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Robert Neubecker

Overworking tanked my health—until I began to prioritize work-life balance

“Enjoy your life,” the doctor told me. “Don’t worry about work.” I had recently moved to Germany for a visiting scholar position and was hoping to get a refill of my prescription sleep aids, which I had been taking for more than a year. The doctor spent nearly an hour with me, listening to my story. Then, to my surprise, he said he wasn’t going to refill my prescription. Instead of relying on pills, he said, I needed to rethink my approach to life and work. I felt I was losing my life support—but I would soon learn that he was right.

I had spent the previous 5 years as an assistant professor in Tokyo. I worked overtime and on weekends—running a lab, writing grant proposals, and teaching. It was challenging but fun. I thought everything was going great.

Then, my body started to fall apart. I couldn’t sleep at night. I never felt hungry, even when I skipped meals. I was already skinny, and after losing my appetite and 22 pounds, I was skin and bones. But the doctors couldn’t identify a cause for my symptoms; they could only offer prescription sleep aids.

My sleep improved, but my appetite did not. Yet I was still optimistic. I would be fine, I thought. My body was sure to go back to normal at some point. Instead, my health continued to deteriorate. I even had to go to the emergency room for severe abdominal pain.

I figured a change of scenery and work routine might help. I remembered that a researcher I had met at a conference was looking for someone to fill a yearlong visiting scholar position in Germany, which seemed like a good fit. I decided to temporarily leave my post in Japan—maintaining some teaching and advising responsibilities, which I managed remotely—and I moved to Germany.

It wasn’t the cure. So, when the medication I had brought with me from Japan ran out, I went in for that fateful doctor’s visit. Although I wasn’t sure about his advice, I decided to give it a try. I stopped working overtime and began to spend more time outside. I even became a runner. After a few months, while training for my first marathon, I felt something I couldn’t identify. Then I realized: I was hungry. I stopped running right there in the middle of the park, overcome with excitement and relief. I also noticed that I was sleeping at night without the sleep aids. My body was recovering.

As the visiting scholar position was ending, I thought about my career. I could return to my job in Japan, but I knew the toll that hectic life would take on me. I had no luck getting a faculty position elsewhere, but a professor in Arkansas offered me a research associate position. It would be a step down in some ways, but the decision was easy; maintaining a healthy work-life balance was more important. Plus, I had enjoyed working in the United States as a postdoc. Flying to Arkansas, I felt no frustration or regret, only excitement.

I needed to rethink my approach to life and work.

I’ve been in Arkansas for a few years now, and I’m doing really well. I have run 10 marathons and am currently training for an Ironman race, and I’m satisfied with my career. I was recently recruited for a nontenure, teaching-focused assistant professor role at my university. I felt a little hesitant about taking a faculty job again, but I can still make time for running, biking, and swimming. I also make sure to limit my working time to 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week. Sometimes it’s tempting to work longer, but now I know I shouldn’t.

I study and teach about pharmaceuticals, so it may seem ironic that giving them up was a turning point for me. Medications are important for many conditions, and no one should feel bad about taking them to maintain their physical or mental health. But in my case, I think the medicine was a Band-Aid for a deeper issue. I’ll never know for sure what helped get my body back to normal—maybe becoming a runner, or maybe the German air and food. Regardless, I’m grateful for the doctor who helped me see that I should focus more on enjoying my life, and I am thankful that I have been able to adjust my career to do so.

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