Confessions of a reforming workaholic

Andy Fryar January 1, 2004 2
Confessions of a reforming workaholic


By Guest Hot Topic author, Martin J Cowling


How often have you:
– Continued to check your e-mail well into your holidays?
– Taken work calls on the weekend?
– Attended meetings, conferences and seminars in your “free” time?
– Spent a Sunday writing the board report?
– Roped your family into assembling the quarterly volunteer mail out?

I for one, am guilty of all of these charges!

A clergy friend of mine was reflecting on the death bed confessions he has heard over the years. He remarked that no one has ever said “Oh my God, I wish I had spent more time at work” – in every case, if given a second chance, people would choose to invest more time with family and friends and less at work.

As working hours in Australia continue to climb – and we keep filling our ‘spare’ time with more and more activities, there has been a considerable discussion emerge about ‘work / life balance’.

Questions about the role of family, the increased use of child-care facilities and household pressures have begun to gain increasing media attention. For example, Qantas recently screened a series of advertisements tapping into that consciousness, by extolling the virtues of spending more quality time at home through their service frequency and business club facilities.

What is it about our work that can engage us so completely and fully to the exclusion of other activities?

For those of us who work for not for profit organisations with committed volunteers, inspiring missions, and wide-ranging opportunities, the entanglement of work can become very strong. Couple this positive aspect of our employment with the changes of the last decade in our sector -not for profits have become more accountable, more transparent and more competitive. Our policy manuals have evolved from scraps of paper on noticeboards to thick manuals that require us to engage in regular rounds of training. Even the end of year summer BBQ for volunteers requires a food-handling course before we can touch a single sausage!

The battle to secure the resources our organisations need to meet client focused outcomes in an era of declining government subsidy, increased expectations and higher client demand have raised the pressure bar to even greater heights. In many organisations the expectation that we will deliver 120% effort through periods of extreme effort, seems to be a year round feature of operating.

Into this pressure mix, we can add the rapid transformation of our workplaces with pervasive technologies such as the mobile phone, 24-hour email, personal voice mail, instant messaging, fax machines, photocopiers and word processing. These new innovations have broken down the barrier between the work place and our home space, causing us to feel that we should all be even more available to our fellow workers employers and clients!

When I first started work (less than two decades ago!) , my business card simply had an address and the organisation’s main phone number. Today in addition to these, my card now also lists details for a direct phone contact, my mobile number, a fax number and my email address! Fifteen years ago, when I communicated a business agreement, it was carefully worded in a concise letter which I wouldn’t expect a reply to for a week. Now someone is sms-ing me if I haven’t replied to their email in 6 hours!

While most of us can easily identify the impact that the changing nature of work has had on us, it is the complexity of our private schedules that is mind boggling! Every aspect of our private lives seems to have been impacted by the dominant consumerism of our world; the level of variety and choice available for ourselves, our spouses, our children and even our pets is becoming overwhelming! The range of new products launched annually is exponentially greater than those launched in our parent’s generation.

The challenge therefore facing each of us, is how we build fulfilling lives at a point in time when work pressure and the plethora of choices around our private lives seem to demand more and more of our time.

  • How do we      balance our time at work with that at home and other activities?
  • What does it      take to demonstrate responsibility to ourselves and our families whilst      being recognised as effective efficient professionals?
  • How do we find      time to volunteer ourself when we are so stretched?
  • How do we offer      satisfying volunteer programs for individuals who are either fully engaged      in this same ‘rat race’ or for those who are completely or partially      disengaged from it?

My own learning is centred around five key actions that I seek to live out and implement.

Firstly, I do a regular (at least annual) inventory of my professional and personal life. At that time I revisit my history, goals and annual achievements while asking:
– What are the key things that I want to accomplish in life outside my employment?
– What is it I am seeking to achieve at work and how will I get there?
– What is it about my work that is important to me & what would I do if I lost that aspect?
– What is it that I need to let go of – the things that I must accept I cannot do or won’t be able to do? I continually need to be reminded to accept I can’t do it all
– What things do I not need to own?

