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The perilous fantasy of work-life balance

A woman straddling 2 fracturing planes each representing home vs. office.As workers return to the office, striking the right work-life balance is getting harder than ever.

Julie Tran/Insider

Too much will burn you out. Too little can leave you lonely.

The insidious creep of job burnout was inescapable when I spoke with more than a dozen ambitious midcareer women for an article last winter. They described how the dynamics of their remote workplaces, coupled with pandemic-related stressors, had been seriously detrimental to their mental and physical well-being. Several of them decided enough was enough and quit. Though their specific circumstances were unique, the women shared a trait: They’d cared far too much about their jobs, and they knew it.

Many people were in the same boat. Burnout was generally understood to be a leading cause — if not the leading cause — of the Great Resignation, in which nearly 100 million Americans quit their job in two years. Those who didn’t quit tried caring less about their jobs, coasting through work responsibilities, and “quiet quitting.” Headlines and social-media announcements seemed to indicate everyone had reached the same conclusion at once: There are more important things to care about than your job.

But market forces have a way of shifting worker perspectives. As job insecurity mounts across industries such as tech and media, and in a wobbly global economy punctuated by several high-profile bank failures, at least some recent balance seekers are almost certainly finding themselves doubling down on work

In reality, professional ambition is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, caring too much about your career makes you more likely to neglect your nonwork relationships, hobbies, and well-being. But research indicates that not caring about your work can also bring about malaise. After all, most of us have to work for a living. And it’s far more emotionally sustainable to invest the majority of your waking hours in a vocation that feeds your interests and an employer that supports your professional goals than to seethe or dissociate for those 40-odd hours of every week. 

Health and happiness require a kind of personal-investment tightrope walk. Striking the right balance between caring about your work and not caring about your work too much can be the difference between a life that’s rich and satisfying and one that’s marred by loneliness, exhaustion, and despair. That’s no exaggeration: Research suggests a person’s relationship to their job is a key predictor of their overall sense of happiness. But finding that equilibrium may be trickier now than it was a year ago — or at any other point in recent memory. 

The mixed bag of returning to the office

At the beginning of the pandemic, many workers found that the shift to fully remote work blurred the line between their working and nonworking hours. Bosses’ increased micromanagement, adoption of virtual productivity-monitoring tools (aka bossware), and failure to reconcile dips in output with the overlapping challenges of the global pandemic led to overwork and additional stress. At the same time, the distance made it easier for some workers to disconnect emotionally from their job and prioritize other parts of their life. Though surveys have suggested that US workers prefer the flexibility afforded by the ability to work from home, the abrupt shift still left people reeling. Gallup survey data indicates that from 2020 to 2021 US worker engagement declined for the first time in a decade — and then slid even further in 2022.

Now workers are getting used to another shift. Return-to-office mandates began pretty much the moment employers could get away with issuing them. And even though many companies don’t require full-time in-person attendance, more employers have adopted hybrid and flexible work schedules that require workers to spend some time in the office. The people who got used to working remotely three years ago are now trying to remember what it’s like to commute to and work in a physical office. 

While work friendships can stifle loneliness, the centrality of a job in American social life does not bode particularly well for Americans’ work-life balance.

Some of those people have been reminded of the benefits of the office. For one, working in an office can make it easier to enforce boundaries with employers — when workers head home at 5 o’clock, they’re done for the day. The increase in collegial face time has also rekindled office friendships. In a survey conducted in June by the American Enterprise Institute, more than half of respondents said they’d met a close friend at work or through their spouse’s workplace. The report points out that a lack of social connection at work tracks with increased feelings of loneliness and isolation among workers in general. 

But while work friendships can stifle loneliness, the centrality of a job in American social life does not bode particularly well for Americans’ work-life balance. It can make it harder to disengage from work and contributes to the normalization of “workism,” a term to describe a society’s work-first mindset, which often leads to burnout.

The AEI survey also found that Americans tend to think about work when they aren’t working, which is linked to increased feelings of anxiety. Maybe because they get the worst of both worlds, hybrid workers were far more likely than fully remote or fully in-person employees to say they thought about work outside of their working hours. This kind of overinvestment in work isn’t helped by the fact that workers in the US work a lot more than those in other developed economies.

So as our work lives are once again thrown for a loop, a question arises: What’s the difference between simply being invested in your job and being unhealthily obsessed? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t so cut and dried.

Problematic enmeshment 

Janna Koretz, a psychologist whose clinical practice, Azimuth, in Boston and Nantucket, Massachusetts, specializes in the mental-health challenges of entrepreneurs and other high-performance workers, told me there’s a fine line between “when work becomes your whole identity or the only thing you think about” and “being engaged and interested in spending a lot of time on your job while having other things going on in your life that are also important to you.”

