The United States is known for its fast-paced, hard hitting business culture. Many careers demand 60 hour weeks or more if we’re going to succeed and provide for our families. Inherent in this climate is the temptation to worship at the altar of work.
Laity Leadership Institute Senior Fellow Allan Josephson, M.D. knows something about this, not only from treating psychiatric patients, but also from his own experience of juggling a challenging career with family commitments.
Worshiping at the Altar of Work
As a psychiatric resident, Josephson spent a week living with patients at the Hazelden Chemical Dependency Center in Minnesota. Twelve-step meetings at the center began with introductory statements like “I am an alcoholic” and “I am a drug dependent” and he didn’t battle these addictions, so he introduced himself by saying, “I am Allan Josephson, I am a workaholic.”
He recounted this story in a lecture he gave upon receiving the Oates Award from the Wayne Oates Institute. Oates, an accomplished therapist and theologian, coined the term workaholic.
“He recognized that how we approach work can have an addictive quality to it and have the same effect in our interpersonal relationships and our health,” said Josephson. “Doing things of substance requires so much of us. There are trade offs and as long as you keep your values in front of you, that’s all you can do sometimes.”
As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, Josephson has seen a lot of families broken by disordered priorities. He offers the following suggestions for finding a healthy balance.
Invest Quality and Quantity Time
We’re all familiar with the over-committed parent’s rationalization: “I spent quality time with my children, but not quantity time.” Josephson says though that a minimum of time must be invested in family relationships, especially when children are young. Do your best to be there when you’re there, he advises. Control distractions to protect family time so that even if the amount of time isn’t optimal, it can be profitable.
“In my own career and life, I’ve had challenges with that,” he confessed. “I’d be at the dinner table and my kids had this joke that I was the absent-minded professor. They’d ask me to pass the salt and I would be thinking of something that just happened or something that I needed to do. My son would joke, ‘Earth to dad. Earth to dad. You’re in outer space. Please come back.’”
Pursue Sustainable Pacing
Pacing one’s career and passing up immediate opportunities to nurture the family may be necessary for both parents and children, Josephson says. “In our generation, there is a multitude of opportunities, but there is also a law of diminishing returns: you are more involved, but enjoy things less and less. Families that work well figure out which things are of value to parents and to children, which things each member has an aptitude for, and then they encourage that. Limiting choices is good.”
Pay Attention to Development
Paying attention to development can also help assure that everyone’s needs are met. In terms of physical presence, Josephson says ages four through twelve are especially important.
“Under the age of four, nurturance and attachment to parents is important, but children are usually not aware cognitively that mom and dad aren’t there. Yet in their subsequent years, their view of the world primarily revolves around parents and there’s a certain hunger for parents who are absent. As kids move into adolescence, they don’t need parents’ physical presence as much, but they want them there enough to foster emotional connectedness. So when they call, and it’s usually around a specific need, it’s important to be there,” he said.
When Josephson’s daughter was six years old, he would drive her to school every day and go in with her to pay for her lunch. One day, she said, “Daddy, daddy, let me give the money to my teacher.” He thought, “I’m a child psychiatrist. Why don’t I listen to my daughter?” He gave her the money, told her to hold it tight so she didn’t lose it, opened the car door, and watched until she got to the door before driving off. When he came home at the end of the work day, she was excited. “Daddy, daddy, I didn’t lose it. I didn’t lose it!”she exclaimed. In the busyness of his day, Josephson had forgotten his earlier words of caution to her. “The money you gave me, I told you I wouldn’t lose it,” she said.
“It was quite powerful when I realized this finely tuned family balance. She was ecstatic at her ‘big girl’ achievement and had reached an important milestone in her development, and I saved myself five minutes,” he said. “Fast forward to adolescence. You’re sitting in your recliner relaxing, but you’re short on milk. Your son just got his driver’s license and says, ‘I’ll drive to the grocery store to get it’ because he’s just dying to get behind the wheel. If you pay attention, the needs of your children, as they move away from you, can be balanced with your needs at work. But you have to be thinking about it. That’s where this classic notion of healthy families give kids roots and wings comes in. They need something to come home to, but they also need to try new things.”
Healthy young adults who’ve emancipated will invariably say things like, “You were always there for me,” and not only in regard to problems. They’ll remember that parents attended their concerts and sporting events, Josephson says. Not only that, but encouraging interests that differ from your own enriches the whole family and communicates love and acceptance.
With children and young adolescents in particular, he says it’s tough but important to be there when they say they want or need you to be there. If you’re not, they may stop asking, and for boys especially, absentee fathers can lead to greater impulsivity and behavior problems.
Take Advantage of Social Networks
When careers take families far from home, parents need help raising children. This is where church and community have a role to play, Josephson says, but nature also helps because as children grow, their social network broadens. “Healthy families and parents actually enjoy that,” he said. “It’s painful when your child is not invited to the birthday party or when your teen is home alone on Friday and Saturday night. You want them to have friends and don’t feel a sense of loss that they’re not as interested in family anymore. You want to give them wings.”
Create a Safe Refuge
A mid-western governor was relaxing at home one Friday evening after a particularly demanding week by watching hockey in the family den in his underwear. His wife said, “When l look into that room and look at this guy chomping on popcorn and drinking beer in his underwear, it’s hard for me to comprehend that he’s the governor.”
Josephson tells this story to point out that home needs to be a safe place for people to unwind and have role expectations lifted. “When I look at many of these folks who have challenging jobs, it’s devastating when they come home to a hellish environment or relationship, ”he said. “But if you come home to a family that can nurture you, that’s an important part of dealing with the workplace.”
Keep an Eternal Perspective
Finally, having a big picture spiritual view of life is incredibly important, he says. “One of the things I’ve found useful in my career is to recognize that relationships outlive jobs. By that I mean, if I’m relating to someone in a business relationship, their value to me supersedes their work product because when we lose or change these roles, we still have a relationship. That perspective on persons, that perspective on life helps put work in its right place,” he said. “Beyond work, if we see that all those to whom we relate will live forever, it places our workplace relationships into even clearer focus.”
“Spiritual models indicate that we are not alone in the universe, but in a relationship with the Divine. Spiritual communities implement this relational theology in a practical manner,” Josephson said when receiving the Oates award. As we commit to nurturing our primary relationships, we’re not only creating healthy families, but implementing a Divine relational theology.
Add Your Suggestions
We’ve talked about investing time, sustainable pacing, paying attention to development, taking advantage of social networks, creating safe refuges at home, and keeping an eternal perspective. What suggestions do you have for balancing career demands and desires with family responsibilities?
Read other parts in our series on Integrating Faith and Psychiatry:
Allan Josephson, M.D. is Vice Chairman for Adolescent Psychiatric Services at the University of Louisville School of Medicine and author of three books, including the Handbook of Spirituality and Worldview in Clinical Practice, a text he edited and contributed to that is used in psychiatric residency programs to help psychiatrists understand the diagnostic and therapeutic implications of their own and their patients' worldviews. Image by Jason L. Parks. Used with permission.