Lean Back: Why Doing Less Could Lead Us to Achieve More

To achieve career success, we need to get our inner and outer worlds in sync



To propel our careers forward, we’re told we must ‘lean in’, enduring short-term pain for long-term gain, but what if we’ve got it backwards? What if the pursuit of happiness – and that elusive word ‘balance’ – is vital to career success, rather than the other way around?

“It’s a misconception that success means sacrifice; new research suggests we work more effectively, creatively and collaboratively when we’re happy at work,” says Jill Donahue, President of EngageRx and Founder of patient-centricity group the Aurora Project. “Investing in our personal happiness can be the ultimate productivity booster that can see us forge ahead at work with dramatic benefits for employers, employees and the bottom line.”

In a recent study, happiness led to a 12% spike in productivity, while unhappy workers were 10% less productive. “We find that human happiness has large and positive causal effects on productivity,” said the research team led by Andrew Oswald, a professor of economics at Warwick Business School. “Positive emotions appear to invigorate human beings.”

It’s not just about productivity, says Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. “Happy people work more hours each week – and they work more in their free time, too. They tend to be more co-operative, less self-centered, and more willing to help other people – say, by sharing information or pitching in to help a colleague – and then, because they’ve helped others, others tend to help them. Also, they work better with others, because people prefer to be around happier people, who are less likely to show the counterproductive behavior of burnout, absenteeism, counter- and non-productive work, work disputes, and retaliatory behavior than are less happy people.”

A two-dimensional life?

No one has all the answers, says Donahue. “One of the pleasures of my work is that I get to know great pharma people from many different organizations and I’ve noticed an interesting common denominator – no matter their title, department or organization, they all struggle with balance. It’s a tough thing to achieve, and those people having difficulty achieving it believe they are suffering alone. They think it is only their company, their boss, their role that is responsible for such strain. Balance, or harmony you may prefer to call it, can have incredible impact if we put the effort in. The key word is ‘effort’. We have to work at it; it doesn’t happen without intent.”

For Donahue, it’s personal. “Many years ago, when I became a single mother of my two-year-old, I had a two-dimensional life – my daughter and my career in big pharma. It was exhausting and not much fun. I was unhappy. So, being a geek, I went to the literature for a solution. Back then, Stephen Covey’s book about the habits of successful people was all the rage and it started an insatiable hunger to learn more. There is an abundance in the literature about how to achieve harmony and happiness.”

She created her ’wheel of life’ with spokes representing the important pillars of her life. “My daughter and my career were important spokes for sure but there were also others like learning and excitement in life, spirituality and a feeling of contributing to the world, accepting my responsibility to being healthy in mind and body and, of course, finances. My goal was to ‘inflate’ my wheel by strengthening each spoke; I came to understand that the more inflated the wheel, the smoother my journey through life and the greater my influence. My life got immensely better.”

After this experience, Donahue met a new partner and, four years later, they created a family of their own. “We were blessed with two more daughters and we created (are creating!) a wonderfully rewarding, balanced fun life for us all. It doesn’t stop there as you have to continually work at it…. One day at a time. ”

Spinning plates

We are not superheroes, says Claire Taylor, Co-Founder of The Story Mill. “We disempower ourselves when we want the world to change so that we can have more balance in our own lives. Women need to create balance now and that’s within reach. Having expectations of ourselves to play superwoman, spinning several plates and never dropping one, is a trap many fall into. The speed and volume of work and life mean our minds are constantly whirring; it’s easy to get caught in the fray and lose sight of who we are and what we want. We stop listening to our own common sense about how to take care of ourselves. Instead, we drive and strive.”

There’s one core ingredient to finding our best work-life balance, she says. “Slowing down and listening to ourselves is the key. Psychologists call it self-enquiry, however, self-enquiry sounds like therapy, when listening to our own inner wisdom is easy and natural. Often the hardest part is creating space in our busy minds and it’s invaluable when we do. Simple things like drinking less coffee, taking breaks, going for a walk, getting an early night all help slow our minds down enough for us to hear our own wisdom. Finding work-life balance begins with making space to ask – what’s right for me and my family and my work? It is extraordinary how ideas we’d never considered before pop into our minds when we take the time to listen.”

