Sick of Work

Does Superman take naps? 

I don’t remember reading about any super-snoozes in my old comic books. Or seeing him nod off in TV shows or movies.

But this “Superman” needs naps now. 

I’m talking about me. A man like many others, who has put in long hours and worked hard for years to provide for his family and achieve the Man-of-Steel ideal in our capitalist society. That is, to be strong, to be invincible, to be able to save the day single-handedly. 

But these days, I’ve lost my superpowers. 

I’m wrestling with the aftershocks of a heart attack and an anxiety attack in June. Over the past month or so, I’ve been experiencing episodes of chest tightness, dizziness, headaches and fatigue. I’m taking naps of up to an hour almost every day. 

The lesson I draw from this health trouble and rest requirement: my body is rejecting capitalism and its demands for superhuman performance. The standard, stressful American way of working has become kryptonite for me. 

And I’m not alone. The “Great Resignation” is at least partly a reflection of a new stance toward life and jobs—in which millions of people are asking for a healthier, human way to earn a living. 

Let me break this down.

Break down, in fact, is an appropriate term. Because what I’ve experienced in the past few weeks is a set of episodes where my heart or my mind—or both—have failed to work normally. They haven’t operated as the well-oiled, high-performance machine I’ve come to expect of myself. They haven’t enabled me to be the unstoppable, above-and-beyond workplace hero that we generally expect of working professionals.

My health difficulties vary in intensity. Some are minor. Others affect me to the point that I can’t concentrate and need to lie down.

The incidents come in the wake of a heart attack and anxiety attack I experienced in June. I recently wrote about how that health scare taught me lessons—especially about the way men need to be whole, “arrow-and-circle” men to heal and thrive.

Just as I was finishing and publishing that piece, though, I started experiencing these incidents. After about two and a half months without chest sensation episodes, I’ve had 12-15 of them over the past month or so.

I say they involve a breakdown of my heart, my head, or both, because it is virtually impossible to tell whether they are physiological or psychosomatic. My cardiologist at Kaiser Permanente health system told me that it would require snaking a camera into my heart (again) to determine if I was suffering another coronary artery “spasm.”

And yet, whether these latest episodes are physical, mental or some combination is largely irrelevant. The main remedy in any event is the same: stress reduction.

Stress is likely what caused my mild heart attack in June. And I believe I can pinpoint the cause of this recent bout of chest incidents: a webinar I delivered to an audience of high-powered consultants.

The webinar, on “managing up,” felt like a big deal. It held the promise of leading to additional paid engagements as well as greater cachet in the world of workplace culture. What’s more, I’d put my talk together in a hurry. Because the opportunity popped up just a week or so before the event and it was a somewhat new topic for me, I wasn’t as prepared as I normally am to give a presentation.

In retrospect, I want to kick myself in the pants over this webinar and much of the work I took on in October. I told myself after my June heart attack that I wouldn’t cram my Google Calendar so that it looks like a wall of color. But sure enough, in the ensuing months I steadily packed my schedule with meetings and deliverables. I gradually ratcheted up the pressure on myself. 

And I can understand why. “Hustle and achieve” has been the mantra surrounding me since I entered the work world about 30 years ago. Capitalism tells us we don’t ever quite “have enough”–enough money, prestige, power. Even though I’ve intellectually abandoned the rat race in favor of goals that are more about service and social justice, I remain susceptible to the call to accomplish, accomplish, accomplish. 

And for me and many other men, that do-more expectation translates into pressure to be Superman at work. To be strong enough to work 60, 80, 100 hours a week. To be impervious to disappointments or sadness or fear. To be able to step into a crisis and rescue the team or company without any help

I know this is a trap. I know that by trying to be Superman, men often adopt negative, self-destructive features of traditional masculinity. Traits like extreme stoicism, hyper-competitiveness and detachment.

In effect, by trying to be the man of steel, a man can wind up rigid, cold and isolated in a world calling for agility, warmth and connection. 

And that disconnection causes mortal men harmful stress as sure as a chunk of kryptonite causes Superman to swoon. 

I know all this. I’ve even written about it, saying that we need to go from imitating the Man of Steel to becoming Men of Teal. That’s a reference to teal organizational cultures–soulful workplaces defined by an evolving sense of purpose, self-management and holism. 

Even though I know a holistic attention to health is incompatible with pretending to be superhuman, I still sometimes get seduced into putting on that cape. 

