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Illustration by Eiko Ojala

The 9 Things You Should Know About Colorado’s Work-Life Balance

Here’s a hint: Denverites may not be quite as healthy as we like to think.

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We hear it all the time from our neighbors, from our colleagues, from the guy sitting next to us on the chairlift: I moved here for the laid-back lifestyle. I mean, who wants to work all the time when you can be in the mountains? The notion that being a resident of the Centennial State somehow empowers people to adopt the we-don’t-live-to-work, we-work-to-live mantra is so frequently invoked it’s become a cliché. It’s also, according to current data, a bunch of nonsense.

Although Coloradans have never been afraid to play hooky on powder days, both anecdotal and statistical evidence suggests Denverites, in particular, aren’t quite as blasé about their jobs as they profess to be. In three recent studies (two from 2017, one from 2015) that looked at factors such as average hours worked per week—all of which used Census Bureau and/or Bureau of Labor Statistics figures—Denver consistently ranked around 10th in the country for having the hardest-working residents. In fact, the Mile High City was one of only three metro areas—along with San Francisco and Austin—that landed in the top 20 of each survey. Even more surprising, in the two lists that are compiled annually, Denver actually moved up a few spots compared to 2016’s rankings. To be fair, the 2018 version of one study, released right before we went to press, reported that the Mile High City’s fervor for work had decreased somewhat. But changes in the survey’s methodology were responsible for the shift, not the fact that Denverites are working any less. (We’re not.)

While toiling away in our offices for hours on end might be good for the local economy, it could be seriously detrimental to our health. If we’re putting in almost as many hours at the office as the East Coast desk jockeys we never wanted to be, we may be incurring the headaches (literal and figurative) that often haunt those with an out-of-whack work-life balance. And there’s an even more disappointing twist: We may actually be worse off than workaholic Washingtonians and Bostonians, because after toiling for 42.5 hours a week, we’re still hell-bent on squeezing in some hardcore fun, Colorado-style.

With seemingly too few hours in the week to work, have a home life, and get in our recreational fixes, our minds and bodies can end up depleted in our attempts to fulfill all our needs and wants. We asked local experts to explain why our balance has been thrown off, what that disharmony could sow, and how to get back in tune.

Illustration by Eiko Ojala

When You Work Too Much… Minor nuisances can become major stressors.

The Consequences:

Workplace-related worries are one of the most common triggers of stress, whether you live in La-La Land or Beantown. In Denver, however, job and financial woes contributed to tensions rising even as the rest of the nation was getting less stressed, according to a study released by the American Psychological Association in 2012.

Back then, Erie clinical psychologist Stephanie Smith was the public education coordinator for the American Psychological Association. When she first heard about Denver’s label as a super-anxious, overworked enclave, she was surprised; she’d always considered the Mile High City to be a relatively chill town. If that data had emerged in 2018, though, Smith says she’d be less shocked. “Colorado is a really different place now,” she says. “It’s a more crowded, more fast-paced community than it was even five or 10 years ago. Now there seems to be a lot of stress around working as many hours as you can and where you can afford to live.”

There’s not much hard evidence that proves Denverites have become more on edge since that 2012 study was released. The American Psychological Association hasn’t issued city-specific reports from its annual survey on stress since then and doesn’t plan to do so in the future. But, as Smith says, it’s not as if the Mile High City has gotten less anxiety-inducing as of late. Residents are paying 22 percent more for a one-bedroom apartment than they would have at the beginning of 2014 (so a promotion, a higher-paying job, or longer hours might be necessary to compensate for the hike). Although most of us are still clocking less than 30 minutes to get to work, the Denver commute was ranked as the 13th most stressful in the country (tied with Boston and Chicago). And the metro area’s 2.9 percent unemployment rate means job vacancies take a while to fill, leaving fewer employees to do more work for extended periods of time—and further ramping up the hours we spend at our desks.

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42.5

Working 42.5 hours a week doesn’t sound that bad. But it’s important to remember that this is an average—so it’s likely that plenty of full-time employees in Denver are working more than 42.5 hours each week (in some cases, probably significantly more). That means we’re putting in about the same amount of time in our co-working spaces as people in Silicon Valley or New York City. In one study conducted by the city of New York, the Big Apple and the Mile High City were actually tied for average work hours (42.5)—and San Franciscans were only clocking an hour and a half more per week at 44.01.

