Obsessing over your job and working around the clock can damage your health, destroy your relationship and, ironically, ruin your career, but there are ways to avoid a case of Compulsive Career Disorder, writes JILLIAN BOLGER.
Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, was a great man for the aphorisms. One of the corporate world’s earliest motivational speakers, he believed that “Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get.”
It’s a canny distinction, not least because so many of us have eschewed work-life balance in an attempt to climb to the top rung of the corporate ladder. As ambitious creatures, we’re quick to let our jobs define us – “What do you do?” is often the first question we ask someone, even when introduced socially – with many of us refusing to switch off outside company hours in a belief that it will make us better at our jobs, prove our loyalty to the boss, or, at the very least, give us a head start on tomorrow’s tasks.
Technological advancements have made communication possible 24 hours a day, and they’ve also blurred the boundaries between work and home life. Phones are frequent companions at the dinner table; laptops join us on the sofa in the evening, and even in bed. With one eye on The Good Wife and the other on our inbox, we convince ourselves that we’re masterfully combining career progression with some well-earned downtime.
The reality is that downtime is key to our wellbeing, our relationships, our family life, and our health. It allows us to relax, recharge and reconnect with those we love. Replying to emails, reading reports and planning strategies have no place in the “life” part of the work- life balance equation, yet so many of us struggle to separate the two, allowing our careers to take over our private lives.
Irish psychotherapist Hilda Burke, a London-based life coach and couples’ counsellor (hildaburke.co.uk), believes that many of us have become obsessed with our careers because we derive our self-worth from them. “This has become increasingly prevalent as more people move to an urban setting.
A lot of people don’t even question the ‘rat race’, they just take their place on the treadmill and get on with it.
In her experience, self-worth plays a large role in defining people’s attitudes with many clients to help them try and achieve more of a work-life balance. For one, it was to draw some boundaries around her weekend and to stop taking work home. It was challenging for her to break this habit, which she had built up through a decade of her working life. However, when she finally got there, she was astonished to find that not only did her productivity not suffer, her working week became more fruitful.” The client in question is a creative, and by taking a step away from her normal work for two days, she was able to spend some time nurturing herself – doing meditation, visiting galleries, taking walks, and this investment in herself allowed her creativity to flow more freely through her work. “Conversely, when she worked all weekend, she’d drag herself to work drained and resentful on Monday mornings.”
Not everyone who overcommits recognises they have a problem, often placing the “blame” for their obsessive behaviour on work being stressful, there being so much to do or their boss being so demanding. “The reality is ‘work worryaholics’ tend to be like that in every job, every career they pursue,” finds Burke. “Ultimately, it’s their self-esteem on the line, so if they don’t perform and give everything they can to their jobs, they’ll feel bad about themselves.”
Mum-of-three Emma Kelly, MD of Elevate PR, understands how tricky it is to achieve a work-life balance. “I set up Elevate 15 years ago. My eldest is twelve now, so I had three good years to burn the midnight oil and really build the business. I worked around the clock at that stage. Once I had my first child, I hired a nanny, which meant I had to be home to let her go by 6pm.”
Understanding that PR is an “always on” profession, she set herself guidelines to live by: “My work is a really important part of my life, but I don’t bring it home, if I can avoid it. My phone and email are always on, but there’s no phones at family dinner time. The weekend is for family, and I always try to get in a Pilates class.” She values sleep too, believing it contributes to her wellbeing and productivity. “I have always prized sleep over everything else so go to bed early, unless I have a client event. To quote my dad, ‘You cannot burn the candle at both ends.’”
Catherine Fulvio of Ballyknocken House in Wicklow worked around the clock when she was starting out too, on the planning and design of the cookery school and renovation of the family farmhouse. “I had made the investment and was keen to get up and running. I was pregnant with my second child, so it was a juggle, but it was a great time.”
The busy chef, currently working on cookbook number six (A Taste of Home, due out in October), puts the success of Ballyknocken down to her being able to combine family life with running the business. “They are both really important to me. I have a loyal and trusted team that allows me to be flexible when I need to spend time with the children.” When possible, Fulvio includes her family in her work life too. “There is no harm in the children understanding what work means.”
Living on your business premises surely makes it harder to switch off, but Fulvio credits good discipline for her work-life balance. “You can’t just lock the door at 5pm, but I think that is a trait of the business I am in and also part of the advantage. It can be a challenge drawing those boundaries. Added to that, we operate a seven-day business. But I’ve learned it takes planning and being organised – I’m still learning that.”
Life and business coach for creative business owners, Ebonie Allard (entrepreneurenabler.com) believes work- life balance is achievable for everyone, so long as they want it. “The adjustment is as easy or as difficult as you make it. The more ready and willing a client is, the easier it is for them to refocus.” She tells of one client who was getting all her needs met by work. “Her business was her ‘baby’. Once we were able to identify this, and look at the business as a business and her personal life as something separate, we were able to establish what an ideal balance would look like.” Through coaching and a desire to change, her client learned to delegate and outsource some of her workload, and come up with some personal goals.
Coaches like Allard are used to meeting people whose career obsessions have had a detrimental impact on their home life, relationships and health. “A coach can help clarify where you are now, where you want to be, and what obstacles (internal or external) are in between. Then it’s a case of navigating those obstacles together.”
So, should we all call in an expert if we’ve been burning the midnight oil? “There are periods where most of us
worry about our careers,” says Burke. “However, if it’s constant right through our working lives, it could be symptomatic of something more serious.” She believes it’s important to draw a line between being passionate about one’s job, where you’re investing energy in it, but getting a lot from it, and a situation where one is anxious constantly. “In the latter, I think it hints at low self-esteem. I’d encourage anyone who can identify with that to work with a therapist to unpick this and start building their self-esteem up from within, rather than placing their self-worth on the external validation provided by work.”