Photograph by Robert Daly — Getty Images/OJO Images RF
By Rick Wartzman
February 18, 2015

When I read the news last week that Japan’s ministry of health, labor and welfare was about to order its own employees to call it quits by 10 p.m. as a way to counter workaholic behavior, I glanced up from my laptop and mentioned it to my wife. A bemused smile crossed her face.

“You realize you’re telling me this after 11 p.m.—because you’re still on your computer, working?” she said.

Being a workaholic is clearly not good for you. Researchers have associated the condition with sleep problems, weight gain, and high blood pressure. A study published last month found that those who worked at least 49 hours a week were up to 13% more likely to engage in “risky alcohol use.”

“Some workaholics . . . find themselves alone, unable to feel, and cut off from everyone they care about,” psychotherapist Bryan Robinson writes in Chained to the Desk. “Marriages crumble, and health problems hit crisis proportions.” In Japan, scores of cases of Karoshi, or death from overwork, are reported each year.

But how can we square this bleak picture with one that management experts are touting these days: “work-life integration”?

This is the term that many, myself included, have come to favor over “work-life balance” because “balance” implies that what you do professionally and what you do personally are somehow at odds, a zero-sum game. Work-life integration, by contrast, suggests that at their very best, what you do at work and what you do outside of it with family, friends, and community are driven by the same fundamental values and passions. Ideally, you can bring your talents and strengths and personality to both arenas, making one’s work life and home life parts of a seamless whole.

What’s tricky is determining the point at which this romantic notion of work-life integration tips into the all-consuming reality of overwork.

“There is often a very fine line” between the two, admits Christine Lai, chief of staff at Delivering Happiness, an organization that grew out of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s book of the same name and that is dedicated to helping companies create cultures with more purpose and passion.

The term passion comes up over and over again when exploring what makes people inclined to work a lot. Deloitte’s Center for the Edge has characterized the “dream employee” as someone who is filled with this attribute. And by Deloitte’s reckoning, those who fit this profile are 18% more likely than their non-passionate peers to offer “around-the-clock availability” to their employers.

On the surface, that looks like a recipe for work swallowing life, not merely meshing with it.

In calling work-life integration “the new norm,” Gen Y management consultant Dan Schawbel noted last year that nearly two-thirds of executives check their email every hour or two during their off time. “Of course, employees who are really passionate about their work become addicted and are actually excited about new emails coming in,” he remarked.

Addicted? That doesn’t sound good under any circumstances.

Despite the red flags, many of us swear that we can work far more than 40 hours a week, all while maintaining a rich family life, cultivating deep friendships, and taking care of our bodies, minds, and souls.

Lai, who says she typically works 80 to 100 hours a week, believes the key question to ask is, “What are the things that energize you, and what are the things that detract from your energy?” The work she does, Lai adds, “spurs me on. It keeps me fueled.”

Tracy Brower, director of Human Dynamics + Work at Herman Miller and author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work, applies a similar test when distinguishing between work-life integration and workaholism. “Are you working hard because you love it, because you’re drawn to something?” she asks. “Or are you running away from something,” such as a troubled relationship at home?

Brower, who collects stories of people who appear to have mastered work-life integration, says it’s also crucial to remember that we’re all different. Some have a strong desire to tuck their work and home lives into “totally separate containers.” Others want more porous boundaries. Some may spend a bunch of time on one set of priorities but then need to recalibrate, depending on what’s happening with children or aging parents.

“What’s important,” asserts Brower, who says that she works about 70 hours a week on average, “is that we each get to make our own choice,” with managers who are respectful and supportive of what we decide.

Stew Friedman, director of the Work/Life Integration Project at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, agrees with Brower. But the first step in making the right choice, he stresses, is being honest with yourself—and that’s not always so easy to do in environments that celebrate money and status above all else.

“Internal calm and harmony has to be the result of a true understanding of what your values and interests are,” Friedman says. “If you’re deluding yourself—as many, many people do—then the end result is going to be some kind of breakdown in your ability to integrate work and the rest of life.”

Once you figure out what matters to you most, you can then begin to take small steps to arrange your life accordingly. Even if this leads you to work fewer hours, Friedman’s research shows, you’ll actually have more success on the job. “It might seem counterintuitive that you will perform better at work if you spend more time with your kids, leave work early to volunteer at a local nonprofit, or take an hour out of your workday to go to the gym,” Friedman has explained. “But that’s just what happens.”

Meanwhile, some derive genuine pleasure and fulfillment from their work, and these people should focus on that. More than a decade ago, Friedman dubbed this type of person “the happy workaholic”—which may sound like an oxymoron, but for some of us is an accurate description of our very best selves.

Rick Wartzman is the executive director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University. The author or editor of five books, he is currently writing a narrative history of how the social contract between employer and employee in America has changed since the end of World War II.

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