Behind The trend

Why exactly are Coloradans racking up the hours?

The short answer: It’s difficult to know for sure because so many factors could be involved. Based on conversations with diverse sources, one prominent theory is that ubiquitous smartphone use allows workers to answer emails even after they’ve left the office to head up the hill for a long ski weekend. Another idea centers on the workaholic habits that Colorado’s more than 200,000 recent transplants have brought with them, which may be gradually shifting the culture toward longer hours. And finally, the jump in Denver’s cost of living seems as if it could be a major contributor—from the second half of 2016 to the second half of 2017, the inflation rate in the Denver area was a whopping 3.7 percent, compared to 2.1 percent nationwide—especially since the typical cube dweller likely isn’t getting a raise that makes up for that surge.

When You Work Too Much… Rest days might seem like a luxury you can’t afford.

The Consequences:

You know those Saturdays when you wake up with a migraine after working a 60-hour week and the only thing you want to do for the next two days is binge Netflix with your sweetie? We sure do. But we also know what it’s like to feel sheepish about being lazy, especially when the Rockies look tantalizingly close through our west-facing windows. That discontented emotion is called Colorado Guilt. “Where did you go skiing? What kind of runs did you do?” says clinical psychologist Stephanie Smith. “Getting out there and doing stuff and being able to brag about it has always been in the nature of the Colorado population.”

In a way, that pressure is good; it ensures the Centennial State boasts the lowest obesity rate in the nation and pushes us to take advantage of our proximity to beautiful wilderness areas. When it keeps us from putting in some much-needed recovery time on the couch after a strenuous workweek, though, that’s when we can get into trouble. Recuperation time is a real thing—even for workaday stiffs. “[This lack of recovery] is causing a lot of issues,” says Dr. Iñigo San Millán, the director of the sports performance program and physiology laboratory at the University of Colorado Sports Medicine and Performance Center. “We’re seeing people with an increase of injuries, emotional distress. They’re fried; they’re fatigued; they’re chronically tired. A lot of people are on the verge of exploding.” Mushroom-cloud-style stress eruptions are definitely not the stuff Instagram posts are made of. So go ahead: Take a guilt-free nap. The mountains will still be there next weekend.

Expert Advice

If you want to train—and recuperate—like a pro athlete, San Millán recommends hitting the weights or the hills hard for three weeks out of the month and then transitioning into recovery mode during that fourth week: at least two days of no exercise and workouts that are shorter and less intense when you do head to the gym.

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When You Work Too Much… Time on the treadmill can fall by the wayside, which makes being a weekend warrior challenging (and sometimes unsafe).

The Consequences:

Most Centennial Staters are proud of their fit bodies and active lifestyles, and with good reason: Colorado has been ranked by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as the leanest state in the nation for more than a decade, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 60 percent of us get the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we hit the gym on a consistent basis: Ballooning work schedules can keep us away from the exertion we should all be undertaking Monday through Friday if we want to increase bone density and avoid aches and pains. For athletes preparing for intense races such as ultramarathons and long-distance triathlons, consistent exercise is also crucial for keeping up endurance levels, which can fall after just two days of hardcore couch potato-ing. “A lot of professional triathletes have to train every day or every other day, even on vacation,” says Chris Contini, the general manager of Denver Sports Recovery, a drop-in center that helps both everyday recreationists and professional athletes recover from their sporty antics.
 

Not every Coloradan is swim-bike-run material, but regular workouts are key for weekend warriors too. When you leave work on time to make that yoga class or head out to lift some weights over an extended lunch break, it’s less likely you’ll overexert yourself, strain a hamstring, or tweak a knee as you bomb down Vail’s Riva Ridge on Saturday—especially if you include cardio, core work, and side-to-side movements. All of which means your recreating will not only be more fun—but also much safer.

Expert Advice

“It’s so easy to tell yourself you’ll go to the gym,” Contini says, “but at the end of the day, you’re tired and unmotivated.” His suggestion to keep yourself on track? Tell your co-workers about your plans to take a fitness class later so they can hold you accountable when your energy flags. Or change into your workout clothes before you leave the office to ensure you feel guilty if you don’t put your moisture-wicking gear to good use.

When You Work Too Much… You might not spend enough quality time with your family.

