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Sustainability -- It's Not Just the Planet That's Burning Out

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Sustainability is one of the buzzwords of our time, especially in the corporate world. Titles such as "Chief Sustainability Officer" and "Corporate Responsibility Director" are becoming commonplace. Adopting a culture of sustainability is paramount if a company wants to thrive by staying on the leading edge.

But sustainability doesn't only apply to business practices and our communities -- we need to be mindful of how it plays out in our personal lives as well, especially in the workplace. Burnout and overwork in corporate life have become so commonplace now that we just accept it as a permanent state of affairs.

Fortune Magazine recently featured an interview with me in an article on corporate burnout. One study of IT administrators revealed that 72 per cent of respondents were stressed, 85 per cent said their job interfered with their personal life, and 42 per cent lost sleep over work. Even more alarming, many employees in the IT and other industries are quitting their jobs because of the pressure. They feel forced to choose either their job or their personal life. Whenever he's asked how he's doing, one of my clients in the southern U.S. always answers with this phrase: "Well it is like water from a fire hose."

Sustainability is obviously as much an issue for us personally as it is for the society as a whole.

Recently I was in a meeting with a group of entrepreneurs, all of whom were talking about how busy they were left little time for exercise, reflection or time for the self. One of them joked that "we treat ourselves an awful lot like we treat the planet."

We push ourselves week after week with the same disregard that we have for eating endangered tuna on wood tables from the rainforest in a sushi restaurant. This idea of sustainability is not just some esoteric concept but a real day-to-day issue for everyone of us. By carelessly pushing ourselves to near-burnout, we squander resources without any regard to the long term consequences. We fool ourselves saying things like, "I will relax on vacation. I'll spend time on family and personal pursuits when I retire. Those who choose sustainability will lose in today's competitive climate."

To me, sustainability is about the balance between the now and the future, between pursuing success and taking care of yourself, and between a focus on short term gain that may bring long term pain. It is mastering the art of not having to choose between these extremes.

Whether in our personal lives, our community or as a company, sustainability is choosing the right balance. We can't sacrifice one for the other. Our work is important but it can't overwhelm our personal lives or leave us so weary that we can't perform at optimal levels. Profits are important in a business but short term bumps in profit must always be balanced against what is good for the long term sustainability of a business.

Economic growth is important but when it diminishes the capacity of the planet to provide what we need in the future, the balance must be addressed. Spending money now to stimulate the economy feels good but the growing debt will one day have to be paid, along with its consequences of potentially even greater austerity later.

Balance is the key. We can't sacrifice the future just for the present. Any present benefit or gain should also benefit the future and vice versa. We must master the power of "and." We must pursue success while taking care of the body and spirit that will let us be successful in the future. We must make decisions that are good for the business now, but always keep in the mind the future of the business. We must be mindful of how our actions today will make the planet less able to provide for the future. Not "or" but "and."

Here are a few practical steps:

• When you are working so hard that you stop taking time for personal well being, remember that your long term success and happiness depends on being at your best. Identify the things you need to make more room for in your life to enhance personal sustainability

• Every time you make a personal decision -- the car you drive, the meal you eat, whether you take that plastic bag or not -- keep in mind the balance between convenience now and the future of the planet

• In your business, ask if the decision you are making now will be good for the business two years or five years from now

Sustainability is more than the latest buzzword, it just might be the issue of our time.