Do you feel like a workaholic or does your mate seem to be a workaholic?  People struggle continuously for the work-life balance and feel that they oftentimes come up short.  What causes this lop-sided dedication to the job?  And, what can be done about it?

1.  Two Sides to the Same Coin

If you ask a car driver about the level rail crossing on Pleasant Park Drive, you will get the response that there is rarely a train passing by – only during a few minutes each day.  Yet if you ask the train engineer about the Pleasant Park crossing you will get the response that there is a car there almost every time the train arrives.  Thus, we get two different answers to the same question, each with a different, but accurate, perspective.  It depends on which side of the coin one views.

So it is true of the workaholic family member – to the spouse at home it appears as if the worker never stops working, whereas to the workaholic, it seems as if there is never a break in the spouse’s demands for more of the executive’s personal time.

  1. The Definition is wrong

Bill Mills an industrial trainer and consultant in Manotick, Ontario posits that there is no gap between work and home life but that they are inseparably bound by the reality (reference 1).  He says that the distinction between work life and personal life is artificial.  “You have only one life and part of it is spent on the job and part of it is outside of work.”

We agree.  Life is made up of inextricably linked events of health, job, family, relationships, leisure and environment.  None is separate from the other.  Can you put up little fences to conveniently allocate equal time: say, 2 hours each per day?  Of course, you can say that one person’s leaning is more towards work – a highly career-oriented person – or more towards leisure – someone who plays golf six times a week.

We have to re-examine the work-life balance definition.  Success in life has to be measured against the balance achieved in work, leisure, health, family, relationship and environment in a way that works uniquely for each individual.

  1. The real Workaholic

The suffix ‘aholic’ or word ‘addict’ are used to denote a person out of control, apparently unable to stop a destructive habit. It refers usually to a person fully aware of the destructiveness of the habit as in the case of an alcoholic, gambling addict, drug addict, smoking addict etc.  Of course, there can also be a workaholic, someone compelled to work, even when there is no work to be done, hating every minute of this work obsession or the work itself.  It is here that a person recognizes the need for outside help.  This paper is NOT about this type of individual.

  1. Reward Circuits of the Brain

The brain contains reward circuits (references 2 and 3) which tell us that eating certain foods will be good for us and sex will be fun, with the clear aim of ensuring that as a species we survive.  The reward circuits also are activated by eventful achievements manifested by our self-esteem rising when we complete something successfully.  This is the basis for personal motivation, one of the most powerful drivers of all.  People will climb mountains, cross deserts, race in cars to satisfy this drive for achievement.  This internal driver is usually termed intrinsic motivation whereas money is associated with the term, extrinsic motivator.  External (extrinsic) motivators tend to be short-term oriented and less strong than internal (intrinsic) ones.  For example, people will quit a high-paying job to get out of the ‘rat race’, to escape a malicious boss or a boring job, giving precedence to an intrinsic motivator (self-esteem) over an extrinsic one (high pay).

  1. The Motivator

The primary aspect of the intrinsic motivation can be derived by understanding what drives people.  People left to their own devices search for and overcome challenges; they try to master skills; they attempt to attain competence.  On achieving competence, people seek new levels of complexity in what they do. (Reference 4) People in all walks of life, in all ages, follow this pattern.

This fundamental driver leads people to excel.  So, a junior high-jumper who gets over bars, strives for even higher-set bars.  As she overcomes each level, she gets a reward shot in her brain that has her strive for even more.  This success creates a further incentive to move from the high school, to the university level and perhaps, if fate is kind, onto the Olympics.  There is nothing wrong with this for it is nature’s way of ensuring the advancement of the species through achievement.

  1. The Worker

In the work environment, those who are successful, likewise, become fuelled for more success.  They work hard because they get rewarded in their brain for working hard – as long as there is a successful consequence, namely the cycle of: overcoming challenges, mastery of them and then the seeking of increased complexity.  It is as natural as wanting more opium.  In fact it is the very same brain circuits as process opiates, the reward circuits within the cranium.

All else is cast aside in order to achieve more and more ends.  It matters not whether we talk about high jumping, boxing, pottery-making, horse-racing, the performing arts, military conquests or work.  Success begets more success begets more effort and more dedication towards that effort.

