Sustainability applied to our life according to the HR Director of the World Economic Forum
We all know the word “sustainability”, generally used in connection with development and applied to economic, social and climatic issues. I would like to make an example: if Brazil increases its GDP by 0,5% causing the deforestation of pieces of land as huge as the Lombardy region, we certainly cannot speak of a sustainable development, but rather of an acceleration towards an early exhaustion of the limited available natural resources.
I believe we should apply the concept of sustainability to the most valuable resource we have at disposal: our lives. If we had to ran a 42-km marathon, would we start running at a blistering pace from the very first kilometre? Certainly not, knowing that the length of the run will make it impossible for us to sustain a fast pace for 3 or 4 consecutive hours. This is an extremely simple argument, which, however, we don’t apply to ourselves and our professional lives.
So, how can we attain a sustainable career? The answer lies in the way we manage ourselves. Let’s think about 4 key factors: how and how long we sleep, eat, move and how we cope with stress. Are you ready?
The issue of how and how long we sleep has been taken into account only recently, as in the essay “The Sleep Revolution” by Arianna Huffington. According to the research conducted by the University of Ashridge*, a 90-minutes reduction of our daily sleeping hours implies a 32% decrease of our cognitive skills. Would you assign an important task to a drunk person? Certainly not: however, if we stay awake for 24 consecutive hours, our cognitive skills drop down to the level held by a person who drank 4 glasses of red wine with empty stomach.
Sleeping cannot be “saved up”: in other words, we cannot sleep 4 or 5 hours during working days and then sleep until midday on Sunday to catch up. Our body requires regular rhythms. The highest number of car accidents occurs when the lowest number of people are driving: between 2 and 4 am (often alcohol abuse is involved beside sleeping disorders). A practical advice: don’t read emails before going to bed or immediately after you wake up in the morning, and avoid keeping a TV or a smartphone in your bedroom.
What do we eat and how much?
We need to pay attention to what we eat and we need to change the habits that we think they are healthy while they are not. Refined-flour or gluten-enriched products, cured meats, chips, palm oil, sugar and salt, yogurt, red meat, bread, industrial baked products are real poisons we assume daily through eating. They are unsuitable products which make us put on weight and destroy precious energies – think about the typical post-lunch sleepiness – and eventually cause problems in the long term. It is essential to choose a good and balanced diet and avoid following popular diets which often happen to be unhealthy and…. little sustainable.
We don’t all have the time to take gym classes, but it is not a matter of becoming musclebound super-heroes. We simply need to do some physical activity on a regular basis, which could be walking around 10,000 steps a day (about 7/8 km), climbing up the stairs, avoiding driving for short distances, standing up and making a few steps every 30/40 minutes of inactive work. The most effective activities are running, fast-speed walking, yoga, swimming and cycling (simply paying attention not to cycle on polluted-air streets).
The close relationship between stress and performance was studied since the time of the industrial revolution. In 1908, two American psychologists, Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, proved the existence of an empirical relationship between the two: without any mental or physiological arousal, generally called stress, people’s performance is low. However, if we are over-excited, over stressed, then the performance drops down to nothing. The Yerkes-Dodson law dictates that, up to a certain point, stress contributes to increase performance because it helps us stay focussed. Once stress goes beyond that limit, however, it becomes counterproductive and ends up spoiling our performance.
Which is the turning point? And what happens if we go beyond it? To know more about it, I discussed this issue with doctor Jim Stricker, psychologist and therapist at the World Bank for 17 years. I asked him to try to quantify the cost, including stress and psychological costs, that the employees of the World Bank (around 15.000 people) had to pay, considering they had to live permanently under stress. The analysis made by Stricker was very clarifying. All the World Bank employees are highly qualified – they generally hold a university degree or a PhD – they speak several languages and have a rich experience from their country of origins.
So, we are talking about a very competitive environment, full of idealistic people, who trust the World Bank mission. Furthermore, the employees have to travel extensively in order to work on various projects worldwide. I myself used to spend about 150 days travelling every year. If we want to figure out the price paid by these people to make a career, we simply have to imagine that they constantly work to a breaking point. These are people whose idealism often turns into cynicism when projects become exasperating slow, when they see the overflowing corruption around the world, or when the jet-lag and physical strains from long hours of travel take over and the families complain at home for being neglected.
At the beginning, any motivated and skilful professional manages to cope with stress, trying to handle situations in the best possible way, but, at a certain point, there is a real danger of a sudden collapse, a breakdown for overworking, which requires long recovery times and may cause unpleasant consequences: depression, illnesses, divorces. This is the point we should never go beyond, as it implies too high a price to pay.
We need a good dose of awareness and wisdom in managing our time and energies. We need to set the right priorities; we should count on friends who can positively support us and never forget to take care of ourselves, both body and mind. It is fair to search for an inner motivation and work hard, but there are limits, which also depend on our physical nature.
To manage our careers, we also need to manage our body, energies and time: we need, in other words, to think about us as if we were a forest. Have we cut or planted trees? Have we reduced our skills in the long term or have we increased them? If we think about it, the concept is not new. Cura personalis is a Latin expression used by the Jesuits to describe the full care of a person: health and wellbeing understood in its deep and human meaning, not in economic terms.
Are we in good shape? Do we sleep well at least 7 hours per night, or even 8? Do we do enough physical exercise? What do we eat? What do we choose for our diet? Our physical state has a strong impact on our cognitive skills and vice versa. The cura personalis has a strong human, spiritual value. Thus, it can be regarded not only as a way to describe our physical state, but also as a condition which makes us feel authentic, in control of our life, and prevents us from being seduced by dangerous shortcuts that bring us to addictive behaviours. Being there, here and now, for ourselves, for the world around us, fit to do the tasks awaiting us and, most of all, for the people who love us. Did I convince you to think about yourself in a sustainable manner?
*The Wake up call for sleeping managers, Ashridge University, 2009