The majority of my life has been spent working. I’ve been employed since I was 16 years old. By the time I was 19 years old, 60 hour plus work weeks had become my norm. I spent most of my twenties saying no to social invites more than ‘yes’ in the name of “having deadlines and projects that needed to get done”. When faced with relationship breakups and personal setbacks, I took comfort in my work to-do lists and projects. And in my early thirties, just when I thought I couldn’t throw myself into my work even more, I moved to NYC, married a businessman who works just as many hours as I do, quickly became an entrepreneur myself, and assimilated into the hustle and grind culture that never stops and never sleeps.
Of course, I’m no Wonder Woman, and my mental, emotional and physical health in different seasons have paid the price. Multiple bouts of exhaustion and burnout finally forced me in the last few years to face my greatest addiction: work.
My relationship with work has been a complicated one- sometimes incredibly healthy and fruitful, and at other times, undeniably toxic and destructive. I love work, until I don’t. Or I give, give, give, and don’t seem to receive back nearly as much in return. And like most tumultuous and bad relationships, if I’m not careful I can completely lose myself in it.
Over the years, I’ve read dozens of books on everything from time management to margin to rest. I’ve attended workshops, conferences, and seminars on honoring the Sabbath. I’ve researched dozens of articles, listened to dozens more podcasts on the subject, and even sought out professional counseling.
Here’s what I’ve found: my relationship with work is exactly that. A relationship. I can’t treat it like a problem to be solved, when in reality it is a place of discovery and connection that is both sacred and complex. How I approach my work reveals so much about my heart and my wholeness. I can’t thrive in my relationship with work without having to look inward, examine my soul, and by the help of the Holy Spirit, address the core beliefs I hold that lead to dysfunctional behaviors and habits in my worklife.
If you are anything like me, and developing a healthy and fulfilling relationship with work has felt more like a long, bumpy, uphill climb than a straight, smooth path, first, please know you aren’t alone. In fact, Bill Ervolino of The Chicago Tribune wrote an article in 2017, titled, “Everybody is Exhausted: Stress and Social Media are Taking Their Toll”. In it Bill reported, “A survey conducted by the National Safety Council found that 97 percent of Americans have at least one of the leading risk factors for fatigue, which include working at night or in the early morning, working long shifts without breaks and working more than 50 hours per week. Forty-three percent of respondents said they do not get enough sleep to think clearly at work, make informed decisions and be productive.” Like I said, you aren’t alone.
There is hope, though. You can dig deep. We can each face the false narratives that have been leaving us tired, exhausted, and burnt out. Below are a few reasons for my overwork that I’ve had to address in my recovery from workaholism. I hope they prompt your own soul-searching and help you build a lasting and fulfilling relationship with work- one that allows you to enjoy life, live with deep gratitude, and make a difference:
- I saw rest as a luxury I couldn’t afford.
Work and rest can easily become very loaded phrases depending on how we were raised and the experiences we’ve had in life. Some of us grew up with an enormous value placed on hard work, or on the need for financial security. Others of us were sent the message that anyone who rests is acting lazy, and they should feel guilty for not working as hard as they could. And maybe some of us have had disappointing experiences in our careers that have sent the message that either rest is a luxury we can’t afford or that work is morally superior to rest.
It’s certainly a message I received and internalized for many years.
After wrestling with the ripple effects of this message in my life, I’ve come to believe work is inherently a good thing for us. Each one of us was designed by God for productivity, fruitfulness and to live fueled by a deep sense of purpose. I’ve realized that’s not all we were designed for though. We need rest. We were given physical and mental limitations for a reason. Rest is not simply for the weak or lazy; it’s a God-given gift that we were made to enjoy. When we are able to see rest for both the necessity and joy it was meant to be in our lives, we can create healthy boundaries around our work that allow us to spend time with our families at the dinner table or take a day off without checking our emails. We are able to step away from work guilt-free.
- I found my identity in my busyness.
In the past, I have sacrificed my wellbeing at the altar of exhaustion because I found my sense of self-worth in what I did. It’s a dangerous trap we can all fall prey to from time to time. Our identity becomes entwined with our job titles, our salaries, our industry or ministry clout, our achievements. And our packed schedules and meeting requests and evergrowing to-do lists and itineraries become a badge of honor: I’ve made it and I have the busyness to prove it.
When we begin idolizing our work as our primary source of identity, over time we soon discover that it’s never enough. There’s never a big enough paycheck, there’s never a big enough office, there’s never a big enough following, there’s never a big enough platform… it will always leave us searching for more.
At the heart of this search for significance is really a longing for unconditional love. This search led me to the life-changing revelation that I am fully and divinely loved, and that nothing can separate me from the love of Jesus. This belief has allowed me to define my worth apart from my career and ministry achievements and with a message to spread: We are more than what we do, and regardless of what we achieve in this life, every single one of us is always worthy of adoration and respect.
- I put all the pressure on myself to achieve success.
We’ve all been sent the message that it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. In a world of politics, privilege, corruption, and greed, it’s easy to believe that the only person you can really count on is yourself. In the past, I’ve certainly subscribed to the belief that I control my fate, and I won’t let anyone or anything stop me.
The problem with this thinking is that when you only trust in yourself as your sole source of provision and support, you can never really rest from work. You always feel the pressure to be on, to get stuff done, to work longer hours than the person sitting across from you, to be in the know, to always be two steps ahead of everyone else. Instead of doing our best and trusting God and others with the rest, we become schemers, manipulators and control-freaks. This is not only a recipe for exhaustion, but a one-way ticket to isolation and resentment.
When we are able to trust in and depend on others, we immediately lighten the load we carry. We become people who give and receive support and build trust with those we work with. Yes, at times we will be disappointed by others. That’s inevitable whether we trust others or not. So despite the occasional let downs, why not let God and others in to receive the help and encouragement you need in both your work and life?
- Work was an escape for me.
Work can be an excellent distraction from having to deal with deeper personal issues! Sometimes, it’s a lot easier to work late into the night than to work on the marriage. To check emails than to be vulnerable with trusted friends about where you are at. To turn on Netflix in the background while you type away on your laptop than to pray and honestly cry out to God for the healing of the soul you need. Believe me, I know.
After a series of deep heartbreaks and betrayals in my early thirties, I threw myself into my work. My productivity and accomplishments at my job were at an all-time high. Outwardly, I looked like the poster child for the #BossBabe movement, but inwardly, my soul was a hot mess. Working harder didn’t make my personal problems magically disappear. They were still there waiting for me to have the courage to face them so that I could process my pain and move forward.
Sometimes, the bravest thing we can do is rest from work. It takes courage to tend to your soul, your personal health, your relationships, your marriage, your family. Work can never truly hide our brokenness, so let’s be courageous enough to commit to the hard work of pursuing wholeness.