Three ways to avoid being a workaholic

by Kathryn James Hermes


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Recently at provincial meetings, a presenter talked about workaholics as if they weren't people. In her rather dated way of looking at balance in life, she referred to workaholics as if they were a special breed of "automatons" who lived in a vacuum. Shortly after, a sister who came by my office surprised me by greeting me with the words, "Hey, Workaholic!"

It is true that I work long hours, not always by choice, sometimes by necessity, occasionally as an escape, and at times because others need me to be available. But I resent being reduced to a label.

I also have many inner struggles around the work I do. Some of the things I have been asked to do in mission required long hours. Sometimes I have gotten angry about the amount of work expected of me; other times I know I could give more but am holding back. On the one hand, I feel like I need to always be available; on the other hand, I can use work as an escape. I look at others working more, working less, and in both cases I feel guilty. I want what I do to flow from who I am, and the integration — when it happens — feels wonderful! How complicated is the human heart!

Reflecting on my own experience, over the past months I have identified three guides that help me in unraveling the motivations of my heart; to connect my "doing" with my "being" so that my work flows not from workaholism but from something deeper.

1 - Surrender to reality

As a manager of a department in our publishing house, I work hard at building a team among  those of us who work together. But at the end of the day, the manager is the one who has to pick up the pieces, fill in the holes, supply what is missing and basically be responsible for keeping the boat afloat.

I would love to be free of deadlines and responsibilities to follow my own dreams. The reality is, however, that being the team leader of the digital department — a 24/7 always-connected mission field — I can't have that luxury. I have to admit at times I am jealous of those who do. Some days I am hankering after "greener pastures" that others seem to enjoy instead of embracing my own reality.

When I choose (and daily re-choose) the mission field I'm in — and which I absolutely love — with all of its realities and demands and joys . . . when I choose to love even the craziness of it, to see it as my path, as the gift that has so enriched me . . . I'm able to see the sacrifices for what they are. They aren't any more of a sacrifice than those made by my sister who is putting four boys through college. She and her husband work hard at their jobs, as well as their marriage, their parenting, their health and their faith. For many years she has worked in a hospital emergency room. The years she was the manager she was on call 24/7. I wouldn't call my sister a "workaholic." She's a mom. She loves her job and I love mine. By re-choosing to love it again and again I find joy.

2 - Discover your own rhythm of life

I find it hard to believe that Jesus is that concerned about us living a balanced life. I think he would rather we be "fully alive." Protecting and orchestrating my choices, schedule and plans around keeping balance has a certain value, but I'm reading a growing number of articles that say it just isn't possible to have balance in life today the same way we used to.

The fine line between work space and private space is eroding. Work and leisure are flowing into each other, and expectations are shifting. The 9-to-5 workday is a thing of the past for everyone. In some fields people are expected to bring work home and to be available on the week-ends and often on vacation. When our website goes down, the company who hosts our server is available day or night. So am I. It's a different world. Some things can't wait till Monday.

When reflecting on these new demands, I love the thought of our founder, Blessed James Alberione, SSP, who said, "The apostle is one who has a heart glowing with the love of God and the love of her brothers and sisters. She can neither restrain nor suffocate what she feels and thinks." This being "fully alive" (in the words of Irenaeus) flows from a feeling of expansion, giving and developing in all dimensions of life (not just the dimension of work). It flows from a perspective of fullness. If we want to pursue something in life, whatever that may be, we need to give it our all. All is about more than time.

A full life ebbs and flows; is alternately creative and at rest; is filled with joy and at other times peacefully contemplative. To create this life-giving rhythm, I personally like to build into my schedule quality times for things that are important to me and which replenish my mind, body and spirit. I can't have this time every day. It isn't on a schedule. I purposely need to carve out quality time when I can fit in. For example I set aside time for a project and tell my team the door is shut that afternoon. I'm still working, but it is a different experience. I put on music, light a candle, get a cup of coffee and put myself in a different zone. I might make room on an afternoon for extra community presence. I make the week-ends of one month sacred and that's when I write my book. I'll take a Saturday for extra prayer combined with reflection, reading  and long walks to evaluate the direction our department is moving (the digital field changes daily!). I might rise early on a Sunday, take my computer out on the porch, and enjoy a couple hours in the silence of the early hours, journaling and writing before the community rises.

