Twenty years ago we used to call him or her a “workaholic.” This is someone who compulsively works long and hard hours, not being able to leave the work at work, but instead fixates over uncompleted tasks throughout the evening. Today it would be difficult to find a professional that does not fit into this category. Some might blame technology for this world pandemic of workaholism. Our work is simply a click away – waiting for us – tempting us to answer that one last email, or complete that one last task.
However, increased access to the workplace from home is only part of underlying cause. Just as important is the culture of professionalism that has developed in the last 50 years. This culture places expectations upon people who act in a professional capacity to put their best foot forward at work.1 This has led to many positive work dynamics such as proactive decision-making, and team-based approaches that focus on taking responsibility for outcomes and upholding corporate values.
Despite all of its positive attributes, professional commitment, also contains a dark side – something we call “professional commitment guilt.” We define professional commitment guilt as “negative self-identification resulting from increasingly unrealistic work demands associated with modern workplaces that impact upon work-life balance.”
This phenomenon is most clearly visible in workplaces where professionals are unionized. These professionals often have formally defined hours of work – in some cases even lighter formal workloads than the average workplaces in Canada. Many of these professionals are entitled to a 35 – 37.5 hour work week.
Despite the entitlement to a balanced work week, many unionized professionals have reported excessive work demands and expectations that have led them to forgo their entitlements in order to fulfill their obligations.2 This increased expectation is the result of the changing nature of work and access to the tools of work on a 24 hour a day basis. Twenty years ago, to fulfill the requirements of work it was necessary to attend the workplace. If there were computer programs, they could only be housed in large computers at the workplace. And there was no such thing as remote access. Now the workplace is accessible to professionals virtually 24 hours a day via email, texting, VPN and other remote access technology. Expectations related to response time have changed drastically over the last few years.
This has created a culture of immediacy and urgency in the workplace. Professionals are responding to questions at all hours of the day and night, because that is their growing expectation of themselves. Failure to respond immediately becomes interpreted as failing to respond in a timely manner – something that most regard as unprofessional.
The dangerous intermingling of professional commitment guilt with external pressures to be accessible on an ongoing basis through the 24 hour day has led to significant challenges for modern workplaces and professions.
Consequences of Poor Work-Life Balance
In our observations concerning various workplaces across the country, the concept of “professional commitment guilt” results in making personal sacrifices that often lead to diminished life satisfaction. According to a recent study3 a large majority of the respondents (77%) agree that they are under pressure to fulfill other’s expectations. This has led to the following results:
High levels of stress and anxiety
The majority (78%) of the respondents agree that they experience high levels of stress and anxiety due to poor work-life balance. Many experience frustration and guilt in compromising on the time to be spent with family.
Disharmony at home
Sixty-eight percent of the respondents agree that the consequence of poor work-life balance is disharmony at home.
The majority of the respondents fall in the age bracket of 35 to 55 years of age, with more than 10 years of work experience. Therefore, they are likely to be in the middle management cadre, having to lead teams and fulfill higher level responsibilities. At this stage of their lives, they are also likely to be engaged in the upbringing of teenage children and caring for elderly dependents. All this exerts tremendous strain. A large majority of the respondents agree that one of the consequences of poor work-life balance is job burnout. The analysis clearly indicates that excess work and the resultant imbalance leads to job burnout.
So What Can We Do to Moderate the Impact of Technology and Professional Commitment Guilt on our Lives?
Here are some “do’s” and “don’ts” for employers who are concerned about the work-life balance of their professional employees.
Don’t Limit Access to Technology
As employers this intermingling creates many complications in our desire to have happy, healthy, productive employees. Access to technology may have a positive impact upon work-life balance if used responsibly. It allows for more flexible working arrangements that may account for child and elder care responsibilities. So limiting access to the technology itself is not the answer. This can have a positive impact on work-life balance if expectations are properly managed.
Set Reasonable Work Expectations and Rewards for Performance
While we all want increased productivity from our staff, there is a point of diminishing returns, and in fact negative consequences, from having increasingly unrealistic expectations. Make sure that the work productivity expectations are clearly communicated.
Create Meaningful Rewards that Encourage Work-Life Balance
Up to this point, many employers have directly or indirectly been promoting professional commitment guilt by rewarding those who sacrifice work-life balance for productivity. Different metrics for success will have to be developed and encouraged if employers wish to help employees moderate the exigencies of professional commitment guilt. It is not enough to set expectations – these must be fortified with appropriate rewards.
Involve Professionals in the Setting of Work Expectations and Rewards
Make sure that the employees themselves have significant input into the setting of those expectations. Often employers do not fully appreciate the demands associated with the particular specialties that professionals have. So open and clear communications about the nature of the work and specific resource requirements is essential.
Understand and Look for Professional Commitment Guilt
An employer that takes work-life balance seriously will seek to understand that professional commitment guilt may lead workers to take on more than is healthy for them. Individuals often do not understand what is happening to them, as they go to extremes to please their employer. Education is key. Make sure that professionals are made aware of the symptoms of professional commitment guilt, so that they can recognize the trap they are falling into.
Professional commitment forms the foundation of most workplaces. Our greatest challenge is in distinguishing between commitment and guilt. Those employers who understand and account for the difference will have healthier, happier, more engaged and more productive professionals.
About the Authors
Blaine Donais (B.A., LL.B., LL.M., RPDR, C. Med.) is President and Founder of the Workplace Fairness Institute. Blaine is a labour lawyer and an expert in labour/management facilitations, mediation, and investigation. He teaches human resources professionals, labour leaders and others in areas such as human rights, labour and employment law, human resources, collective bargaining and conflict resolution. Blaine is author of Workplaces That Work: A Guide to Conflict Management in Union and Non-Union Work Environments (Carswell, 2006), and of Engaging Unionized Employees (Carswell, 2010) and The Art and Science of Workplace Mediation (Carswell, 2014). Blaine is an Adjunct Professor of Workplace Conflict Management, and Advanced Mediation Academic Director at York University. He also teaches at the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto and at Royal Roads University.
Dr. Joel Moody (MD, PhD, MPH) is the Director of Safety, Risk, Policy and Innovation with the Electrical Safety Authority (ESA). He leads a diverse group of scientists, engineers and analysts that provide leadership in regulatory best practice, compliance, public risk, and harm reduction related to electrical safety. Prior to joining ESA in 2011, Joel used his experience and expertise in applying clinical and epidemiological principles to investigate and design prevention activities for environmental and occupational health, and chronic disease at local, national, and international levels. Joel holds a Ph. D. from the University of Toronto, a Doctor of Medicine from George Washington University, a Master of Public Health from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and a Bachelor of Science in Engineering from Duke University.
1 van Rensburg, F. J. (2010). What is Professional Commitments? Retrieved October 7, 2015, from [website no longer available]
2 Based on various surveys conducted by the Society of Energy Professionals between 1995-2015. Unpublished.
3 Subramanian, R. (2014). Work-life Balance. HRM Review (Sept 2014). The ICFAI University Press.