Workplace Burnout, Boundaries, and the movie Pretty woman
OK, I know what you are thinking – what on earth do these things have in common? Please be patient. It will make sense; this article may prove helpful to many of you who are burned out at work, looking for new meaningful work, or trying to heal from the loss of work and investments. I know this is a longer article. But give it a chance.
The inspiration for the article:
Recently I had a conversation with a dear friend who had just left a corporate position about business and personal life. She told me, “Dora, I can go into any situation at work, mergers, takeovers, layoffs, and it is business. I don’t let it affect me. I am just doing my job, and business is business. It is not personal.”
I answered with a tender, “I get it. I do. But on one level, I don’t think we are talking about the same thing, and on another level, I am not sure if you even mean what you say.” Then I paused.
My friend is one of the most warm-hearted, kind individuals. I realized that I needed to collect my thoughts because this is a much confusing topic, and I wanted to avoid creating conflict due to misunderstanding.
I am a small business owner. I firmly believe that the problem with considering all issues at work “just business” and “nothing personal” is that it is false. Yes, we say it, but I don’t think we truly understand what we are saying. We toss this term around, and more often, it causes harm because it stops us from investigating what is happening in our hearts and minds. My friend just stepped into early retirement from corporate work because she needed a break. And I was just forced to close one of my business locations due to staffing issues post-Covid. None of these decisions were taken without the heart being involved. These were personal decisions.
But we keep saying, “business is nothing personal.” Our culture hammers the idea of isolation, separation, and compartmentalization into our minds. The problem is that we, as human beings, are not good at understanding words and terminology, often miss interpreting and thus miss executing concepts around compartmentalization. So, before you react to my statement that that business IS personal, please read on for a few more lines. Please give me a chance to explain. Much of this confusion is the root of our burnout and depression.
Before I continue my story with my friend. First, let’s clarify our vocabulary. Otherwise, we end up confused and talking about different things.
A disclaimer: Burnout and mental health are incredibly complex topics. There are many causes and many layers to the problem. I offer a 7-week course in January to better understand our emotional health and offer some ways to combat stress management.
I cannot do the topic full justice in a small article. I can take one aspect of the problem and try to break it down. I hope that even tiny insights into mindfulness can start major cultural changes.
Language is a sticky wicket:
Language is an imprecise communication device. It depends on a few sounds labeling major concepts, and each one of us hears and understands words slightly differently due to our individual history (culture, economics, mother tongue).
Let’s take the word; Boundaries – The good, the bad, and the ugly
The Good Boundaries: We need boundaries in place at work. We need privacy laws; we need time restrictions. We need it so work is defined clearly with protection and limitations. These are good boundaries.
The Bad Boundaries: Bad boundaries are arbitrary. When culture tries to divide a natural phenomenon, we are in trouble. For example.
Political powers often redraw maps of smaller nations. What was once x country is now y country. But it is the same land, with the same people. Only the labels changed, and now nature (land and people) must adjust to forces that often feel harmful and thus create further conflict down the road. Thus, borders as boundaries are arbitrary and often set by the ones with power.
The human mind and body are another natural phenomena that cannot be divided. Though we don’t often think about it, our emotions and thoughts also have no boundaries. No matter how much we try, emotions are always first, always stronger, and the thinking process of the frontal brain can only modulate and respond to already existing emotions. We also cannot selectively suppress “bad emotions” while keeping “good emotions.” When we try to control and suppress the bad stuff, we end up suppressing “good emotions” as well, eventually leading to a flat meaningless life. As my philosophy professor, Dr. Solomon, often said, “emotions are how we engage with the universe, and it is emotions that give our life meaning.” Thus, we may feel we can bifurcate business from personal, but the reality is not a clear dividing line; it simply depends on how personal your business is in your life.
Some of us hold work where decisions don’t affect our paycheck, livelihood, or ethics. In these positions, it is easier to say, “oh, it is business, not personal.” Some of us create ideas, structures, and teams at work that are very fulfilling and satisfying, thus also personal. The reality is; the more we care about our work for financial survival, ethical engagement, and creativity, the harder it is to stay without emotional involvement. As a result, all satisfying work becomes personal. (Now you realize that even the term personal is tricky, wait, I will get to it a little further in this article).