It is sobering to think that while the expectation is most Western families ‘should’ own a DVD player, one and a half billion people do not have access to regular electricity! My family or myself need not everything that is available on the market.

In consultation with my life partner, I set goals for that year and for the next five and ten years. These are not resolutions but concrete clear desires. They will change but they give me an idea of what is important and where I want to head. Using this process, I have become much more focussed on ensuring my goals match the work life balance I am seeking.

I have worked with people who have rolled their eyes when have said I am setting time aside to plan. These individuals (who have sometimes been my manager) have intimated that planning is a luxury. I remember one commenting “oh how I wish I had the time to plan”.

Some of us become visibly frustrated with planning processes, instead wanting to get out there and act. On occasions this has been due to the planning process itself. Planning doesn’t always have to be a quiet white board process in a retreat centre. I have one friend who plans by playing loud rock music, dancing to it, while taking breaks to sketch ideas up on large sheets of paper positioned round his work-space!

Secondly, I now take time to check my progress weekly and ask myself:
– What is it I have concrete terms?
– Where could I have improved?

Thirdly, I have asked someone to take the role of a coach in my life. While there is some cynicism about what has become a significant new ‘industry’, there is a lot of value in having someone who believes in you and your work and is involved in focussing and challenging for greater success and balance.

Fourthly, in our lives we need to build in renewal time. This Christmas we provided space at our home for ‘orphans and escapees’ who needed a space to drop in with no fixed time, no agenda and no expectations. One person remarked several times that this was the most relaxed Christmas they had ever had! We all need to make space in our lives that are ‘agenda-less’. Times without TV, space without shopping and moments without movement.

Finally, in addition to managing our own personal work and life balance, I believe we have a responsibility in our leadership roles to model and coach ‘balance’ for our paid staff and volunteers. For volunteers we need to create work environments that are as professional as any paid situation but which feel very different to paid work. A place where volunteers have a sense of control, do not feel continually pressured with deadlines and where they have a chance to taste a fun and/or worthwhile experience with real outcomes.

From this vantage point I have no idea what the world of work will look like in five or ten years time. I do know that I need to take control of my finite time and ensure that I extract the maximum I can from my circumstances. I want to always be able to look back and not feel that my time at work, in voluntary activities and in leisure time has been spent in areas that were not my priorities.

So over to you, let’s hear what you think…

  • Share the goals you have set for 2004 to maintain a better work/life balance
  • Where do you believe society is heading with the world of work?
  • How do you strive to balance your own personal and professional life?
  • How does your organisation support volunteers in work / life issues?
  • What voice do managers of volunteers have in the discussion around work life balance?


  1. ozvpm_andy April 14, 2012 at 12:03 pm - Reply

    Submitted on March 26, 2004 by Adaire Palmer, Volunteer Management Consultant, Emergency Services Administrative Unit, Adelaide, South Australia

    Hi Martin,
    Thanks for this ‘Hot Topic’. It certainly is a hot topic in today’s mad rush!

    Your words of wisdom about planning and then making sure your focus and activities are aligned with your plans make sense. I think there may be expectations (which we sometimes put upon ourselves) to be all things to all people (or at least, our organisation). This is unrealistic and usually ends up flowing over into our family life.

  2. ozvpm_andy April 14, 2012 at 12:02 pm - Reply

    Submitted on January 2, 2004 by Jill Talbot, Volunteer Coordinator, Family & Youth Services, Gawler, South Australia

    I love this topic and thought I’d print it out to aid my reflection and planning as am having four weeks break (yippee!) starting from end of today. With work, study and lots of gigs as a volunteer I often feel something has to give and mostly it is ‘me’ as the three teenagers at home wait for no (wo)man! My thanks to Martin for this inspirational hot topic.

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