“The true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for his living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art.” (Reference 5)

In our consulting practices we spend an enormous effort into steering people towards work that is fun for them.  We simply call it a choice between having work that is a ‘thrill or a struggle’.  When we are successful, the worker moves onto the ‘thrill’ platform.  Now who wouldn’t want more thrill reinforcement?  Happy at work sets the individual up for being happy at home and in other aspects of life.

Add to this the complexity of where a worker stands in company and career development – a person in a new job trying to impress a new boss, a doctor on call 24 hours a day, an executive leading a time-critical multimillion dollar effort, the founder attempting to make a new struggling enterprise work, a political figure trying to avert an international incident.  All of them work around the clock, selflessly giving to achieve a better world and sacrificing the ‘home’ life in the process because a day has only 24 hours.  No one would call a mother of a newborn, who puts in an 18-hour day looking after the infant, a workaholic, because she is just responding to a demanding, but well understood situation.   So too, the founder of a new enterprise must respond to the demands of the infant business (albeit, less understood) – otherwise it will not survive.

Yet, at the same time, these people are not selfless; they selfishly feed their own sense of personal values, the righteousness of their purpose and the satisfaction of their own self-esteem.  But they are driven to do so and would have it no other way.

  1. The Short-term War

Last month’s newsletter suggested that we know, and certainly if we don’t know we hear it preached, that the long term must be balanced with the short term.  The example today of the work-life balance has a short-term demand of a 60-hour week at the office conflicting with the long-term desires of a normal home life.  We struggle to bring the two into balance.

Which one wins?  Well, it is the short term.  We have to fight to ensure that the long term is considered because our survival instincts are short-term based – better to run from the saber-toothed tiger than plan our next meal.  For most of us, short-term considerations will dominate long term; it is not natural to allow long term to dominate short term; we respond to short-term demands first (reference 6).  Therefore recognizing the importance of the neglected long term, we consciously endeavor to address long term issues systematically – paying attention to home and family as we know we ought. No doubt, however, that when we’re engaged in these long-term family matters, we think of all the short-term tasks we could be doing – often to the chagrin of our spouses.

  1. What the Partners should do

What both partners in a relationship should do, first and foremost, is focus on the other person, not themselves for a moment.

For the ‘worker’ a conscious effort has to be made to include the home mate in the worker’s life.  Plan family events, such as vacation, children’s school performance days and stick to those plans.  Mark them on your calendar.  Do not allow work to change those plans.  Of course, there may be exceptions – but that is the operative word – exceptions.

For the ‘spouse’ of the dedicated worker, recognize that your worker mate is very happy in this busy environment and gets a thrill from it, a continuous reinforcement of self-esteem.  By complaining, you offer a stark unpleasant contrast.  The worker not measuring up to your standards finds himself in a low self-esteem environment at home which contrasts with the high self-esteem environment at work.  This has to be a losing proposition for the spouse at home.  So desist on this tack.

Remember a happy spouse at work is much more likely to lead to a happy home life.  Your best strategy is to be supportive of this very busy individual; you would be supportive if they had only one leg.

Together, worker and partner should negotiate the home needs and arrive at what makes sense considering the ‘life needs’ of each.  Each should establish boundaries and jointly set up and define these boundaries so that transgressions, if they occur will be objectively recognized and dealt with.  No one should be forced to overly compromise their own human nature.

  1. Conclusion

The workaholic is not sick.  This person does not need much help – just a little to ensure there is some perspective for the partner at home.  Such people usually are programmed to succeed just as much as any artist, for they are an artist in what they do and in ways that they are successful.  The most important conclusion that can be drawn is that they are happy in what they do; be pleased for them because most people at work are not happy there.  Secondly, happy at work assists being happy at home if there is not a counterforce at home pressing against this imbedded thrill-at-work nature of the individual.  Thirdly, happy at work usually translates into more financial security and thus a better home life.  Fourthly, no partner at home is going to change the basic nature of the partner at work.  All the effort and all the promises in the world will not change anyone.

It is a two-way street.  The worker must be considerate of the partner at home and jointly establish the home needs and obligations.  The partner at home must set boundaries that define the minimum needs for the worker’s home involvement and each should be supportive of the other’s aspirations and life styles.