Consumed: The Dangers of Our Mindless Passion for Work

Consumed: The Dangers of Our Mindless Passion for Work | Embracing the new normal to cultivate a sustainable work culture

By Peck Gee Chua
25 / 04 / 2024
Work and slowing down for tea are complementary. Tea appreciation is developed in Japan as a way of life, a path of practice in search of spiritual fulfilment. Image credit: Author's own

5:30 am, Kyoto.

This is when my day starts with the ring of the alarm. I am now able to sit through morning stretches and meditation to ease myself into stillness. Last year, there was no such calm in my sittings with constant thoughts racing in my head, choreographing the various work tasks I needed to complete.

I would then self-inject insulin and swallow different colored pills after my breakfast. Following childcare drop off, I now take long walks along the scenic Kamogawa river downtown or venture off to one of the many historic temples in Kyoto. My new routine does not just end there. I return home to whisk up a bowl of matcha every single day. After all, tea appreciation is developed in Japan as a way of life, a path of practice in search of spiritual fulfilment. It gives me hope that perhaps I will find light from the depths of this valley that I was suddenly thrown into.

If January symbolizes new beginnings, 2024 felt like stepping off a cliff into the unknown. I ended up hospitalized three days into the new year following intense stomach cramps and constant feelings of uneasiness. The frequent thirst and bathroom breaks just did not feel right.

What I heard from the medical staff when I arrived at the hospital was: “We’re going to have to admit you for diabetes. You also have a urinary tract infection.” I was dumbfounded but did not resist. A million thoughts surged through my head. Multiple finger prick tests revealed that my blood sugar level was three times higher than the normal range and I have unknowingly been living with diabetes for the last two to three months.

And for the second consecutive year, I am now diagnosed with yet another chronic health condition. In the early months of 2023, I had often woken up from my sleep with finger numbness that would keep occuring. An MRI scan disclosed that I have cervical spondylosis (neck arthritis) and the disk bulge in my neck affects nerves all the way through to my fingers and other parts of the body, sometimes with radiating pains.

I sit with the sinking feeling that I am now living a chronically ill life. How could this be true when I have been riding the highs of a productive COP28 work trip to Dubai just at the end of last year?

Perils of a sedentary lifestyle of overdelivering

Remote work has increased dramatically in the past decade and even more so since the COVID-19 pandemic. Employees now expect remote working to be the new normal and this trend is here to stay. This gives ample life-changing flexibility to workers like me, who are busy parents juggling between professional and personal demands.

The downside to remote work, especially for Type A overachievers, is that it may come with a physical toll from a sedentary lifestyle as I have come to realize myself. For more than 10 years, my world has centered around early childhood development and policy, having first discovered this field as an intern upon my re-entry into the US workforce. Prior to that, I did international development consultancy work in Asia following graduate school.

After a brief hiatus from having a second baby and a miscarriage, my return to work full time remotely since 2021 has been hectic. Often with my can-do attitude, I willingly juggled several key projects, productively churned out multiple publications, led engagement across events, and got on Zoom and Teams calls across different time zones.

Through this intense prioritization of work, my recently discovered passion for and focus on the important intersection between climate change and early childhood development has taken front and center over other key dimensions in my life. My family life suffered. I would spend more time sitting at my desk pushing out publications than playing, doing puzzles and spending unhurried time with my kids. My eldest daughter had even shared that she has no desire to be a grown up. The thought of becoming constantly busy like me in her adulthood frightens her.

I care so much about work. But work knows no boundary. The more work you produce, the more is asked of you. In the same token, the more responsive you are to emails, the more emails you would get in return. This strong sense of accountability, results-driven, and achievement oriented approach is ultimately not sustainable as I have been brought to my knees to understand, finally and firsthand.

Sitting is the new smoking

The Asia-Pacific region, the part of the world where I live, is facing a growing problem of sedentary behavior and physical inactivity with more than 40% of the adult population affected. This is concerning as such trends will only increase as we continue to see dramatic shifts in work culture with employees held to a higher standard of excessive productivity, increased reliance on desk-based jobs, technological advancement, and a rapid pace of life.

Sitting is a silent killer. The lack of movement, including during remote work, is a phenomenon that health experts are very concerned about. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), physical inactivity causes about 3.2 million deaths a year and is considered the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality. A recent 2024 publication by the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) found that people who primarily sit at work have a 16% higher risk of mortality from all causes and a 34% higher risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease. This study is significant as it involved more than 480,000 participants over the course of 13 years.

Diabetes elevates the likelihood of a decreased lifespan by as much as 10-20 years. In a typical sedentary person who is sitting too long, the body burns fewer calories and accumulates excess fat which can then lead to a whole host of serious long-term health conditions including:

• Blood clots

• Cancers, including colon, breast, lung, prostate, ovarian

• Cardiovascular disease

• Chronic pain conditions with back, hip, neck, joint pains

• High blood pressure

• High cholesterol

• High levels of inflammation and reduced gut health

• Insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome - an important factor for Type 2 diabetes and high blood sugar

• Obesity

• Poor bone health and osteoporosis

• Poor posture with muscle tension and loss

• Stroke

On top of the physical toll, relatively unfamiliar to many of us is the connection between lack of movement and one’s mental, emotional states. A sedentary lifestyle is associated with increased risks of cognitive decline as well as poorer mental health - such as high stress, anxiety and depression - and overall diminished well being. Remote working, for instance, can increase social isolation and loneliness with an emotional toll.

Increasing evidence suggests that there is a strong connection between cognitive functioning, mental health, and lifestyle. A 2023 JAMA publication found that inactivity could increase risk for dementia. A 2020 Nature meta-analysis study revealed that sedentary behavior increases the risk of depression. Similarly, another large-scale study of adolescents across 30 low- and middle-income countries showed increased odds for depressive symptoms from sedentary lifestyle.

Take a mindful break and get moving

I am not obese and would never for once have thought that I would be a prime candidate for Type 2 diabetes and cervical spondylosis. The diabetes 101 booklet I was handed with at the hospital listed all possible diabetes complications from eye damage, stroke, heart attack, kidney failure, impotence, to foot amputation. While this is an alarming list, that screams for attention, the most terrifying thought is the fact that my children have an increased risk of diabetes now that there is a family history.

Having a passion for our work is a gift. But it is equally important to manage our passion. Workers who have a deep passion for their work are often willing to go the extra mile and unknowingly acquire detrimental work habits, such as prolonged periods of sitting.

Awareness is the first step. “Make tea for others but more importantly, make time to make tea for yourself” as Dairik Amae, my tea meditation teacher would say. In a society that has conditioned us to grind, it is even more important to pause, be more mindful about the everyday choices that we make, and to have the courage to set healthy boundaries in how we approach our world.

We owe it to ourselves and others to reclaim wellness by inviting mindful pauses and daily movement to combat a sedentary lifestyle. After all, if you do not make time for your wellness, you will be forced to make time for your illness just like I have been in the aftermath of my recent health crises and diagnoses.  

See also the writer’s recent OpEd for the Straits Times on Why Sitting is the New Smoking.

Peck Gee Chua is a strong advocate for early-childhood and climate action, having worked with UNICEF at its headquarters and two regional offices across Asia Pacific, as well as ARNEC. She is a mother of two and now writes to explore the intersection between individual well-being and social change. She is Kyoto-based and can be reached on Instagram @peckgee.chua