Dr. Joseph Sirven: We Are Working Ourselves to Death

By Dr. Joseph Sirven
Published: Friday, January 30, 2015 - 5:05am
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Dr. Joseph Sirven
Dr. Joseph Sirven

We’re doing it to ourselves. 

It’s the time of year, when we focus on our work, a fresh start after the holidays, new projects — and it’s making us sick.
Here’s how my recent patient visit played out:

I started the appointment with, “How can I help you?”  The cell phone rings, the patient tells me "Sorry, I need to take this, work you know."

I wait for her attention while she talks on the phone. Again, I ask, “What seems to be the problem?” Again, the cell phone rings. She takes that call. I wait and finally she answers, “Doctor I have a constant headache and I feel so stressed out.” 

I look at her and think to myself, “Boy if you could only see yourself, your work is making you sick!”

Recent studies show that Americans spend more time working than almost any other developed country. We don’t get as much vacation, we don’t take the vacation time we have, we work nights and weekends and what was clear to me by this patient, we even work during our doctor’s appointments. 

After carefully evaluating my cell phone patient and making sure nothing urgent was occurring, I told her "you need to make time for yourself -- find a way to relax."

She looked at me incredulously and told me point blank, "That can’t be it”.

Ok, full disclosure here, I’m just like her. I ruin vacations by obediently responding to every email and call notification I hear, like a Pavlovian dog. Of course, I take my smartphone everywhere.

Here’s the thing, we’re all deniers of how much work we do and refuse to believe that constant connection takes a toll, and believe me it does: anxiety, high blood pressure, weight gain and headaches can easily be traced to this.

We can blame employers, globalization whatever until we’re blue in the face, but the bottom line is it's up to us to find a way to disconnect and unwind.  

Exercise, meditate, pray — you decide — but we have to take that personal moment. Our health depends on it.

Excuse me, I gotta take this call — work, you know.

Dr. Joseph Sirven is the Chairman of Neurology at the Mayo Clinic.