Finding Balance Through Workaholism

There was some buzz recently about this idea that people who are dying regret five things, and working more was not one of them. An Australian palliative nurse named Bronnie Ware, who counseled the dying, wrote a book based on her experiences with those in their last stage of life, called “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.”

 The dying patients told her most commonly that their regrets were that:

  1. “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”
  2. “I wish that I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
  3. “I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.”
  4. “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
  5. “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

I think about this study quite a bit, because I take seriously what those who are in their last stage of life have to say. It helps give me a much wider perspective when I get caught up in the day-to-day “important” issues of the day. They sure seem important at the time, but with expansive awareness, I can see them for what they truly are. It allows me to “work backwards” from thinking about my own death, and see if what I’m doing now is all that important or not in the long run.

Most, if not all, of the regrets the dying listed can be created with a slavish and unhealthy attachment to work. Men (and women) are guilty of falling into this trap, but I focus on men because we, as men, get so much value and gain from work that it becomes hard to unhook from it. We also derive much of our identity from work, so it’s no wonder we can fall into workaholism.

Moreover, our culture has become completely work obsessed, and the “new norm” of work has become longer hours and more demand, for less pay, less benefits, and less job security. Families are increasingly stressed, and the two earner household has become the standard, not the exception, as in decades’ past. Vacations are shorter, and many employers expect that their employees stay working on vacations, without taking time apart for their families or for rest and relaxation. Society applauds the “I’m so busy” mentality we’ve all embraced, even though there is so much unhealthiness to it. It’s a lot harder to see our unhealthy attachments to work when society applauds it.

If you’ve ever considered yourself as a workaholic, or at least considered that you might have an unhealthy relationship to your work or career, you might think about the following:

Consideration points to ask yourself if you think you might be a workaholic, or have an unhealthy relationship to work:

  1. Ask yourself if you are avoiding other problems, such as in your marriage or primary relationship, not wanting to be at home, etc.
  2. Habitually missing important events for your family, such as your kids’ events or things important to your spouse
  3. Constantly on your phone, or laptop, and not fully present
  4. See if you’ve stopped paying attention to your spouse, or spent less time together in general
  5. Ask yourself if you can draw reasonable boundaries between you and work, and if not, see what the resistance to doing that is
  6. Are you experiencing stress, depression, anxiety or physical problems as a result of work? Have you related it to work?
  7. You constantly say “yes” and keep taking on work where others don’t
  8. You work in an environment where long hours and evening work are expected, and this is creating problems for you
  9. Justifying it with telling yourself things like: “I’m doing it so we can be better off” or “I’m trying to get ahead” or ”It’ll slow down soon.”

A Life of Balance – or Avoidance

Do you seek a life of balance, and if so, does your commitment to work prevent you from achieving it? Your life is out of balance if you’re dedicating most of it to work and your career.

At times, we can use work as an avoidance, like other distractions like alcohol, porn use, gambling, etc. It’s easy to fall in, and not know that we’re chained to our work, when it all seems so important and pressing at the time. We lose our greater wide field view to our limited tunnel vision.

Your spouse and family may be receiving the short end of the stick. They may be missing you, and needing you and your presence at home. As much as you might uphold your workaholism with rationalization, denial or justification, the fact is that you can’t be in all places at all times. It’s a zero sum game, and someone has to lose if you’re dedicated to your work.

You may feel victorious at work, but what’s it worth when your home life is struggling so much?It’s easy to get lost in the thinking that “I’m doing it for my family, so we can have a better future.” I understand that, and that’s what motivates most men to work as hard as they do – to be good providers for their loved ones, to be successful and to feel in control of their lives professionally. But, there’s a tipping point, where it becomes too much, and you then end up missing out on your life.

What You Can Do

Identifying the factors involved (above points), or the ones you fall into to working too hard is the first step. I think it takes some soul searching to see if this way of life is sustainable for you, and get feedback from those around you.

Challenging your work situation – or your career – probably isn’t the first thing you want to do. I get it. You’re trying to make an income, keep security and stability in your life and those around you, and get rewarded at work either through pay or verbal recognition. But, it may benefit you to see if there is a line in the sand, and if you’re stepping over it by working too hard too much of the time.

Figure out what your values are, and ask yourself these questions: am I here on Earth to work this hard? Am I present and available to my life outside of work? What do I value in my life, and am I attending to those things, like family, myself, and things unrelated to work and financial success? Are others getting the best of me, and do I care enough to do something about it? Can I derive my identity elsewhere, or do I specifically need work and my career to solely do it?

Getting in touch with those things, and considering the points above, may motivate you to make small changes in the way you work, and you might work even smarter or more efficiently as a result. More importantly, you won’t be leaving other things and people out of your life. It may not kill you to work less, or easier, or more efficiently, but it may just bring you back to your life.


About Jason

As "The Man That Men Will Talk To," Jason Fierstein, MA, LPC is a private practice counselor and psychotherapist for men and couples in the greater Phoenix, Arizona, area. He works with struggling men to find happiness in their lives, and with their wives.
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