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Know your purpose, reduce the chance of feeling overwhelmed
“I am just so overwhelmed…”
I’ll bet you heard this in the last week from a friend, family member, co-worker or, more likely, in your own head.
Feelings of being overwhelmed are at epidemic proportions. In the past year, a study revealed three in four people have felt so stressed, they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope. In Canada, a survey of 30,000 workers with families, found 90 per cent reported moderate to high levels of “role overload” meaning they were trying to do too many things at once to meet demands of both work and personal life.
Not surprisingly, those who felt overwhelmed rated themselves significantly lower on their perceived control of circumstances in their current environment. This is having a devastating effect on our health and pocketbook. We typically do not make good choices under these circumstances. Even if you believe in will power, that goes out the window. There were 46 per cent who reported they eat too much or eat unhealthily due to stress; 29 per cent reported they started drinking or increased their drinking; and 16 per cent reported they started smoking or increased the habit.
This all leads to the psychological effects associated with these feelings of being overwhelmed: 51 per cent of adults who felt overwhelmed reported feeling depressed, and 61 per cent reported feeling anxious. Of those who said they had felt stress at some point in their lives, 16 per cent had harmed themselves and 32 per cent admitted having suicidal thoughts and feelings.
Here is the last of the statistics, I promise. Health Canada has found people are straining on the brink of role overload. More workers are depressed, anxious, sick, distracted, absent, unproductive and less innovative. This costs businesses and the health-care system an estimated $12 billion a year.
It pains me to study this, read this and hear this, with the work I do.
What can be done?
Step one is to know your purpose. I asked this in a course I taught recently on resilience and received blank stares. These were all seasoned professional employees. I am not surprised, and I didn’t judge them. Many people do not stop and think about it.
Data from around the world supports the notion that having a strong connection to one’s sense of purpose is related to longevity – even beyond 100 years of age. This may be linked to being able to better handle the ups and downs of life, enjoying better cardiovascular health, encountering less worry or experiencing greater happiness over time.
Determining your purpose prior to setting goals is extremely important. Many have been taught to set goals. I am sure if I started asking my course participants what their goals were, I would not have received blank stares, but arms would shoot up to answer. However, goals without a purpose are like shooting pucks without a net. A daily purpose does not have to be long. It needs to be no more than one or two sentences. It should be specific and clear. Your purpose does not need to be just about you; it is about what fuels you and motivates you to lean into each day to get the most out of it.
Having a defined purpose goes for organizations as well. Most people’s resilience depends on the environment they are immersed in. Most companies I see, or work with, are taking on too many initiatives which erodes the culture and shows up with shitty engagement scores from their employees. The challenge is that each manager might have their own pet projects they want to focus on, but that trickles down to lower level workers dealing with more projects at a time than they can handle or do well.
Launching a new initiative is one way a manager can make their mark in a new job or show their value at a company they’ve been with for years. So, more and more managers across industries might be piling on more and more new projects. Every year there is a new major initiative to tackle – without dropping the ones that are ineffective or no longer fit the purpose of the organization. The downside is middle managers and frontline employees get saddled with more and more work. Everyone ends up with initiative overload.
Companies need to go through a clarity exercise on purpose. What is essential? This needs to be more than lip service; it needs to be more than words written on the website, the walls of the office or in the brochure. Once you go through a process to define your purpose for existing, along with securing the necessary buy-in, you increase the likelihood of your people not feeling overwhelmed. You can start every project idea asking how does this fit our purpose, vision and values? You can create an evaluation system – a point system – based on these criteria for every idea. It may also allow you to go through what your current offerings are and drop those that do not fit.
I am not suggesting this is easy. I’ve seen this happen all the time because people identify closely with projects. People begin to think their employment may depend on certain projects being pursued or they strongly believe this particular initiative is going to change the world. And so, there’s resistance to actually bringing a halt to something. This is a hard process. This is a change-management process and change-management exercises tend to work best when you start with the why: Why are we doing this? What are the benefits? So starting with the why – such as a purpose – sets you up for success.
I want to finish with a comment from the resilience project I am doing at Dalhousie University called the Q-Life. The participant said it was okay to share, and I feel it’s a very powerful comment. Stay resilient.
“I am generally an anxious person and would get very overwhelmed any time there was stress in my life. Which ultimately caused me to lose sleep and go on a downward spiral. Just before starting the Q-Life, I was overwhelmed with my studies, not getting enough sleep, mentally and physically exhausted. I did not know how to focus and conquer the things I needed to, in order to succeed. The added stress of needing good grades, and not getting them, did not help the negative self-talk.
“Thankfully, now I can say I very rarely get anxious. When I do, I self reflect, remember my purposes and use a journal I keep with me. Journaling, for me, has been the absolute biggest factor in my success of keeping my mind scatter-free, getting a good night’s sleep, and not stressing about what I need to get done the following days. I am happy to say that using all the tools and lessons I have learned throughout the course, I have managed to increase my grades (I increased an exam mark by over 20 per cent from the first one I took, just before starting Q-Life) and feel, overall, a new sense of purpose.”