Fitting Work into the Ever Stretched Container of our Lives
What is the most significant challenge facing us at work?
It’s not inflation or the Great Resignation. It is not working from home or questions about values.
The greatest challenge facing us at work is fitting work into the rest of our lives. Popularly known as work-life balance.
In November of 2021, VOCA asked respondents to report their most significant dilemmas at work. By combining respondents from our network and other faith and work partners, we received responses from people all over the world.
Here’s an interesting observation:
When given open-ended questions, 31% of respondents reported a dilemma related to the overwhelming nature of their work–that work seems out of balance with the rest of their lives, and they can’t possibly get everything done that’s expected.
Contrast that with:
When given a list of potential dilemmas, 61% chose the challenge of work-life balance and boundaries.
As we come to this topic, we first recognize different types of experiences from different kinds of workers. We list some approaches that are not working and suggest some practices and habits that can lessen the challenge of fitting work into the ever stretched container of our lives.
Work Has Changed
When I was a boy (full disclosure that was the 1970’s), my dad went to work. He left the house and was at his job. We didn’t see or hear from dad during the day. Mom would only call dad if someone was dying or was doing something deserving of death. When we did visit him at work, it was prearranged on his schedule.
When dad came home. He was at home. He never brought work home. He was a Ph.D. in material science and the head of research for a steel company but he only worked at work.
So much has changed since the ’70s. Today our families and friends can reach us during the workday. And many of us know we can choose where and WHEN to work: Our colleague Sarah takes the afternoon off to lean into her role as a parent and then dives back into work for a “third shift” when her daughter is in bed. No longer do we have a clear 8-5 workday or a clear workplace. Work seeps into many segments of our day, just as our personal commitments to other people can flow into our work.
Different Kinds of Workers
A second complexity with the work-life balance issue is that none of us approach it from the same vantage point. Here are at least four possible perspectives.
The anti-work worker. To you, work is a necessary evil. Or perhaps work is an unnecessary encroachment on other pursuits in your life that also have high value. Either way, the goal is to minimize the amount of time you commit and the sacrifice required for your paid work.
The overworked, rising worker. You are on the way up, attempting to establish your professional credibility and perhaps outrun your educational debt. You may be balancing family/work, worried about making ends meet, or fearful that any coasting or slowing down of your pace will permanently damage your career prospects.
The divided worker. You face an increase of intense demands from another sector of life–like caring for an aging parent, being a parent, volunteer/church commitments. You care about your paid work but it is not the only work you must do. Your capacity for all-out career commitments is limited.
The in-demand, high-capacity worker. You might be senior and established. If you’re older, family demands may not be as acute. Yet you’re still dogged by the sense that there is not enough of you to go around. For you, the issue is discerning the best areas to focus on, amidst many good options. Concepts like stewarding your contribution and leaving a legacy may loom large as you navigate the tensions.
In the face of these different experiences of work and the changing dynamics of work, a set of ideas and practices is not working.
What’s not working
1) The terminology, “work-life balance”. This terminology pits work against life. It reflects an overly negative view of work inherited from the Greeks–the elites didn’t work but had work done for them. Work becomes the necessary evil required to get to your real life.
Biblical Contrast: Paid work is a potential divine gift, something that brings both provision and joy. Perhaps a better terminology is “right-sizing work.” We struggle to give attention to other God-given responsibilities in our lives because work seems to take over.
Scripture: I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13)
2) The Under-Valuing & Over-Valuing Work. Corollary to the work/life balance misnomer is the notion that the purpose of work is to get to play. Leisure is seen as the ideal state. Being at ease and entertained has assumed the status of an entitlement.
Biblical Contrast: Work in biblical wisdom is punctuated by regular rest. The rest is liturgical–focused on worship–not self-indulgence. God blesses both work and rest.
Scripture: “Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest, you must rest. (Exodus 34:21)
All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty (Proverbs 14:23)
3) The Lie That We Can Have It All. We are formed to believe that if we just get the recipe for life right, we can have everything all at once–advancing career, great friendships, an amazing marriage, and wonderful kids. We can do all of these things simultaneously with the correct methods and hard work. Reality is much more complicated.
Biblical Contrast: We face limitations in our lives–moral, temperamental, and circumstantial. We don’t even need to have it all, because God will bring us a sense of direction and joy that is not dependent on our circumstances. And Jesus’ grace frees us from the need to win in every area all the time.
Scripture: The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. (Psa 90: 10,12)
4) The Comparison Trap: Theodore Roosevelt said that comparison is the thief of joy. Whether we are comparing ourselves to the peers next to us in a team meeting zoom, to old classmates or family members, the apparent success of others can land as a cruel tyranny in our hearts. When you run the numbers a very, very small percentage of us are wildly successful by measures of wealth, fame, and accomplishment. When we use achievers as our measuring stick, we come up short. When we use the not so impressive as our ruler, we feed our pride. Either way, we are driven to reach for more than is healthy.
Biblical Contrast: In the biblical lens, we each have our own calling, our uniquely styled version of what it means for us to fulfill God’s purpose for our lives. The writer of Hebrews said to run the race set before you. The idea is that you have your race and I have mine. Success is living up to what God calls us to do, with all our unique gifts and limitations.
Scripture: When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remains until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:22)
5) The Once and Done Mindset: A final unhelpful idea is a notion that you can find the secret formula for rightsizing work. The myth is you can set and forget indefinitely. When we feel work is too big, we assume there is either something wrong with us or something wrong with our job. Reality is more dynamic. It requires reassessment and recentering.
Biblical Contrast: Biblical wisdom advises us to examine and remember over and over. We examine our lives to expose blind spots. We remember how God has loved, provided, and carried us through the challenges of the past. This divine security enables us to pivot as the inevitable changes of life come our way.
Scripture: Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psa 139:23-24)
These mindsets and methods don't work for us. So what can we do? How do we invite our relationship with God and our spiritual practices into the space that feels full as it is? Below are a few ideas/practices we've found helpful in our own lives and in the lives of our clients.
Practices that help
1) Examine your heart
Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life. (Prov 4:32)
Invest time in counsel and reflection regarding your motives. Why do you want to work more? Why do you want to get more done? Is it stewardship of the self securitization project (i.e. Babel)? Is it pride or a sense of service?
2) Embracing your season
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 6, 7).
What needs do you find in the other sectors of your life? What demands will be coming and which will be waning? Are there personal limitations that you have to face? Every work calling from God always has a “for now” on the end of it. Each one is temporary. Identifying the constraints of your “now” can free you to redefine success in a way that brings you life.
3) Clarify your mission
With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith. (2 Thessalonians 1:11)
Great clarity comes from knowing the people we are called to impact, the gifts we have to employ in that process, and the ultimate aim or outcome of that impact.
I have a friend whose goal is to use her gifts of listening, encouraging, and counsel to help others reach their full potential, especially those who will spread God’s Kingdom. She clarified her gifts, understood the ways her gifts and passions align for work in the real world, and created a clear mission to help her move forward.
4) Block time for reflection
For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” But you were unwilling (Isaiah 30:15)
Regular time for prayer, self-examination, and scripture study will anchor you in the grander narrative of God’s plan for the world and expectations for your life.
5) Talking to your boss
With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone. (Proverbs 25:15).
Start by understanding the strategic priorities your boss has for your team. Develop a healthy communication dynamic where you can ask your boss for clarification regarding what’s most essential and what you can postpone.
6) Rigorously improving your productivity
Whoever is slothful will not roast his game, but the diligent man will get precious wealth (Proverbs 12:27).
The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty (Proverbs. 21:5).
Biblical wisdom counsels the practice of diligence. The Hebrew word for diligence, charatz, means to sharpen, decide, and determine. To be diligent is to act with decision. It connotes the intentional and ongoing elimination of the extraneous to dedicate oneself to what matters.
Diligence sits in contrast to the work-interrupted approach of many of us. We complain about work encroaching on our family time. But we accept as normal the notion that we can spend time “at work” texting with friends and family or shopping online.
7) Strategically say yes
Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might (Ecclesiastes 9:10)
When you are presented with options that align with your mission and season in life, go all in. Look at the season you are in, talk to your boss, and think about the team you are serving to help you prioritize when you can say yes.
8) Trust God enough to say no
Don’t wear yourself out trying to get rich. Be wise enough to know when to quit. (Proverbs 23:4)
It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for [the Lord] gives to his beloved sleep. (Psalm 127:2)
Technology makes it possible for us to work anytime, from anywhere. It can be tempting to feed an always-on, always working image. Many workplace cultures reward this kind of intensity. This dynamic leads to our final thread of wisdom: strategically saying no. After one has level-set expectations regarding the importance and demands of work, rigorously assessing priorities, and creating a system to do so on an ongoing basis, one will have the clarity to say “no.”
Biblical wisdom says we say “no” out of deeply practical faith that God will provide for us as we honor him. The cultural mantra is to say no because you owe it to yourself.
Practice: Say no to extraneous demands and useless meetings. Remember, talk to your boss about prioritizing the things that really need to get done and those that can be postponed or delegated. Most bosses are delighted to know an employee cares about getting the work done in a way that benefits the team and the long-term goals of the company. When saying “no” puts you at an apparent disadvantage, offer that to God and trust him with the outcome.
In summary, we suggest that a lack of “right-sizing work” is caused by both undervaluing work and overestimating our capacity to be superhuman. It is often exasperated by ineffectively focused work and an inadequately centered worker. There is no easy fix for this. But with thoughtful adjustment and constant reflection, we can right-size work and live with a sense of deeper peace for now.
Special thanks to the following friends who reviewed and helped refine the focus of this article before publication: Cheryl Bachelder, Greg Brenneman, Bob Doll, DG Elmore, Catherine Flax, Raymond Harris, David Ridley, Scott Stephenson, and Missy Wallace.