As Koretz explained, it’s not necessarily a bad thing for a job to take up the bulk of a person’s time and headspace. It also isn’t inherently harmful for one’s identity to be subsumed by the work they do. “These things are not necessarily a problem — until they become a problem for you or a loved one,” Koretz said.

She added that when this “enmeshment” with work does become problematic, it tends to do so in a few specific ways. Perhaps the most obvious is burnout, which the World Health Organization defines as an “occupational phenomenon” characterized by feelings of exhaustion, cynicism, or distance from one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy.

The more invested you are in your work, the more anxious you can be about work.

But while it reigns in notoriety, burnout is just one of the possible ramifications of being too invested in your job. Koretz described another common scenario: A highly driven professional accomplishes all the benchmarks necessary to achieve a career goal — to make partner at a law firm, for instance — only to notice the extent of the sacrifices they’d made to get to their destination.

“They kind of look around and they realize that maybe they also wanted to have a romantic partner, or to have a family, or that they don’t have a ton of friends in the area, or they miss doing their hobbies,” Koretz said.

Problematic job enmeshment is often also exposed by changes in a worker’s professional circumstances, like a company’s acquisition or downsizing. For those who’ve put all their eggs in the proverbial basket of their job, Koretz said, these times of transition can trigger a kind of identity crisis. This phenomenon has been pronounced following the recent wave of tech-industry layoffs, which left scores of ambitious (and overworked) professionals suddenly reevaluating the corporate grind. And as TikTok trends can attest, people in these situations can become unmoored, unsure of who they are and what they desire — especially when their careers are intrinsic to their sense of self.

“You never get exclusively beneficial effects from something like workplace investment — it always comes at a cost,” Brent Orrell, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who helped write the workplace-social-capital report, told me. “I think the more invested you are in your work, the more anxious you can be about work.” 

Orrell’s hypothesis is borne out by his team’s research. Survey participants who reported deriving a strong sense of identity and purpose from their jobs were far likelier to also report feeling imposter syndrome, or the sense that they didn’t belong in their jobs.

College-educated women were the most likely to report being particularly invested in their jobs as sources of personal fulfillment and camaraderie — more so than both non-college-educated and college-educated men. This gender imbalance indicates a reversal of the cultural archetype of the Don Draper-esque male workaholic. 

“It’s just part and parcel with what we’ve been seeing in American society in terms of male withdrawal from the workforce as women are moving to the fore in a broad range of positions that they haven’t had an opportunity to lead in in the past,” Orrell said.

Disparate rates of worker investment may also be among the factors driving the gender gap in burnout. A report from Future Forum said that in its survey of nearly 11,000 workers in August, women were 32% more likely than men to report feeling burned out. 

Koretz said that while these gender disparities have not been reflected in her clinical practice — roughly equal numbers of women and men come to her offices — she agreed that gender can inform how people relate to their jobs. In particular, Koretz suspects that some women feel pressure to prove themselves at work because of the cognitive dissonance of wanting to spend more time raising children or to take time off to start a family while also wanting to foster a career. Lacking clarity about how to solve this impossible gender-asymmetric time equation, some women may be inclined to go all in on their jobs in response — in a follow-up email, Koretz described the sentiment as “‘I am unsure how to split my time, so I am going to throw myself into work so I know it is worth it because I continue to advance’ or ‘I can have it all, watch me do it.'”

The great disentanglement 

Though there’s certainly a personal element in finding the right balance, burnout and its bedfellows are ultimately the product of organizational dysfunction. Last fall, the Office of the Surgeon General released guidelines for organizations to better support workers’ mental health and well-being in the workplace. The report identified work-life harmony as one of the five pillars of a healthy workforce and recommended companies provide workers more autonomy over how work gets done, make schedules as flexible and predictable as possible, respect workers’ boundaries between work and nonwork time, and increase workers’ access to paid leave. 

The fact that organizations continue to neglect the work-life balance of their staffers, and that so many American workers keep diving into the cult of workism, speaks to deeply entrenched societal norms that pair a Protestant work ethic with far less worker power than in other wealthy, democratic nations. At the individual level, those forces are often difficult to resist.

“People don’t get a ton of vacation in the United States,” Koretz said. “People don’t get maternity leave. The idea is that you just work and work and work and work and work. We’re not set up for success.” 

These social mores might benefit employers, but they harm everyone else. Hope is on the horizon thanks to the recent bump in union membership in sectors such as service, media, and tech. Unions have been found to improve both the wages and the workplace standards of even nonunionized workplaces, and the trend could have a ripple effect across industries.

Workers can also take small steps toward improving their work-life balance by setting aside time each day and each week for nonwork priorities. These shifts don’t need to be dramatic to have an impact, Koretz told me. Even taking breaks during the workday or regularly scheduling time with friends and loved ones outside of working hours can make a difference in redistributing one’s proverbial eggs — and affirming that there’s more to life than work.

Kelli María Korducki is a journalist and author, and a senior editor at The Atlantic.

Read the original article on Business Insider
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