That’s effectively what I did in taking the webinar assignment, on my own, under a tight deadline. Not only did it promise a healthy fee, but it would put me in front of an audience of influencers. Here was a chance to share some of my renegade ideas about management and leadership to a group that could ripple those ideas outward–and potentially make me more of a “name” along the way.

So I succumbed to the spells of superhuman achievement and potential clout. And I soon found myself hexed. 

The morning of the webinar, I had the first of these recent heart-head incidents. I felt my chest tighten, I felt lightheaded, and I broke into a clammy, cold sweat. I managed to pull myself together to deliver the presentation, but I think it pushed my stress level over an invisible threshold.

In other words, I broke down. And my body has continued to break down at unpredictable intervals these past four weeks.

It’s been scary. I’ve worried these incidents could become a massive, fatal heart attack. But as the episodes have continued without going to that extreme, my fear has morphed into frustration. And a measure of shame. I no longer can count on myself to be that rock-solid, reliable performer that my income depends on, that our economic life overall depends on.

How can I earn my keep and provide for my family if I’m a “broken” working man. What’s the value of a hero who uses his cape for a balled up nap pillow rather than a dashing sign of derring do?

Thankfully, those worries have been tempered by a few factors. These include the wisdom I’ve picked up about the shadow side of playing Superman at work, about the need to break out of other “confined” views of masculinity, about the power of rest in general and napping in particular. What’s more, I’ve been lucky to have a small financial cushion and a supportive wife. Rowena has urged me to “coast” for a while. To stop the frantic pedaling I’ve been doing for 30 years or so.

And this coasting has enabled a different perspective. Maybe the system that depends on constant, robotic, superhuman pedaling is the thing that’s broken.

Maybe it’s capitalism that’s sick, not me. 

I‘m realizing that my recent chest episodes point to a different, more human way of relating and pursuing prosperity. My body is currently unable to function as a workplace Superman. I can’t be a steely cog in a machine of commercial transactions. I can’t hit deadlines with clock-like precision.

Still, I still can contribute. I’m hitting about 80-90 percent of my obligations as an editor, a writer, a coach. 

But I need more flexibility than I did in the past. I’ve had to cancel or cut short several meetings. I’ve extended a number of deadlines. I’ve taken those naps.

In effect, the unforgiving, cold calculating culture of traditional capitalism does not work for me at the moment. What I need now is to work within a web of caring relationships.

Thankfully, I’m blessed to have clients and partners who fit this bill. They are compassionate, accommodating people. They’ve shown flexibility and expressed concern for me when I’ve had to step away from conversations or ask for an extension. 

I have a lot of trust that we’ll be able to figure out ways to continue working together in this new normal for me.

I believe, in fact, that having clients I care about and whose visions I support is a helpful part of healing for me. Not just because these folks provide financial stability for me and my family. But because they are in my corner. They care about me. And they tell me how much I matter to them. Even as they know my health issues can interrupt or slow down my services for them. 

“I don’t think I’ll be able to do what I want to do over the next two months without you, Ed,” a coaching client said recently.

Her comment warmed my heart and eased my mind. I was a hero to her. But a fully human one. 

And here’s where my personal story may connect to a bigger, public story playing out today. It’s a story I’ve tracked as a researcher and writer on workplace issues for more than two decades.

Many people in the United States and across the globe are sick of a capitalist system that sickens us. Consider the explosive growth of an online community opposed to work as we know it. The “r/antiwork” forum on Reddit grew from 76,000 to 1,019,000 subscribers between January 2020 to November 2021 and has quadrupled in size since September. 

This community is of a piece with the Great Resignation, where record numbers of Americans are abandoning jobs that often feel meaningless, pay little, lack dignity and come with health risks. In September, for example, a record 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs.

The Covid pandemic, the racial reckoning, the political polarization and the climate catastrophes all have prompted reflection on the economy and work. Every lethal mega-storm reminds us that global warming is real and a function of growth-obsessed capitalism. And the widening divide between haves and have-nots is a root cause of anti-democratic populist movements worldwide.

Meanwhile,  it has been plain for a decade or more that work deadens most people—with just over a third of Americans feeling engaged on the job. Work also literally kills people, albeit slowly. Scholars including Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford have demonstrated that typical jobs—where people have little autonomy, little flexibility to manage family obligations and little job security—lead to some 120,000 U.S. deaths a year from workplace stress and related illnesses. 

