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A Great Fatigue Crisis?

by Thea O'Connor on 6th November 2012

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Time, money and energy are commonly regarded as vital life resources. When it comes to energy, which some say is the most important, how skilled are we at managing it?

The state of our earth’s energy reserves indicate that as humans, we have a lot to learn.  But how about personal energy?  Again we seem to be struggling.  Here in Australia:

  • 96% of us say we feel tired on waking according to the largest sleep survey of Australians conducted to date (2012).
  • a third of fulltime workers and almost one in two fulltime working mothers say they are extremely tired or completely exhausted all of the time, according to the 2010 Australian Work Life Index Survey conducted by the University of South Australia’s Centre for Work + Life.

As a health advocate, I’ve always had a particular interest in the way socio-cultural norms, especially when internalised, can makes us sick: our work ethic that can drive us to exhaustion by linking self worth to hard work, or unnatural body ideals, which send us on stupid diets, under the knife and deprive us of the peace of self-acceptance.

When it comes to widespread tiredness and fatigue, I wonder about the causative role of economic growth (EG) not only as a reality, but also as an internalised belief.

In their book Planet Obesity, Professors Egger and Swinburn make the case that economic growth beyond a certain point is the root cause, not only of environmental degradation but also an epidemic of chronic diseases (article here for more information).

The pro-inflammatory lifestyle – high in stress and calories while low on sleep and physical activity – that often accompanies the accumulation of more wealth is thought to play a significant role in driving increasing rates of diabetes, heart disease, obesity and cancer.

This may help explain why in affluent countries, we are actually more likely to die during an economic boom than a recession, according to relatively recent re-analyses of mortality data.

Some choose to work like crazy for the material gains and status associated with higher incomes.  Others can find themselves caught in an economy trap where they have to work hard just to meet ‘basic’ needs, such as the mortgage and school fees.

Either way, when economic growth becomes an internalized mentality, as well as an external pressure, depletion looms.

An economic growth mentality is characterised by disregard for the physical limitations of our bodies, a drive to sustain intense output over a prolonged period without pause, and a tendency to ignore the early signs of depletion.  Feeling overwhelmed, increasing tiredness, loss of joy, and narrow, reactive thinking are just some of the early smoke signals burnout sufferers say they ignored.

Relying on non-renewable energy to overcome tiredness is also a feature of growth-at-all costs living: a coffee to get us going in the morning, a sugar hit to get us through the afternoon and good dose of stress that keeps us wired.  These are sure ways to over-ride tiredness and get us through the days, months and even years.  It is only when burn out hits years later, that we realise these sources of fuel didn’t renew our vital energy, but ultimately dumped us drained and empty.

Unchecked, an EG mentality will lead us into another kind of GFC – a Great Fatigue Crisis.

That’s my prediction – unless we can learn, rapidly, from what we know about human burnout as well as how to conserve and wisely use our planet’s limited energy.

So what can we do to ensure our personal sustainability?  This is an open question for readers and I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Here are some starter possibilities.

Respect our physical limitations.  Respecting our limits isn’t something modern Western culture encourages us to do – it tells us we are meant to break down barriers, reach for the stars and never-say-never.  Well, personally I have found respecting my own limitations, through choosing to do less, incredibly liberating and restorative.  As long as we are grounded in our human bodies, there are basic needs and limits that warrant respect. Eat when hungry, rest when tired, say no when too busy.

Increase our reliance on ‘renewable’ sources of energy.  Good food, enjoyable movement, mindfulness and rest are some proven ways to renew our energy.  I call sugar, caffeine and stress non-renewable energy sources, since longer term they lead to depletion. Getting off the addictive adrenaline train can be really challenging, but so refreshing for our adrenal glands, as well as our capacity to think well.  “I was on such an adrenaline high – always something to do, never a moment to stop and think,” said one man I recently interviewed regarding his experience of burnout.

Tune-in to the rhythms of our living system.  All of our ‘operating systems’ – such as  our cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive or hormonal systems, are cyclical, not linear, with ebbs and flows over a 24 hr cycle.  Imagine enjoying a work ethic designed around such biorhythms, rather than over-riding them.  I do, and that’s why I’m such an advocate of normalising the mini-siesta in our work culture. When our alertness dips mid afternoon, as it’s genetically programmed to do, responding with a powernap is wonderfully restorative, improving mood, concentration, alertness and memory.

napping photo

Photo: a local Nap Zzzone established in the main street of Bellingen, NSW earlier this year to support workers participation in a workplace nap challenge. The Uniting Church Minister was happy to open the doors of an old beautiful church for this purpose..

Cultivating a work ethic that supports and rewards regular renewable energy breaks is my current focus.  It’s challenging as so many workers simply feel ‘too busy’ to stop and tend to their bodies –even to go to the loo! But I think normalizing more sane work habits has a chance, given the latest science which shows even very short breaks can make a real difference to health.

  • Movement Breaks– breaking up sitting time every 20 minutes with just two minutes of light activity eg a stroll around the office, improves glucose metabolism by up to 30% and so can reduce the risk of a number of chronic diseases, according to research conducted by David Dunstan of the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute.  Some workplaces now have standing or walking meetings to encourage this.  Others have stand up desks.
  • Mindfulness Breaks – Mindfulness specialist, Dr Craig Hassed of Monash University says just five minutes of mindfulness meditation twice a day, will deliver benefits you can build on.  For clearly measurable health benefits 2 x 20 minutes per day is recommended.
  • Nap Breaks – A nap as short as 10 minutes (which in practice is more like 15 to 20 minutes to allow time to drift off) is enough to increase alertness, mood and concentration and reduce workplace accidents and errors.

The danger is that these mini-breaks get co-opted into trying to squeeze more out of people.  The big opportunity lies in the change in beliefs and attitudes that taking such breaks necessitates.  In order to punctuate your day with regular pauses, especially when no one else is doing so, you need to be convinced of the life-giving value of downtime, rest and renewal.

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avatar Thea is a health and business writer, speaker & facilitator with over 20 years experience in the health sector, including running her own workplace health consultancy, practicing as a dietitian, and as Director of a not-for-profit organisation specialising in body image dissatisfaction and disordered eating. Her articles have appeared in a range of publications including The Australian, Sydney Morning Herald and In the Black business magazine. Today Thea is focusing her energy on founding NapNow! - normalising the mini-siesta in our work culture. It is part of forging sustainable ways of living and working in the face of an intensifying pace of work and life.

Thea has written 1 posts on Post Growth Institute. Contact Thea

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