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Death-Life Balance

Sam Brody


The phrase “work-life balance” has always seemed to me to equate work with death. “Life” is the sphere of friendship, family, spirituality, personal interests—so what can be left, outside this? From this perspective, the tendency of academics to identify with their work—especially their research, but often also their teaching—can seem like a death drive.

I am being only slightly facetious. I know that the psychological investment of my colleagues in their work reflects many worthy philosophical and emotional commitments. But there can also be something unhealthy about it. Workplaces and managers have recognized this in their promotion of “work-life balance” programs, although it often seems as though their primary concern is for the effect that burnout can have on productivity. If the concept of work-life balance has any real value, however, it has to be located in the reminder that one’s fundamental dignity and worth are not to be found in the measure of productivity at all.

At minimum, this means changing the culture of workaholism. We’ve all heard (or been) grad students comparing notes about how little sleep they get, like warriors recounting their glorious exploits. There is a different inflection to such “complaints,” of course, depending on one’s position and status in the profession. Ask any contingent faculty, now the majority of the American professoriate, how they’re enjoying their workload (especially given their pay), and the response will likely display less workaholic pride and more quiet desperation (or vocal anger). The very act of dispensing advice about work-life balance presumes that the listener is in a position to act on such advice.

For the few of us lucky enough to have secured permanent positions, the challenges are different. The tenure track can feel like a treadmill. Beyond “publish or perish,” there are always more teaching duties, committee meetings, and service to do. Yet this rarefied sphere is also where it is relatively easier to contemplate stepping off the hamster wheel.

I have found a number of tactics useful for the prevention of workaholism. First, developing a routine. Although this may seem counter-intuitive, since we often think of “together” people as workaholics who stick to strict schedules, a regular routine can actually make relaxation possible by keeping discrete tasks like reading, grading, exercise, et al. to particular times of the day. This also pushes back against the unstructured nature of academic work.

Second, taking breaks. Contrary to what some workaholics may tell you, switching from one kind of work to another is not a break (although it can be a useful part of a routine). A break means a real break, whether it’s a walk, a meal someplace other than your desk, or a game with friends. And it helps to avoid thinking of breaks, as I said earlier, as mere fuel for greater productivity later. That attitude can actually reinforce workaholism by making you feel as though your breaks need to be justified before the great tribunal of work.

Sam Brody is assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas.