25 Feb The true cost of creating work-life balance
Chris was first referred to me by concerned family members. They were worried about his mental and physical well-being, and said that he needs some coaching to create a healthy work-life balance.
“I have been hospitalized 3 times – and it was only this last time in hospital when I was finally able to make the shift. It is as if a part of my brain was completely offline, and now it’s waking up. This is such a strange feeling! I don’t even recognize myself.”
This was *Chris, 8 months after he first came to see me. Unfortunately, his story is not uncommon. I hope his story motivates others to not let their work break them, before they take back control.
Chris was first referred to me by concerned family members. They were worried about his mental and physical well-being, and said that he needs some coaching to create a healthy work-life balance. Since he had started working at his law firm 2 years prior, Chris had been working on average 70h per week. If you would ask him to envision a more balanced life, he was unable to think of any activities, hobbies or events that interested him outside of work.
”I just feel like I’m slacking off and wasting time if I am not doing work. The goal is to eventually make partner – until then, there is really nothing worth doing outside of work. Even on the off-chance I get to go out with friends, I am too exhausted to have a good time. I usually just work myself into the ground, then I sleep through the entire weekend.”
Common blind-spots for over-workers
Like Chris, you may not consider yourself a workaholic. Maybe you don’t even think you over-work. After all, you find your job enjoyable and stimulating. It’s even possible that you do meaningful work for a charity, an NGO or other philanthropic organization, and they need you.
Over-workers are usually referred to me by family or friends, because they often cannot see the cost of the imbalance on their lives until it’s too late. If anyone close to you has ever labelled you a workaholic, or even just mentioned that you ‘work too much’. I’d encourage you to give their opinion a bit more weight.
You need the perspective of others to help you re-calibrate to what a healthy, balanced life looks like.
Other common obstacles for the over-worker:
You don’t see any other options
It’s hard to know what your options are, if you don’t spend much time outside of your work environment. For the first part in the coaching process, Chris and I had to help interrogate his mind-set, and generate alternative options for him to consider. It is easy for others to say: “Just go home at 17h00.” For the over-worker, this choice can initially feel like sacrifice, not relief.
It is hard for you to take anything else seriously
As another client mentioned to me: “the little I do outside of work – like running – has only one purpose: to decompress from work. Everything is done in relation to work. It’s hard to imagine doing these activities just for their own sake.”
It can be a physical addiction
Because our culture accepts, and even encourages work addiction, it can be very hard for someone to recognise, much less admit, that they are a workaholic. Don’t be fooled, though: Your body becomes physically wired to run after the adrenaline rush, just as any other addictive behaviour. It turns into an addiction long before you can recognise it as such.
Starting an inner rebellion
“It doesn’t matter if I am working or not working, there is this overpowering, Slave Driver that forces me to do more. If I leave on time with most of my peers, I still have this story in my head saying ‘you should do better than this! You don’t deserve to leave yet!? Why are you wasting time!? You’ll never make partner with this attitude!’”
It’s not just a matter of getting home on time. It’s not even a matter of ‘switching off the laptop’. For Chris, the battle started internally: he had his own inner Slave Driver shouting orders at him and insulting him if he would even take a lunch break. He was his own worst enemy.
For our first couple of sessions, the hour we spent together, was one hour in the week, where the ‘slave’ had permission to speak. It was an opportunity to start building an alternative narrative. It was the one space in the week where someone else took the side of his inner Slave, reframe that as his ‘true self’, and started building a case against the Slave Driver.
Small acts of revolt
“I never realized how busy the tubes are! Last week was the first time I left work on time. There were so many people!”
Over time, the inner narrative evolved, and we could introduce a few actions to support the shift:
- We scheduled our coaching sessions at 17h30, so he would have to leave work on time for our session.
- He would take a few breaks during the day, just to go for a 15-minute walk. Initially, he had to ‘appease’ his workaholic self by framing it as “This walk will help me be more productive, because I will come back to my desk refreshed”.
- He would try to eat lunch away from his desk at least once a week.
- He left work on time.
- He made requests to move certain non-urgent tasks to the next day.
- He switched his phone off and had dinner at home a few times.
The body is not your first signal – it’s the last one
Chris is an Enneagram type 3. In my experience, type 3s and type 1s often struggle to draw the line on ‘how much work is enough?’ And if your inner ‘Slave Driver’ never lets you off the hook, you rely on your body to tell you when you have had enough.
Your body is not a useful gauge for how much is enough. If you work yourself until you collapse for long enough, you’re bound to develop serious health ailments like infections, burnout, mental illness, auto-immune disease, stroke, heart-attack or even death! In Japan, the phenomenon of overwork is so common, that they have a term for it: Karōshi.
Despite all the work we have done to create a mental shift, it took Chris 3 hospitalizations to make the final call:
“I will never forget that day. I was so ill. It was 6am in the morning, and I was the only one left in the entire building from the previous night. The next week, I had to be admitted to hospital again, because I became so sick. I’m not sure what I will do next, but that day is like a reminder for me: I never want to end up like that again.”
*Names and details have been altered to honour client confidentiality.
Do you need to find a new normal?
I wish that it didn’t take 3 hospitalizations for Chris to discover his limits. I also wish I could tell you that this rarely happens, but it doesn’t.
The one fundamental difficulty for workaholics, is that they don’t know where to draw the line. It’s as if all their warning lights are broken: the fuel-gauge, the oil-light, the engine light: none of them warn you early enough to do a check-up, to stop for fuel, to let the engine cool down. They drive and drive and drive until something breaks.
If you think you are even remotely like this, I encourage you:
Trust the opinions of those around you.
Work hard to create objective balance, by using measures like time at work, number of projects, time away from work, average projects / workload compared to your peers and amount of leave-days you have taken as your benchmarks. Don’t rely on your body to tell you when you’re tired: it may only raise the white flag when it’s already too late.
If in doubt, book a free discovery call with us. We can help you re-calibrate your system, build in warning-lights before you push yourself over the cliff, and help you create a sustainable, fulfilling career.