor performance. Poorly managed stress involves unhealthy coping styles such as overeating, drinking, or aggressive behavior. Unhealthy diet with high fat and carbohydrate and inactivity from sedentary habits lead to obesity, diabetes, sleep interrupted by snoring and apnea, high blood pressure, cholesterol, heart attacks and stroke.
The solutions include restoring activity habits throughout the day such as standing up often, finding a reason to move about, walking up and down stairs, taking a short walk break. Ban junk food, crackers, potato-chips, sandwiches, donuts, cookies or other favorite office fare and lead by example.
When feeling anxious or stressed take a few deep breaths, pull your elbows back, shoulders down, sit up straight and relax your face dropping your jaw slightly. You will find that it is very difficult to feel stressed with your mouth open. Decide you will sleep through the night in your bed. Avoid drinking or eating anything within an hour or two of sleep. Do not call or take phone calls an hour before going to bed; lower the lights and avoid any serious discussion.
3. Step three is learning with or without professional help to take frequent time-outs throughout the day. Your brain in particular needs a down time. Shut the door, sit in your chair for five minutes, close your eyes and try clearing your brain of any thoughts. The human body and brain can handle almost any abuse if allowed to recover.
If you want to live, listen to the Russert wake-up call.