Not just a female problem

Men are not immune either, says Adam Walker, a biometrics subject matter expert for two independent global pharma companies and advisor to a UK-based niche CRO. “As a hands-on Dad and weekly super-commuter from the UK to mainland Europe, I have to strive for balance. The way I achieve it is to ensure all contracts allow working from home Mondays and Fridays. No agreement, no contract signature – simple.”

While agreeing that both genders struggle with work-life balance, many women are responsible for more activities in the home/family, says Laura Warburton, Corporate Compliance Manager/Pharma Sales Manager with Vanguard Pharma. “’Home life responsibilities’ can be a key issue for women when seeking balance, [but] if we consider calling it ‘work-life integration’ and bring our partners into the mix as a team effort, women may get a few steps ahead. Granted, some partners may suggest they do not have the same flexibility as their other halves, and that can be very true or it can be for lack of innovation. For myself, a single-parent work-life integration has been identifying what experiences I am looking for; to be challenged, acknowledged, healthy, continually learning, doing artistic work, then determining what part of my life provides this.”

Warburton acknowledges that work might not fulfill all these needs. “Looking for opportunities to get my needs met might mean I need to add to work or life. Lack of time is often the stated issue, but even small things with little time involved can meet my goals. For me, the bottom line is to really clear the clutter and focus on goals.”

Tips for success

In an effort to shed some light on how best to attain that elusive balance, Donahue, with Clinical Therapist and Founder of Maximize Wellness Counseling and Coaching, Cara Maksimow, conducted a survey. The findings have proved enlightening.

“Our goal was to focus our time and energy on unveiling best practices, solutions to help women (and men) find better harmony and balance in their work in pharma and life each day,” says Donahue. “Cara and I reached out to successful men and women to unearth how they find harmony between their leadership roles in pharma and their family.”

Below are the top 5 tips they collected:

1)      Ask for help

No one can do it all. At home and at work, delegate, and don’t view it as a weakness. At work, it may be an opportunity to step back and mentor a junior, at home, an opportunity to teach your children life skills. Outsource help, depending on what you value most. If home-cooked meals are important, lighten the load with a regular cleaner. In making these decisions on what to focus on, consider ‘Who is it important to?’ Sure, your daughter wants cake for her birthday party but does it really matter to her if you make it or buy it? (or does it just matter to you?)

2)      Adjust expectations

Let go of unrealistic expectations. Social comparisons and guilt are not useful. Choose to focus on what you personally value and why, as it will cast things in a different light. It is interesting that studies have shown that the more we use Facebook, the likelier we will feel unhappy.

3)      Own your agenda

Manage your time carefully. Schedule in the items that are important to you. Balance is a personal thing so define your own agenda. Your appointments with yourself should have equal weight. Make it and don’t break it!

4)      Self-care

Take time for your health – not just diet and exercise, but your emotional wellbeing. Happier people are more productive and creative so find out what refuels you and go there regularly. Manage your energy and unplug to recharge. Active pursuits and hobbies can nourish and refresh you, so find out what invigorates your spirit. Don’t wait for the weekend or a holiday to have fun – do something fun every day, even if it’s a 20-minute gym session or a morning meditation or a ten-minute chat with a friend.

5)      Define success for you

Is it just climbing the corporate ladder? Define what success means to you – everyone is different. Consider your wheel of life; Career, Health, Spiritual, Contribution, Learning, Excitement, Finances, Family and Friends. Ensure you’re creating the life you want.For example, when considering a work promotion, ask yourself if you want the role or the idea of the role. How will it fit into your ideal wheel of life picture?

What tips work for you? If you are willing to share them, please complete the Pharma Life and Leadership survey herehttps://www.surveymonkey.com/r/eyeforpharm

Then lean back and enjoy your life and leadership!


Wednesday 8th March is International Women’s Day. Share in the comment box below what you will be doing to #BeBoldForChange 


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