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When Work Steals Your Life Away

Steps for repairing the damage
When Work Steals Your Life Away
Image: Juhan Sonin / Flickr

The day I realized it had gone too far, I woke up at 5:00 a.m. to go from dreaming about work to actually doing it. As I slid out of bed I glanced at my sleeping husband and felt a pang of guilt. The night before, I had fallen asleep in the middle of our first real conversation all day.

I’ll make it up to him, I thought, dragging myself into the kitchen for coffee, and then to my office for a half-asleep run on the elliptical while I caught up on work emails. After a few minutes, I gave up on running to give the emails my full attention.

There’s so much to do; I’ll never get caught up at this rate.

I glanced at the devotional sitting on my desk but pushed it aside in order to retrieve the documents my printer was spitting out.

“Maybe I’ll get to it tomorrow.” Even as I muttered those words to myself, I knew they were false. I’d been reaching past the devotional for too many days in a row now.

It was May 2013, and I was working as the part-time chief strategy officer of a large commercial real estate firm, serving on six separate corporate and nonprofit boards, and handling the day-to-day management of a rapidly expanding 4word team. I felt like my mind was moving a million miles a minute. In a constant scramble to stay ahead of the next thing, I was working myself to the bone. Yet the more I threw myself into my work, the further behind I felt.

I glanced at the devotional sitting on my desk but pushed it aside in order to retrieve the documents my printer was spitting out.

My big moment of clarity came with tears. In an airport.

I don’t remember what exactly went wrong that set my phone buzzing and the e-mails piling up, but I remember feeling thoroughly defeated and overwhelmed. Work was consuming every part of me. I closed my eyes to hold back tears and cried out to God: I can’t do this. I can’t keep up. Please help me.

Something about that moment flipped a switch for me. That night I slept well, and I woke up with a sense of peace. From there, I set about seeking a new path. I couldn’t see how it would all work out, but I stepped forward in faith, confident that God could repair what I couldn’t.

Are you out of balance? Here are some early warning signs that you may need to correct course:

  • You’ve left your normal routine of prayer time, Bible study, exercise, good sleep, and eating behind.

  • You can’t be away from your electronic devices in the evenings or for a day on a weekend.

  • You constantly focus on how many emails you have to return.

  • You feel uncomfortable taking time just to be with your spouse or your children.

  • You can’t focus on your spouse or children when they’re speaking with you because you are distracted by work needs.

  • You don’t have time to serve others.

The Lure of Work

When you find yourself working too hard, it’s tempting to blame your workplace culture, or your boss’s unreasonable expectations, or any number of other things beyond your control. And some of these things certainly do contribute. Even so, work can’t take over if you don’t let it.

It’s uncomfortable to admit, but it’s often true: sometimes, we’d simply rather be working. In that truth, there is also hope. When work is consuming me, I’m not merely a victim. I’m a participant, and that means that I have the power to make changes.

I love that feeling of working full-out for something, don’t you? I know and appreciate that this is part of the way God made me, and I’m grateful for it. But I also recognize its dangers. Work has a special kind of allure. At work you are needed and valuable. You have defined goals and objectives. Your efforts yield tangible results and generate feedback.

The rest of life, by contrast, can feel terribly messy and confusing. Relationships are complicated, efforts and sacrifices for family often go unrecognized, and there’s not even a yearly employee review to let you know how you’re doing! Sometimes we turn to work as a way of avoiding the messier parts of life, and that’s a problem.

When work is consuming me, I’m not merely a victim. I’m a participant, and that means that I have the power to make changes.

All Work and No Play

Relationships tend to suffer the first casualties, followed by physical and emotional health. As you tip further and further out of balance, eventually these problems will work their way back to where they started, crippling even your ability to work well.

There is certainly value in working hard, but the big lessons in life are almost always learned outside of the office. All that challenging messiness—that’s where God is working on your heart the most. Furthermore, as good managers know, taking time away from work actually makes you a better worker.

The very best workers take time to be filled and encouraged by the people and things that they enjoy. They exercise, they stimulate their brains with new experiences and connections, and they live vibrant lives outside of the office.

Re-Balancing Your Life

Make it a priority to repair the relationships that have suffered. There’s a lot of healing that can happen in a relationship with a simple apology: “I’m sorry. Work has been taking up too much of me, and I know it has hurt you. Please forgive me.” An apology like this can’t heal every wound, but humbling yourself and acknowledging the other person’s hurt is a critical step for you and for them.

Don’t wasn’t time punishing yourself over past mistakes; guilt and shame are poor motivators. To break unhealthy habits around work, you need to give yourself positive goals and boundaries.

To break unhealthy habits around work, you need to give yourself positive goals and boundaries.

I’ve set a positive goal for myself to spend significant time each week connecting with my husband, Chris, over something that he enjoys. So when my smartphone buzzes at 9:30 P.M. just as we’re sitting down together to watch clips from the Tour de France, I can leave the phone untouched knowing that I am fulfilling a valid and important goal. Without that goal in place, I would be reaching for the phone in an instant, unable to resist the lure of relative productivity.

Redefining Time Management

Have you ever noticed how, no matter what size purse you are carrying, it’s always full? We tend to make use of what we’re given. The same goes for work: if you allow it to take up your full day, it will. But if you build firm boundaries around it, you’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish in a shorter amount of time.

Accept that others may not share your boundaries around work, and you can’t control how they respond. You can and should impose limits in a respectful way while continuing to do high-quality work.

Major changes in your work pattern may necessitate careful communication with your boss and coworkers. If you’re working closely with people on a project, let them know specifically if and when you will be available outside the office. By managing expectations in this way, you can help to avoid misunderstandings.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Diane Paddison

Diane Paddison is a business professional and founder of 4wordwomen.org, local groups of professional working women committed to faith, family, work, and each other.

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