Are you married to your job … or going through the motions?
There is a fine line between being engaged and being consumed by work. When passion becomes preoccupation — when a disproportionate amount of your time, thoughts and energy are devoted to your career — your work-life balance can be threatened.
Donna loves her career. Her workday starts hours before she walks into the office and ends hours after she leaves for the day.
Her husband often refers to her job as “the other man” in her life. And he’s only half-joking. According to Donna, her husband has trouble understanding why she can’t turn off her phone after a certain hour, refrain from responding to texts while she’s watching TV, or silence her email notifications during family time.
Donna doesn’t understand why he can’t understand.
“Work makes me feel alive, energized,” she says. “And nowadays, the lines seem more and more blurred. It’s hard to delineate between ‘work’ and ‘life.’ Aren’t they the same? After all, I’m one person.”
Achieving work-life balance requires more than proportionally distributing your time between your career and your life outside of work; it also involves allocating your focus and energy in a way that encourages success, fulfillment and overall wellbeing.
The formula is different for everyone.
The Disengagement Dilemma: Work = Paycheck
Michael is on the other end of the spectrum from Donna, counting down the days until retirement — even though he’s only in his 40s! For him, work is a means to an end. It’s another “have to” that would quickly become a “used to” if he were to win the lottery, he openly admits.
Sadly, people like Michael are in the majority. Gallup’s State of the American Workplace consistently shows that only one in three workers is engaged at work; the other two-thirds are either not engaged or actively disengaged (i.e., bored, at best!).
Feeling disengaged is especially common among mid-career professionals. Concerned that it’s too late to do anything else, they can feel trapped, stuck and over time, hopeless. To avoid feeling despair — which can be soul-crushing — they shut down and simply go through the motions, usually motivated by obligation. “It’s just a job … a way to pay the bills,” they rationalize.
The Perils of Over-Engagement — Too Much of a Good Thing?
If you can relate to Michael, working as a means to an end (i.e., a paycheck), you might envy people who truly enjoy their career.
But the grass isn’t always greener. People like Donna run the risk of relying too heavily on work for gratification — to the exclusion of other sources of joy. Some might call them workaholics, addicted to the adrenaline that comes from solving a crisis, closing a sale or otherwise tying their worth to their work.
What’s worse, they’re often on the fast track to burnout. The capacity to understand the long-term implications of over-engagement is critical.
Over time, a lack of work-life balance takes a toll on your physiology, interferes with your ability to handle stress and impacts your overall well-being.
And more often than not, you can’t see it because you’re moving so fast, completely immersed in the reality that you’ve created — knowingly or not.
When your career is aligned with your natural abilities, your talents, your interests and your values, it can be hard to put the brakes on work.
Work never stops, and so, at a certain point, it’s up to you to stop working.
What is that point? For some people, it’s exhaustion that manifests in physical aches and pains, irritability, sleep issues or even a failed relationship.
What Drives Over-Engagement?
Restoring balance can be complicated because of several drivers that often lie beneath the surface.
Powerful, but usually unrecognized, some of those drivers include:
The vicious cycle of high performance — Some people have a need to perform at a very high level so as not to disappoint others. They have to deliver at this level — consistently and continuously. They love being a top performer, and it becomes tied to their identity.
Their bosses and companies reinforce their exceptional performance, and expectations rise in tandem.
An excuse to suppress unwelcome emotions — When life gets so busy that there’s no time to think … conveniently, there is no time to think! Quiet can invite anxiety, especially around life’s biggest questions — Am I living a meaningful life? Am I doing what I really want to be doing? Am I fulfilled?
The inability to say “no” — If you have a strong drive for harmony, for peace, for not creating discord or upsetting the apple cart, you’re going to have a hard time saying “no” to others. As a result, it’s going to be hard to carve out time to say “yes” to you.
This is especially true for women, frequently raised to be caretakers. More likely than not, that role bleeds into their workplace as well.
Filling a gap — Some people acknowledge some sort of gap in their life, but are quick to dismiss it in a way that’s almost dissociative: “I don’t know what’s missing, I just know something is missing, and work fills it. End of story.”
Uncomfortable as it may be at first, the answer is to create stillness. Nothingness. Time to reflect, with intention. Ask yourself questions that will inform your intentions, for example: “If I won the lottery tomorrow, and I didn’t have to work ever again, what would I do?” While you’re not likely to win the lottery — tomorrow, or ever — this type of conversation provides breadcrumbs to follow to understand what’s missing. And sometimes, you can pull into your life those small pieces that will feed you.
Some people, like Donna, think “I’d love to have the time to read more novels … travel … take better care of myself.” All of these things are possible once you become very efficient at understanding priorities: what’s important, and what’s not and what’s urgent and what’s not.
Finding Balance: The “Just-Right” Level of Engagement
Most well-run companies recognize the importance of employee engagement as one of the strongest drivers of performance. But what many individuals fail to recognize is the importance of finding the “just-right” level of engagement for themselves.
As a result, you may be living your life on one extreme or the other, in a constant struggle to find work-life balance.
Sometimes taking a few steps back — or a few steps forward — is the key to identifying the road blocks standing between you and the life you envision.
While being over-engaged and being disengaged are both problematic, the good news is that there is a middle ground … a much healthier ground, characterized by work-life balance, engagement and energy.