Whether due to the high expectations of others or the high expectations of ourselves, most of us will at some stage work longer hours than we would otherwise feel comfortable with. We will forgo sleep, we will push through and we will persevere toward some goal. Ideally, this will be followed by an opportunity to rest, knowing we’ve achieved something worthwhile.
But as careers progress and responsibilities grow, these instances of rest and reflection become increasingly infrequent. Add in a child or two and the care of an aging parent, and downtime can soon become the stuff of nostalgia.
Such a lifestyle has become accepted in our society, but is this norm really normal? With work commitments encroaching on our time, what else is being eroded?
Do Australian professionals have a problem with work-life balance?
Research by Beaton in collaboration with Linda Duxbury, a work-life balance expert, and Beyond Blue has found that Australian professionals are working harder than ever – and it’s not necessarily doing them any good. So how sustainable is our ‘workaholism’?
In this 2008 study, close to 12,000 professionals answered questions relating to work-life balance. The results showed that professionals in Australia are particularly time-poor. On average, they spend 9.5 hours at work each day. A large majority (70%) worked an average 6 hours of unpaid overtime each week.
Nearly half (42%) of respondents cited they felt overloaded within their role – that is, their workload was approaching or had surpassed a level with which they were comfortable. Not surprisingly, nearly a third (29%) of respondents felt their work was encroaching on their family life.
So why do we do it? Why would we willingly take on more work when we already feel overloaded? Prior research by Linda Duxbury found it was due to:
What these reasons boil down to are expectations – those of others or of ourselves. Just as opportunities multiply as they are seized, expectations increase as they are met. And to continually meet rising expectations, the relationship between work and life must inevitably be strained. So what effect does this have?
Depressing figures: the impact of work-life imbalance
In 2007, a collaborative study between Beaton and Beyond Blue of over 7,500 professionals in Australia found a significantly higher prevalence of depression within those working in professional service firms as compared to the general population. Lawyers in particular were the most prone to depression and were also more likely to use non-prescription drugs or alcohol to mitigate feelings of sadness.
Such a statistic begs the question of causality: ‘does working in the professions cause depressive symptoms or do the professions attract a typically more morose individual?’ Neither of the above studies intended to answer that question. However, four facts from the work-life study collectively highlight a grave concern for the Australian professional services industry:
Is it any surprise lawyers are the most prone to depression, when anecdotally we know they work some of the longest hours in the professions?
The link here is not between depression and hours spent at work per se; rather, it is between depression and a sense of not being in control, something often cited by those experiencing feelings of intense sadness. Growing expectations can make us feel trapped, especially when those expectations are rigidly defined. The work-life study found that, more than anything else, flexibility of work hours and location help Australian professionals balance their lives better. This relatively simple measure may drastically reduce mental health issues, absenteeism and burnout.
So is our ‘workaholism’ sustainable? For the sake of our collective mental health, is it not time to concede that the answer is a clear ‘no’? Surely the question to ask now is ‘how do we change our expectations?’