Although I can't have personal time every day, I keep my life in sync by refilling my energy through quality activities which nourish my soul and body.

There have been a few years in my religious life in which my assignment meant my mission took over all the other dimensions of my life. Even in these times, however, I worked hard to establish parameters and sought to create some small rhythm for personally life-giving choices.

No one else will create life-giving choices for us other than ourselves. I think of parents of children who require 24/7 care or those who are simultaneously caring for a family and parents. I have in mind also people whose employers are demanding 24/7 availability in order to keep their job. Such situations are not easy.

Even here, however, the idea of rhythm may be helpful. The whole week may be scheduled but some time during the next week can be reserved for an activity that is life-giving or restful. It could be as small as a walk through a park, a time for spiritual direction, sleeping in one morning, a leisurely dinner with friends, or even sitting down with a glass of wine and music to do planning. We can even in the smallest way preserve our freedom by making life-giving choices.

3 - Line up choices with God's gaze

I made my annual retreat several weeks ago. One of my first meditations was of the woman who washed Jesus' feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee. I imagined what she might have been thinking as she waited for Jesus to arrive. Perhaps she was wondering if Jesus would remember her, if he would remember the way he had saved her . . . the one whom he had "forgiven much." I watched her wait for Jesus in anticipation, even felt her fear that this rabbi who had done so much for her might no longer know her name.

As Jesus entered the room, he sensed that there was more to this dinner than he had expected. There were no signs of hospitality, no washing of the feet, no welcoming kiss. In my meditation I saw him slowly look around the room to see if there was someone there whom he knew. When Jesus' eyes met hers, his face lit up with a great smile. The woman's heart leapt for joy. "He remembers me. He knows me. Not as the woman with the history of weakness, but only as the woman he re-created through his mercy. He knows me as I am now."

I felt this beautiful and healing gaze of Jesus on me, a gaze that was warm, affirming, supporting, delighting in me. This gaze of Jesus became a strong thread through the eight days of retreat.

I have met this gaze before, as I know you have. I have come to call that gaze "the Kingdom of His Face." I carefully guard those memories, and they become a touchstone that guides the decisions I make.

"Should I stay late in the office tonight?" I "overlay" on God's gaze the feelings I have about working late that night as well as any motivations and resistances. Do they correspond to that face of mercy and trust? If they do, then I go ahead. I feel a deep peace and joy. And no matter how much work or how many hours it entails, I continue to carry it out with joy and peace.

If the potential action or word doesn't correspond to the gift received in God's gaze, I feel it distort, turn in on itself, shrink within me. There is something deeply misgiving about it. I decide not to follow this way since it doesn't align with what I sensed when I received God's gaze. This is my touchtone of discernment and it never fails me.

Living within the gaze of God places me squarely in the mystery of mission. Acting out of haste, superficiality, or obstinacy leads me directly down the path of the workaholic.

Every person will need to see how to direct and re-direct her or his own life so that it fully flowers with generativity and hope. The ongoing orchestration of this is essential, because only this will lead to a deeply satisfying life. Your experiences won't match mine, and I know God will show you your way. I offer you my three guides as a starting place to help you live more fully:

  1. Surrender to reality — love the life that is yours.
  2. Discover your own rhythm of life. Instead of capping your possibilities to keep life in balance, develop all the aspects of your life.
  3. Never act out of haste, but let the gaze of God become the touchstone of your life.

[Daughter of St. Paul Sr. Kathryn James Hermes is the author of the best-selling book Surviving Depression: A Catholic Approach as well as a number of other titles. Everything she does or writes has one focus: giving people the tools for joy by radically shifting their focus through Presence. She works with individuals online at, and her newsletter can be found at]