Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Work-life balance: workaholics, workafrolics, and the rest

Phil is neither a workaholic, nor a workafrolic, but if anyone could qualify for a PhD in sleeping (he throws himself into it with abandon every time), he'd be a post-doc by now.

Work-life balance, we are told, is important because it allows us to recharge, to draw boundaries and to prevent (or at least delay the onset of) burnout. This isn't just an issue for vets - every second client I speak to seems to struggle with the elusive concept of work-life balance. Some people say we're all addicted to work. The late Dr Lee Lipsenthal, author of Finding Balance in Medical Life, draws an analogy between work addiction and drug addiction.
“What is there was a substance that made you stay away from home until very late and kept you awake at night? What is this substance created multiple family problems to the point of destroying your marriage? What if this substance decreased your efficiency and your ability to concentrate, and made you irritable and fatigued? What if this substance increased your risk of back problems, gastrointestinal disorders, heart disease, and stroke? What if you felt that discontinuing the use of this substance meant that your success and your self definition would cease to be?
This is often how addicts feel about their drug of choice. They are so identified with the drug that they would lose themselves without it. On seeing a patient with these self-destructive tendencies, most of us would try to convince them to seek therapy or find other forms of help to eradicate the destructive substance from their lives. Unfortunately this is now many practising physicians begin to approach the work of medicine. We become work addicted!
The practice of medicine becomes our drug of choice. We live in a culture that supports the practice of medicine above all else, which can often exclude our families and our health. If we stopped being a doctor, who would we be? Unlike alcoholism, workaholism is rewarded with accolades and financial success, making it a very difficult process to stop. A workaholic has lost the ability to slow down and find value in anything other than work. Workaholism is a compulsive behaviour and is probably related to other compulsive behaviours and addictions. I tend to think of it as a tendency that can be modified by learning new behaviours, but for some, the tendency is so invasive that medical treatment may be needed.
Workaholism is not measured by the number of hours you give to work…it is more about the way you approach work and how it controls you and your ability to focus on things unrelated to your career. Workaholism can also be measured by how your work affects your life outside of medicine. If you have trouble shutting off your thoughts about work and career, you may be a workaholic.
…we are often in denial about these behaviours because they feel productive.”p43
But there's always a different perspective. I wrote this article about workafrolics for the Sydney Morning Herald. A workafrolic is someone who loves their job - and works a lot! But they work a lot not for extrinsic reasons (financial rewards, recognition etc) - just because what they do is inherently interesting. The concept of work-life balance, ironically, can be stressful to a workafrolic because they feel they need to meet expectations of others about what a life should be like. (Mind you if they are a true workafrolic, they are too busy working on whatever it is that makes them tick to worry about what others are thinking).

So where to draw this fine line between workaholics and workafrolics? Dichotomies like this are always a bit ludicrous as life is far more complex than two simple categories. But...maybe the answer is that the difference lies in motivation to work. Workaholics work more out of a sense of obligation, duty, and work as a means to an end, whereas workafrolics work because (mostly) work is inherently interesting, satisfying and of value.

“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labour and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.”p58
So...are you a workaholic or a workafrolic? Can someone truly be one without the other? Or can you be passionate about your work without being either?