Workplaces where men especially feel pressure to be tough and stoic also can contribute to suicides. I recently wrote about Jay Rydd, a leader at Diamond Peak ski resort near Lake Tahoe. Two of Jay’s male colleagues committed suicide in the past two years, and he attributed the deaths in part to ski industry expectations that men should suppress emotion and pretend to be strong at all times, including at work. 

It’s past time to change those attitudes, Jay says. “Fuck the tough guy show,” he says, inventing a phrase I wish I’d come up with. 

Too often, Jay told me, the men and women in the ski industry try to play superhero. 

“There’s a time and place to put your cape on,” he said. “Most of the time you should leave your cape at home.”

But many of us have felt we needed to put it on. Especially during the pandemic, when people worried about losing jobs. The human toll is now clear. Over the past two years, workplace burnout and anxiety have intensified. Forty-two percent of U.S. women and 35% of U.S. men said they feel burned out often or almost always in 2021,  compared to 32% of women and 28% of men last year.

With these levels of stress, it’s not surprising that many people are souring on our economic system. Young people especially are skeptical of capitalism, with roughly half having a favorable impression of socialism. 

Put another way, Americans are realizing that work has put unrealistic, superhuman expectations on people. They are taking off their tattered capes. They are acknowledging their vulnerability instead of pretending to be invincible.

The past two years have revealed the price of our workplace fictions. The real heroes of the pandemic are people who barely get attention–clerks, nurses, food service workers. And we saw many of them die during  the pandemic.

Lingering Covid health concerns help explain why many Americans today are rejecting the idea of returning to the office. Besides worrying about becoming sick in the office, some workers also are wary of returning to toxic workplace cultures

Indeed, people hunger for the kind of positive, human relationships I’ve been fortunate enough to build with my clients and colleagues. A recent study by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. found that the top reasons people are leaving jobs include:

  • Not having caring and trusting teammates
  • Not experiencing a sense of belonging
  • Not feeling valued by their manager
  • Not feeling valued by the organization.

Can you imagine if people were told they were vital to their organization’s success–akin to what my client told me? Or if they had colleagues as caring as I have in the members of the Teal Team I co-founded

But many do not. And business leaders seem blind to what their people are seeking. In the McKinsey study, they offered very different explanations for people quitting. They focused on more transactional matters, such as pay, work-life balance, and a heavy workload.

Some organizations, often Great Place to Work-Certified companies, appreciate the shift away  from superheroism. These companies have responded to the crises of 2020 and 2021 by fashioning more human-centered work cultures.

May others follow them. And may we enact public policies that support caregiving, environmental repair and shared prosperity.

I know that’s a big ask. But that’s what’s at stake at the moment. As a human race, we’re becoming conscious of how inhuman our economy and society have been.

It’s a moment to imagine a world based not on competition, scarcity and fear, but on cooperation, compassion and faith that we can fashion a fair future. One where the planet flourishes and people feel alive at work.  

If my own health journey is any sign, we all may be called to move away from soulless, mindless ways of working, from jobs that have us pretend to be invincible but that in truth leave us sick and tired.

I’ve been doing better over the past two weeks when it comes to my health. It may have to do with adjusting my medication levels properly. It also may relate to more fully rejecting the standard story of work and success. This is hard–a small voice in the back of my head occasionally calls me a wimp and loser. But there’s a freedom I can taste in laying down those cold capitalist yardsticks in favor of warm, human relationships.

Halloween also helped. 

I decided to dress up as Superman. I bought the costume about two years ago, when I was formulating the concept of moving from the Man of Steel to Men of Teal. I figured I might wear it at a talk about having to take that costume off–perhaps with a teal outfit on underneath. 

But when I wore it this Oct. 31st, it sent me the message I imagined sending others. 

There was something oddly energizing about that blue and red garb. The cape, the “S” on the chest and the fake six-pack and pec muscles initially made me feel stronger. I found myself putting my hands on my hips and standing up tall as I showed the costume off to my wife and daughter. 

But then I got tired. And I took a nap. 

The picture above is me on the couch before we went to a Halloween party. 

Resting up was a wise move. I had a lovely time at the backyard party, laughing with old friends and enjoying hamburgers and candy. 

As the evening unfolded, it got chilly. I covered up the “S” and cape with a jacket. And I put on a fleece hat. I don’t think the Superman of comic books ever put on a coat or hat to keep warm. Just like he never takes naps. 

But I was done trying to be Superman. I was committed to taking care of myself. And I was glad to be toasty warm. 

I was super happy to be a regular human being.