How To Do Life

Fresh ideas about career and personal issues

Is Work-Life Balance Overrated?

Think twice before calling someone a workaholic.

Who could argue against balance? It's the Aristotelian Golden Mean. Indeed, the Obama Administration uses the word "balanced" in selling a number of its initiatives, from debt concerns to illegal immigration.

Yet as I think of my clients, colleagues, and friends, many of the people who feel best about their worklife and are most energized overall, who feel really content with their lives and made the biggest contribution, work long hours. They’re frequently denigrated as lacking work-life balance, often dubbed a workaholic---a term that evokes comparison with alcoholic-- addicted to something bad.

But is that a fair way to describe a cancer researcher who works some nights and weekends to try additional experiments? An outstanding counselor who sees extra clients each week rather than refer them to a less effective one? An accounts-payable clerk who devotes week hours 40-50 to ensuring everyone gets paid promptly and accurately, even if it's just to make more money to support her family?

Yes, some people work long hours to escape home. That’s not surprising in that, as  University of Pennsylvania researcher Sarah Damaske found, most people are more stressed at home than at work. I suppose you could call people who work long hours irresponsible, not fulfilling their domestic obligations. But I’m not inclined to be so harsh with people who replace housework not with video games but with productive work.

It's been argued that working long hours makes people prone to error and to burnout. I'm not advocating the 100-hour-workweeks that medical interns are forced to endure. That seems as senseless as fraternity hazing. But as I look back on all my burned-out clients, they were not mainly the people who worked long hours. Indeed many worked short hours but on a job that was too difficult for them or was unethical.

So as you decide how many hours a week to devote to work, rather than simply accepting the blanket exhortation to strive for work-life balance, you might consider that one size does not fit all. Decide, for yourself, what's the right level of work-life balance for you, for your family, and for society. And think twice before labeling a hard worker "out of balance" let alone "a workaholic." Could a more accurate term be “heroic?”

Wikipedia’s profile of Marty Nemko tells you more than necessary.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 
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