The Consequences:

If your mind is consumed with work all the time or your backside hasn’t left the desk chair in days, it’s a safe bet that you aren’t reading bedtime stories, playing catch in the backyard, or making it home for family dinners nearly enough. Those long hours aren’t particularly great for your mental health, but don’t for a minute think you’re the only one affected. Yes, your significant other and your toddlers feel your absence, but research says it’s your teenagers who are most influenced by an AWOL parent. “It’s funny because those are the kids who are going to ask you to not spend time with them,” says Eileen Twohy, a pediatric psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado’s Pediatric Mental Health Institute. “But when parents make a point of spending time with adolescents, the kids feel valued, so they’re less likely to get involved in things that are delinquent or concerning.” That’s not to say your lack of work-life balance is the cause of your 16-year-old’s surliness (hello, hormones!), but it certainly doesn’t improve matters. In addition, you’re modeling unhealthy behavior for your impressionable teen. If you don’t make an effort to get eight hours of shut-eye or eat five servings of veggies a day, she’ll notice—and might start developing some bad habits of her own.

Imbalance Alert

Although your high schooler might need you around more than he thinks he does, your wallet will wish you spent less time at work and more time with your littlest ones: Ranked seventh in the nation by the Economic Policy Institute at $13,154 per year, infant care in the Centennial State is pricier on average than two semesters’ worth of in-state tuition for a full-time undergraduate student at Colorado State University.

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Photo courtesy of Katarina Radovic, Stocksy

When You Work Too Much… Chronic stress can affect your brain.

The Consequences:

One of the biggest problems with work-related stress is that it tends to be chronic. “The pressures we experience in our work lives today are really different than the pressures our bodies evolved to cope with,” says Dana Steidtmann, a licensed psychologist at the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Depression Center on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. “They’re not, ‘I have to run from the lion that’s chasing me.’  ” Research shows that chronic stress can trigger changes in our brain structure: One 2014 study done on rats suggested that excess cortisol, a stress hormone, can cause stem cells to fail to turn into neurons, instead transforming into cells that produce a fatty white substance called myelin. Those structural changes, the study said, can cause anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

There’s no way to determine how many of the 294,000 Colorado adults who experienced a major depressive episode in 2015 were reacting to a tense situation at work. But Steidtmann says heavy workloads or office conflicts can easily trigger mental health problems. What’s equally worrisome: We’re seeing an increase in depression, particularly for those just entering the workforce. The percent of Coloradans ages 18 to 25 who’ve dealt with significant depression surged from 8.4 percent in the 2008-’09 National Survey on Drug Use and Health to 12.66 percent in the 2015-’16 version.

Stress Solution

The Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Depression Center helps those struggling with mental health, but the organization’s community programs manager, Alex Yannacone, is making a concerted effort to prevent such issues from arising in the first place. In spring 2017, she started offering informal trainings to local companies about mental health and suicide prevention in the workplace. So far, organizations such as Fortis Bank, real estate agency Unique Properties, and auditing firm KPMG have signed up. “I’ve been doing a lot of trainings lately,” Yannacone says, “and I haven’t had one person say, ‘This isn’t important.’ ”

When You Work Too Much… Booze may seem like a great way to self-medicate, even though you know it’s not.

The Consequences:

For the alcohol aficionado, Colorado is a magical place: Its 8.4 craft breweries per capita (third in the nation) sell delicious salves…er…pints of beer for about $6. But that means we can be tempted to turn to the soothing effects of booze a little too readily, with 20.2 percent of Denverites binge drinking on a regular basis—that’s five or more drinks for men and four or more for women on at least one occasion in the past month—about four points higher than the national average. “Whenever I hear somebody say, ‘I don’t drink too much, I just really like microbrews,’ I say, ‘That’s bullshit,’  ” says Cortland Mathers-Suter, the operating officer of AspenRidge Recovery, an addiction treatment center in Lakewood. “The average person who is drinking to excess is doing it because they’re trying to treat a symptom of a problem they can’t really identify, and the easiest way to justify that is by saying it’s fun.” When binge drinkers actually think about why they’re throwing back six lagers a night, they often link their imbibing habit to overwork. “In recovery we use the acronym HALT to identify if our feelings are going to trigger us,” he says. “It stands for hungry, angry, lonely, and tired—and I would argue that overwork leads to experiencing all four of those feelings.”

When You Work Too Much… Food can become an afterthought—or a crutch.

