The common refrain these days is we are “too connected.” By that, of course, is meant that by virtue of the Internet and the many ways of accessing it, people are too available. In a wireless world, there is no refuge. Even Meg Whitman, CEO at Hewlett-Packard (and, like 27% of the American public, a potential presidential candidate), complained about being stressed by always being “on.”
In the past week I’ve attended three events that made me realize that the issue isn’t being too connected. It’s being connected to the wrong things, in the wrong way. The events were: the annual scientific meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies, the annual employee recognition dinner at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, and a meeting of the hospital’s Family Advisory Council. Each of these had an ostensible purpose – presenting new research findings, acknowledging staff with milestone work anniversaries, or providing the voice of the family to guide hospital decisions and improvement efforts. But each was also an opportunity for connecting, on an individual level, with other people, including colleagues, old friends, co-workers, and even some strangers. Talking about shared professional or non-work interests, family, hobbies, crises, and much more, and through that finding those points of commonality. Call it networking, socializing, schmoozing, whatever. That act of being with someone, really being with them in a meaningful way, is what differentiates us from the server cloud.
This isn’t a rant against technology. After all, many people can truly connect with others via phone or Skype or social media at least as easily as face to face. But it is about making the time to establish and renew those connections. It requires intentionality and focus. It requires making time with others a priority. It requires us to disconnect from one thing to connect with another.
At the scientific meeting, I presented some work showing high rates of burnout among pediatric emergency physicians. In discussing this afterward, a few of were trying to distinguish stress from burnout. I frequently feel stressed, but would never say I feel burned out. After an evening with people with up to 45 years of experience at Children’s, and a lunch with parents who volunteer their time to tell us how we can do better, I realize that it is the connections with others that ground me and keep the stress from turning into burnout. Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote in No Exit, “hell is other people.” But with the right connections, help is other people.