Understanding the roots of individual work values can help make sense of work-life balance choices, encouraging self-reflection, acceptance and compassion – towards oneself and others. To this end, I’ve set out to use this blog to feature a series of “work-life balance profiles“, exploring the personal history behind work-life balance choices, one story at a time. Each profile begins with the subject putting a self-perceived figure on their current work:life balance ratio. Of course, quantifying something this multi-faceted isn’t a science. But it’s a good place to start for getting to the heart of their story…
Work-Life Balance Profile #6 – Darren Jacobs
Darren is Managing Director of a clothing manufacturing business that he has worked for since graduating 13 years ago. Having worked his way up the company, he now owns a proportion of it, has responsibility for managing around 200 staff internationally and up until Covid-19, travelled frequently for work. Married with two young children, Darren is the main breadwinner of his family. He works long hours during the week, yet has made a conscious decision not to work on weekends unless absolutely necessary. He would prefer that his work:life balance ratio was closer to 60:40 or 50:50, but to achieve that, he would need to make significant changes to long-standing behavioural patterns. Darren describes himself as a workaholic and considers this to be his greatest vice. Of his work-life balance, he says: “I know I haven’t got the balance right but I love my work – it is my hobby and I would do it in my spare time, if I had any”.
Taking back control
It’s impossible to ignore the impact that Darren’s experiences as a child will have had on him as an adult. During our interview, Darren generously shared his story with me in his naturally warm and engaging manner, explaining the trauma he endured as a matter of fact. Tragically, his mum died when he was aged 10 and the years that followed were full of difficulties and disappointments (putting it mildly) as he sought to adjust to seismic changes that were imposed on him.
For a person who describes himself as “obsessed” and “addicted” to work, it’s intriguing that he didn’t display similar dedication to his schoolwork. Darren says he got out of his studies as much as he put in, which wasn’t very much. He got through high school and left home at the earliest opportunity at the age of 18.
He made another seismic move at this young age – emigrating alone from South Africa to the UK. Yet the key difference this time was that he was the change-maker. No longer beholden to his family or school demands and expectations, Darren was free to set his own path. And it was at this point in his life, when he was in control, that his strong work ethic and absolute devotion to work began to dominate his work:life balance ratio.
Freedom. I won’t let you down, I will not give you up
Darren is clearly passionate about his business and there is no doubt that he is motivated to work long hours to ensure its success, far more than for the financial gain. That said, he describes having a similar work ethic during his university years working part-time on the shop floor of Blockbusters. It’s as though he is internally programmed to consistently prove himself at work, try his hardest in every task and not let his colleagues and bosses down or disappoint them. It’s hard to tell who needs who more: him or the work.
For Darren, work is freedom. Transactions are much more straightforward in work than in personal relationships and that is a safe space for someone for whom expressing emotions doesn’t come easily. He enjoys pleasing people and giving them what they want: this too is a lot less complicated at work than in “real life”. Similarly, if he works hard and gives his boss (who is also his chosen mentor) what he wants, he is more likely to receive praise, and less likely to lose his job (or be otherwise rejected). The same rules didn’t apply when he was growing up and seeking approval from the senior role models in his life.
I suppose this would all be well and good if Darren only had himself to care for. But he is a devoted and loving family man. Throughout our discussion, his family was one of only two things that came up as being worthy of tempting him away from work, so much so that he is willing to ring-fence his weekends as a work-free zone unless “absolutely necessary” (by his definition, mind you!). His joy at pleasing others is compounded when the subjects are his children, so it comes easily for him, for example, to discipline himself away from his phone when he’s with his kids so he can be focussed and present.
Care for his mental health is the other thing that motivates Darren to willingly take a step back from work. He learned the hard way that there is a limit to how far he could push himself when, in his early 30s, he suffered what he describes as a breakdown. He could no longer function and was forced to take a leave of absence from work to recover. He got the help he needed to get back on his feet, but the experience has had a lasting impact and demonstrated the potential damage of pushing himself too hard. He has since learned to recognise the “signals” when pressure and anxiety mount and he knows all too well what is at stake if he doesn’t rein himself in.
So, work has evolved to become both his captor and his emancipator, which explains Darren’s aspirations to balance out his current work:life ratio, though he says it is better now than it’s ever been. It is Darren’s concerns for the negative impact his working patterns may have on his loved ones and his mental health that motivate him to limit his working hours, not his desire to work any less.
Acting the part
Darren recognises that the abandonment he experienced as a child subconsciously plays a part in driving his behaviour. Yet working hard and choosing work over almost every other aspect of his life (a self-proclaimed introvert, he doesn’t socialise much, have hobbies or indulge in any recreational pursuits) is more than just about proving himself to be capable, reliable, and – in his own words – worthy, valued and accepted. He also derives enjoyment from it; he thrives in a working environment and is so ignited by it that he struggles to tear himself away from the endless possibilities of work he could generate or complete on any given day. His enthusiasm for his job is infectious and captivating.
However, despite his commitment and proven success in his career, Darren describes one of his drivers to be a chronic sense of imposter syndrome. It was surprising to hear Darren describe his anxiety about being “found out”, and that he doesn’t feel worthy of his title as MD, when he has so much to show for it.
In our interview, Darren referred to himself as a “creature of habit”. They say old habits die hard, and for Darren, who for the past 13 years has been the last one to leave the office at the end of the day, you can imagine how difficult it might be for him to make any changes to his working pattern. It seems as though it will take a huge dose of self-belief and courage for him to accept that he is deserving of his position in the company and to give himself permission to attain a balance that satisfies all aspects of his life.