The Consequences:

“The body is intelligent,” says Denver-based nutritionist and psychotherapist Danielle Carron. “It’s wise. It’s doing the best it can.” Over her 10 years in private practice, Carron has witnessed how our systems try to warn us when there’s an imbalance. Chronic headaches, frequent GI distress, and bouts of insomnia can all be the body’s way of saying, Hey! Can’t you see I’m struggling here?!

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Those warnings are worth paying attention to—in yourself and in your co-workers. Someone whose office schedule has recently increased dramatically, for instance, might lose his appetite or, in contrast, start craving mac ‘n’ cheese instead of a mixed-greens salad. Or he’ll grab a candy bar or bag of chips from a vending machine because he doesn’t feel like he has enough time to eat a real meal. This warped perception of time could be a reason 86 percent of Coloradans don’t meet the daily recommendations for fruits and vegetables, especially since Carron says the issue isn’t typically a lack of knowledge about what or when we should be eating. “It’s more about exploring the parts of yourself that are getting in the way of eating well,” Carron says. “You might have a part that says you don’t have time to prepare it or you don’t have time to slow down and eat it. That part rules out the part that says you should nourish yourself.”

Expert Advice

Denver nutritionist Christine MacCarroll says the majority of her overworked clients don’t drink enough water—especially given Colorado’s dry climate. According to MacCarroll, we all should be taking in half our body weights in ounces of H2O per day to stay hydrated, alert, and, um, regular. If you’re 168.5 pounds, as the average American woman is, that means sipping about 80 ounces of water every 24 hours. “Being hydrated will help you focus,” MacCarroll says, “but the secret thing is it also makes you get up from your desk every hour.”

When You Work Too Much… Your friends might stop calling.

The Consequences:

Although we all have that one co-worker whom we regularly grab a cold one with after work, most folks make the majority of their friends outside of the office. (In a January Gallup poll, just two in 10 American employees strongly agreed that they had a best friend at work.) But if you’re spending every night writing TPS reports for your boss, you might end up missing that Rockies game with your buddy or rescheduling happy hour with your new neighbor (again). Loneliness levels can be especially high for Denver’s many transplants, who don’t already have a core group of friends nearby.

All of this isn’t simply anecdotal; the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index, which has been tracking happiness levels by state since 2008, found that Coloradans could use more supportive relationships, even though they’re ranked in the top 10 nationwide for overall well-being. Dan Witters, the principal researcher for the index, says our state’s residents especially need someone who encourages them to take better care of themselves—maybe a pal who pushes you to go to the dentist (for the first time in three years) and doesn’t push that third mimosa. Looks like it’s time to try Bumble BFF again.

Illustration by Eiko Ojala

When You Work Too Much… Burnout can become a threat, especially if you’re an entrepreneur.

The Consequences:

Working for any company comes with a host of I-just-can’t-do-it-anymore frustrations, but being an entrepreneur has its own special set of burdens. Denverite Laura Pearson’s event and wedding planning business provides a certain amount of freedom—but also induces constant fretting about everything from insurance costs to finding new customers. “The wonderful thing about running your own business is you get to do what you want,” Pearson says. “The terrible thing about running your own business is you have to do everything.”

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She’s not alone. In Colorado, 8.56 percent of residents own a business as their primary job (good enough for first in the country), and 350 out of every 100,000 residents become entrepreneurs in any given month (that’s sixth nationwide). The latter can be particularly taxing, as startup founders often fill their spare minutes with networking, investor meetings, and multiple jobs in order to pay the bills while they develop their dream businesses.

Brian Cox, who began turning his graduate thesis on telehealth into a journaling platform for therapy patients in 2015, became so anxious about his hectic schedule that he turned to medication—which ended up making things worse for him. “I didn’t have feelings anymore,” he says. “That’s where the bricks started falling.” After discontinuing the meds, stepping down from his position of CEO at his burgeoning company, and entering therapy, he’s much more content. “Even when you think you can do it all by yourself,” he says, “you can’t.”

Stress Solution

In 2016, a few local startup founders created the Colorado Entrepreneurs Mental Health Network, an organization that tries to help overloaded entrepreneurs improve their mental health. So far, it’s partnered with a crisis line and a business psychology firm to offer services such as five free counseling sessions for small startups, and staffers even brought therapists to Denver Startup Week. “I was shocked at how many other people were experiencing the same problems we were,” says Joe Currin, who co-created COEMHN and is married to Cox. “It was like opening Pandora’s box.”

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