The Ugly Boundaries: sometimes, we use boundaries as a defense weapon to deflect guilt, responsibility, and empathy. Every one of us in management, teaching, or parenting position is familiar with the pattern; mistakes are made, bad stuff happens, or decisions are made about the future that is uncomfortable to face; instead of an honest and uncomfortable, but brave conversation that has the potential for healing and growth both for the individuals and for business, people (teens and adults alike) often turn away, put up boundaries, and in even uglier cases blame. Our culture makes it OK to not communicate and follow what we want and desire because it is “just business,” but if it were not personal, it would not be uncomfortable to communicate. The whole reason why boundaries of “just business” get thrown up is that we morally know that feelings are involved. Ironically, at this point, the only way to save the business relationship is to see how it is personal and to reach out with empathy and truth.
OK so let’s talk about the word; Personal – another confusing term.
In popular tongue, if someone takes something personally, it often conjures up images of Spanish soap operas. By no means am I advocating drama and inappropriate behavior. Drama at the workplace or home between friends is totally futile and ineffective. But empathy, feeling, and open communication are necessary for healthy workplaces and homes. And we cannot have truly constructive communication if we don’t consider the feelings of the other.
When large corporations put on blinders about how actions affect workers, they eventually run into trouble.
When corporate and business deals don’t communicate honestly and openly with consideration of the other, they create tension and stress for the future, which is not only bad for relationships but also bad for business.
When individuals within a company work without considering how their actions will affect their collective or other colleagues, there is pain down the line.
Unfortunately, in our current world, behaving with no feelings and empathy may make a person successful but not happy.
So, here comes Pretty Woman!
Finally, after two pages into the article, I get to pick up where I left off the story with my friend. Clearly, this isn't fit for Twitter or Instagram. Complex topics need more explanations. Thanks for hanging in there!
When my kind, beautiful, loving friend told me that “business is not personal,” I immediately had flashbacks to the hit film Pretty Woman from 1990 and started laughing. I knew she cared and always behaved ethically at work, so thinking about the Gere character from the film and her in one sentence made the moment even more comical and absurd.
Some of you are old enough to remember the hit movie Pretty Woman with Richard Gere and Julia Roberts. Mr. Gere played a high-stakes, high-power business executive who, without emotion, executes a corporate takeover, regardless of the ethical backdrops or the personal struggles of the businesses at hand. As long as the bottom line is good, “it is business, not personal.” The problem is, working this way made him jaded about all pleasures in life. Remember Prof. Solomon from a page ago; one cannot selectively numb “bad emotions.” When we suppress the bad, we also kill the good stuff. It took Julia Roberts, playing a prostitute, to bring out life and feelings, to have him re-open to experiences with emotions. They took long baths, walked in the park barefoot; connected the mind with the body into a single emotional unit. In the end, of course, Richard Gere, the businessman, makes a surprise turn and, instead of cannibalizing his competition, suggests an open and fair merger deal that creates peace and unity.
I know, I know what you are saying! It is Hollywood; it is a modern Cinderella fairy tale. Yes, I know! But there is a reason why it was so flipping popular with folks of all ages! It sent the message that we all feel in our hearts, though often we cannot execute in life:
Work needs to be ethical and personally meaningful for us to be happy.
When work is impersonal or unethical, causing inner conflict, we become numb and burn out. We burn out if the business does not follow ethics, kindness, and meaningful engagement with the employees. When our ethics conflict with our work structure, we end up with healthcare workers who walk around like zombies. We end up with sick patients who feel that they are unimportant. We end up with business mergers focusing only on the bottom line and not on the wellness of humans and our planet.
Like it or not, folks. When business is good, business is personal. And ironically, when we have personal work, we are happier! You know this; I know you do! This is why we had the Great Resignations after Covid. We all had a pause to think about what we want. And we realized that what we want is more personal, meaningful work.
More meaningful work is what my dear friend is after, but we both need time to grieve and heal right now. We both need time to admit how things that happened at business affected us personally and give these emotions the time they need. We need time to heal when we go through big changes and big losses. Not allowing these sentiments space because they fit into the cultural “bento box” of business creates more anxiety and mental illness. In order to heal, we must feel. Life, all life, is personal when it comes to emotions!
So you ask, OK, I get it, but how do I not make my work issues overtake my life? I need boundaries!
Yes, you need good boundaries that give your work a healthy structure. Have good boundaries.
