Both my grandfathers died of colon cancer, so every five years, I drink a gallon of nausea-inducing laxative and prepare my large intestine for a thorough inspection. Over the course of the evening before my procedure, I alternate visits to the bathroom with drinking the particularly nasty concoction while poised at the edge of my sink to catch the overflow in case I gag.
This year, I had the procedure done at my local hospital by a group of visiting gastrointestinal doctors from a specialist's group in another city. The paperwork arrived in the mail with all the detailed instructions—the low fiber diet for two days before the procedure; the liquid-only diet for the day before the procedure; the supplies to buy at the pharmacy (Desitin, Milk of Magnesia); and the number to call in case I had questions about my prep.
There was no visit with the doctor prior to the procedure. No way to ask questions until you met him or her that morning at the hospital. The whole affair boiled down to a cost-effective, insurance-friendly, clear set of instructions. There was no discussion.
The morning of my procedure, I was parched and drained. I tried to create a mental list of questions as I lay in my flimsy johnny gown in the day surgery unit, awaiting the pre-cancer, search-and-destroy mission. I knew the doctor and anesthesiologist would stop by soon. The unit buzzed with activity, offering the pseudo-privacy of hanging cloth separators. I overheard a discussion of a patient's tumors to one side and some gossip between two hospital workers on the other. When the nice youngish doctor pulled back my squeaky curtain and asked if I had any concerns, I simply said "no."
That's OK. I really didn't have a lot of questions. My previous colonoscopies had all been normal. And the five-year plan is designed to catch any growths before they turn into malignancies.
What I didn't tell him was a secret: I was looking forward to my colonoscopy.
My work life has been so frantic and fast-paced lately that a trip to the hospital seemed a good excuse for a day off. Someone would be taking care of me for two hours. They would be attentive to whether I looked good, could sit up without being dizzy, had enough to eat. They asked me not to make important business decisions or drive a car that day. They made sure I had a safe ride home. These virtual strangers wanted me to rest and take care of myself. They did not want me to overdo it.
At work, I'm continuously barraged with instant chats, email messages, Zoom meetings, and online screen shares. There are rarely simple or clear instructions for getting work done. I'm expected to change priorities in an instant and adjudicate the requests of multiple stakeholders who often need immediate assistance. Glued to my office chair, I don't always make time to eat. I routinely work more than eight-hour days and often put in at least a few hours, if not more, on weekends.
I know I'm not alone in feeling the heat. I work with wonderful people—managers and colleagues—who also work at warp speed, trying to keep up with their workloads. One of my most respected colleagues told me he felt ready to burst given the expectations heaped on him in one day last week. But I don't think we ever ask each other whether we feel rested and well enough to make good decisions. Should we?
I doubt my company is all that unusual. In this age of aggressive disruption, many organizations find themselves overhauling their systems and processes at the same time they perform their usual day-to-day activities. Overdoing it is what we do at work to survive.
It was suggested to me that I have trouble saying "no" and that may be an issue. Point taken, but not easy to implement. Work requests never seem optional to me. I really like my colleagues and managers, and I view it as responsive and professional to do what I'm asked. Plus, how do you say "no" when everyone else around you seems to be saying "yes"?
Last year around this time, The New York Times published an article about the bruising workplace practices at the online retail giant Amazon. This year, there is an update; Amazon is considering a test of 30-hour work weeks with benefits. Even this hotbed of purposeful Darwinism is citing studies that show worker performance begins to flatline or even suffer after concentrating on a task for several hours.
I'm not waiting for shorter workweeks to catch on anytime soon. And scheduling a medical procedure to shorten a workweek doesn't seem a scalable method.
For now, I'm still basking in the glow of my field trip to the hospital. I even have a souvenir: a photo of the inner lining of my intestine, a sort of booby prize of colonic cleansing. The photos show several views of my intestine from different perspectives: the ascending colon, the descending colon, the ileocecal valve. My inner geek loves this insider view ("how'd they do that?"). It's sort of the ultimate selfie.
Typically, I look at my colonoscopy photos with wonder for a few days. Then I tuck them into my medical files and forget about them. This time, I'm tempted to paste those photos on the wall of my home office. I may need a stark reminder that my work-life balance has to change. And I have to change it.
Here's hoping my next colonoscopy is a routine one and I face it with an appropriate amount of dread. God willing.