James McGovern’s post on Work Life Balance got me thinking.  What is the value proposition for companies to spend time on this issue.  Many do, including my own employer.  I asked a person I respect, a couple of months ago, what the real ROI behind work-life balance was, and he said ‘preventing or slowing down the process of burnout.’ 

I’ve seen lots of techies burn out over the years.  I’ve burned out of a few jobs myself.  Question to consider: did I burn out because I failed to keep to some elusive notion of work-life balance?

in a word: no.

Each time I burned out, it was because I expected something different from the job than I actually got from the job.  It was not because I was spending too much time, or because I was addicted to working day and night.  I’ve had jobs where I spent 24 hours a day (literally) and did not burn out, and jobs where I spent eight hours a day and started to burn out on the first day.

I’m tough to please: I expect the chance to be creative.  I expect teamwork.  I expect folks around me to listen to my opinions, even if they don’t act on them.  These are steep expectations.  If I’m in an environment where these expectations are not met, I burn out.  It’s as simple as that.

Burnout has many symptoms.  One is stress.  Another is passive-agressive behavior or self-defeating behavior.  Another is loss of motivation.  I’ve seen them all.  In situations where I burned out, I’ve done them all.  Not this time, but in the past.  It’s hard when it comes on.  You feel pretty helpless.

Harder still, what do do when a friend burns out… 

I work in a department that is rapidly changing. The work that we all thought we were going to do, a year or more ago, when most of us joined the team, has changed radically. 

Some folks expected the department not to change.  Others expected it to change in some way, but it changed in another way.  These folks are showing signs of stress, or of checking out.  Those who have stayed upbeat, and rolled with the punches, are showing signs of wear but are still standing tall.  That said, we’ve lost a few seriously good architects this year.  That is hard.

In conclusion, I don’t buy the notion of ‘work-life balance’ if it is supposed to prevent burnout.  Burnout is caused not by the imbalance between work and life… but by the imbalance between expectations and reality.

By Nick Malik

Former CIO and present Strategic Architect, Nick Malik is a Seattle based business and technology advisor with over 30 years of professional experience in management, systems, and technology. He is the co-author of the influential paper "Perspectives on Enterprise Architecture" with Dr. Brian Cameron that effectively defined modern Enterprise Architecture practices, and he is frequent speaker at public gatherings on Enterprise Architecture and related topics. He coauthored a book on Visual Storytelling with Martin Sykes and Mark West titled "Stories That Move Mountains".

5 thoughts on “On Work Life Balance, burnout, and EA”
  1. I’m not sure I agree.  I’ve only been an engineer for ~15 years, but in my experience, burn-out is not what you describe.  Burn-out is the more literal situation where you worked too hard for too long and you can’t stand to work any longer due to physical and/or intellectual exaustion.  In my experience, this comes after 3-6 months of heavy overtime (e.g., 60-hour weeks).

    What you describe, I think, is something different – more related to general job satisfaction.  I agree, however, that this is due to a difference between expectations and reality.

  2. Work/life balance is a good trait for recruiting top talent that happens to also have a family. Your working 24 hours a day simply isn’t sustainable indefinetely…

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