Why is everybody so concerned about work-life balance?
According to one urban legend, based on 1950s pop psychology*, workaholics are greedy and selfish people who are bound to die from a heart attack.
Not really. As the great David Ogilvy once said: "Men die of boredom, psychological conflict, and disease. They do not die of hard work." This is especially true if your work is meaningful.
Most of the studies on the harmful effects of excessive work rely on subjective evaluations of work "overload." They fail to disentangle respondents' beliefs and emotions about work. If something bores you, it will surely seem tedious. When you hate your job, you will register any amount of work as excessive — it's like forcing someone to eat a big plate of food they dislike, then asking if they had enough of it. Overworking is really only possible if you are not having fun at work. By the same token, any amount of work will be dull if you are not engaged, or if you find your work unfulfilling.
Hard work may be your most important career weapon. Indeed, once you are smart-enough or qualified to do a job, only hard work will distinguish you from everyone else. Workaholics tend to have higher social status in every society, including laidback cultures like those found in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, or South America. Every significant achievement in civilization (from art to science to sport) is the result of people who worked a lot harder than everyone else, and also happened to be utterly unconcerned about maintaining work-life balance. Exceptional achievers live longer, and they pretty much work until their death. Unsurprisingly, the 10 most workaholic nations in the world account for most of the world's GDP.
Engagement is the difference between the bright and the dark side of workaholism. Put simply, a little bit of meaningless work is a lot worse for you than a great deal of meaningful work. Work is just like a relationship: Spending one week on a job you hate is as dreadful as spending a week with a person you don't like. But when you find the right job, or the right person, no amount of time is enough. Do what you love and you will love what you do, which will also make you love working harder and longer. And if you don't love what you are doing right now, you should try something else — it is never too late for a career change.
Technology has not ruined your work-life balance, it has simply exposed how boring your work and your life used to be. Did you ever try to figure out why it is so hard to stop checking your smartphone, even when you are having dinner with a friend you haven't seen in ages, celebrating your anniversary, watching a movie, or out on a first date? It's really quite simple: None of those things are as interesting as the constant hum of your e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter account. Reality is over-rated, especially compared to cyberspace. Technology has not only eliminated the boundaries between work and life, but also improved both areas.
People who have jobs, rather than careers, worry about work-life balance because they are unable to have fun at work. If you are lucky enough to have a career — as opposed to a job — then you should embrace the work-life imbalance. A career provides a higher sense of purpose; a job provides an income. A job pays for what you do; a career pays for what you love. If you are always counting the number of hours you work (e.g., in a day, week, or month) you probably have a job rather than a career. Conversely, the more elusive the boundaries between your work and life, the more successful you probably are in both. A true career isn't a 9-5 endeavor. If you are having fun working, you will almost certainly keep working. Your career success depends on eliminating the division between work and play. Who cares about work-life balance when you can have work-life fusion?
Complaining about your poor work-life balance is a self-indulgent act. The belief that our ultimate aim in life is to feel good makes no evolutionary sense. It stems from a distorted interpretation of positive psychology, which, in fact, foments self-improvement and growth rather than narcissistic self-indulgence. This misinterpretation explains why so many people in the industrialized Western world seek attention by complaining about their poor work-life balance. It may also explain the recent rise of the East vis-à-vis the West — you will not see many people in Japan, China, or Singapore complain about their poor work-life, even though they often work a lot harder. Unemployment and stagnation are in part the result of prioritizing leisure and pleasure over work.
In short, the problem is not your inability to switch off, but to switch on. This is rooted in the fact that too few people work in careers they enjoy. The only way to be truly successful is to follow your passions, find your mission, and learn how to embrace the work-life imbalance.
*Friedman, M.; Rosenman, R. (1959). "Association of specific overt behaviour pattern with blood and cardiovascular findings." Journal of the American Medical Association (169): 1286-1296]