You do not need bad boundaries, boundaries around emotions that try to control how you feel. For one, as I explained above, you can't do it anyway! Emotions arise without your control, you feel how you feel. Suppressing emotions lead to depression and struggle. Trying to control what we can't is one of the major sources of our stress. (you can learn more about this during my 7-week course.) Emotions are natural phenomena and thus simply need to be observed, and followed with polite behavior.
Your feeling is a barometer of how you are doing in the universe. Emotions are also the moral campus, it is how we gauge what is right and wrong, and it is also how we stay engaged and motivated. No employer wants to work with a bunch of people who simply execute without any passion or care. And working without passion is more exhausting in the long-run. Yes, caring about your work may be exhausting at times, but opening your heart to the possibility of friendship at work also has its difficult moments. But when we limit all "difficulties", we also limit the joy, the satisfaction that what we do matters, and where we spend more than half of our life is not an empty void but a space where you are surrounded by people who care. Yes, HR may be unhappy when relationships form because they need to clean it up when it goes south. But we are also unhappy, unsatisfied, and burned out when we spend most of our lives in a workplace that has been scrubbed of its humanity.
Humans are feeling, passionate creatures; that is human nature; when we try to put boundaries around that, we feel sad and depressed. It is that simple. Our culture now brainwashed us otherwise, but this is why burnout is not simply a personal issue of how one handles thoughts, life, and emotions. Burnout is what our culture does to us, and this is why it is so hard to "fix."
So how do we "fix" cultural burnout?
The answer is Mindfulness and Cross-cultural ethics:
Mindfulness increases our ability to bear all emotions instead of suppressing emotions. Emotions are what give our lives meaning.
When we try to suppress emotions, we usually reach for substances that are addictive, alcohol, drugs, sugar, and sex.
Keep your feeling, learn to make friends with them, and learn to behave professionally and communicate your feelings honestly. And if you feel uncomfortable and, as a result, crave boundaries, look inside. Most likely, you need to be brave and have an honest conversation.
Instead of suppressing emotions, learn to be present with where you are; that is, get involved and fully present at work. Then go home and get involved and fully present with family. Focus on not letting past experiences (even those 10 minutes ago) take away from your present life. If you try to do this, you will have a more meaningful, more efficient, and satisfying life at work and at home. You will not be perfect; we all have a lag time in "emotional digestion" but the more we focus on the issues and people around us at the moment, the better we get at letting bygones be bygones.
Instead of trying to put down emotional boundaries, follow the guidelines of all perennial spiritual teachings. These are the teachings that I call "cross-cultural ethics." Perennial philosophy and theology are concepts that are the same across all religions and cultures; these are ethical guidelines that all humans agree on; don't lie, don't cheat, be honest, don't steal, do the best you can, know that you are not in full control.
In the yoga tradition, these perennial ethics are summarized in the 8-limbs of yoga in the Yoga Sutras.
truth (with ourselves and others)
self-study - healthy self-criticism with the goal of self-knowledge and improvement
surrendering to a higher power - knowing that you are not in control
Framing all issues in life, be it personal or professional, around the Yamas and Niyamas will help us navigate life off of our yoga mat significantly better than our modern concepts, such as boundaries (which, as we have seen above, can be shifted and applied the wrong way).
Modern concepts can be tricky and confusing, but the 8-limbs are tried and true.
I know I sound naive, and we think it is impossible to live differently in a world that demands us to feel less, but as controversial as it sounds, feeling more is the solution. If we would all do our best to allow our moral campus to guide us, we would live in a better world.
I know what you are going to say; it doesn't matter because I cannot change my organization, my politics, my family etc... so I may as well not try. But that is not true, make small steps to be involved in caring for everything, saying your truth professionally, then move on and live your life. Remember, you are only in control of your actions! You cannot control your emotions, you cannot control what others feel or do, and you cannot control what happens in the universe. But we can control our actions, and when we do, even if it is hard or brings sorrow, we will feel better! Because the only way to keep your passion for life and work is if you are morally and emotionally fully present.
So live a passionate life, and when facing difficult moments, Ask yourself questions based on the Yamas and NIyamas;
Are you truthful with yourself? How about others?
Is your action going to cause long-term peace in relationships?
Are you coveting or grasping for something? Are you jealous or insecure?
Have you considered multiple points of view?
Is there clarity and organization in your thoughts? Are you behaving in haste? Should you write it down?
Do you know how you feel? Can you imagine how others feel? Must I act on my feelings because it is the right thing, or hold space? (oh that is a tough one)
What action would be constructive and peaceful for all involved?