Too Much Work? Don’t Work Yourself to Death

too much workWhat does too much work look like? While I generally work about 40 hours a week (I’m an introvert: I need time to recharge!), I have clients who do quite a bit more and maintain a healthy lifestyle. I’ve also coached leaders who work 50, 60 or 70 hours a week and whose lives are out of control. How do you help your coaching clients find the balance of work and rest that works for them?

The Life or Death Test

Here’s one simple yardstick: I’m working too hard when I’m working myself to death. While some people actually do work themselves into a heart attack, I’m talking about death in the sense of joyless doing. Work is labor, to be sure; but if it is sucking the life out of you, something is wrong. Here are some questions for the client who is wondering if s/he is overdoing it:

  • Does this pace bring you life? Is it serving you well, or are you serving it?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, what would you say your stress level is right now?
  • What emotions do you have on Sunday night or Monday morning when you start thinking about going back to work? Does that feel like life, or death?
  • What do you really want in life right now that work keeps you from doing?
  • If you went three more years at the pace you are living now, what would that mean?
  • In ministry, you tend to replicate yourself. So imagine for a minute that instead of doing what you say, people are copying your lifestyle—that through your influence, every person you lead is taking on your stress level, your workload, your diet and exercise patterns, your sleep habits, etc. How would you feel about that?

The Obsession Test

You may be saying. ‘I love my work! I’m not joyless!’ But you could still be doing too much work and working yourself to death. Another vital sign that you are doing too much work is when you form an addiction to work. The best way to diagnose that is to see if you can stop:

  • When was the last time you took a week-long vacation?
  • What is the longest stretch of time in the last year when you didn’t take any work calls or didn’t respond to any work-related texts or e-mails?
  • When you are on vacation, do you really relax, or are you just seeing how many recreational activities you can accomplish?
  • When circumstances force you to sit still, do you enjoy the break or fume about how it is taking you away from your work?

Surviving or Thriving

I don’t know many leaders who chronically overwork to survive (i.e. their kids will go hungry unless they work 70 hours a week). So why do we do too much work? Taking the coaching conversation deeper, to explore what drives us, can produce breakthrough moments for a client. Here are three motivations for overwork that come up repeatedly as I coach Christian leaders:

1. We Are Driven to Please Someone
Often we overwork because we are still trying to live up to our father’s expectations, or because we’re afraid we’ll look like a slacker, or because we want to prove we can make it. When a person is choosing to do something that brings death to them, often there is a powerful driver underneath the surface. Naming it can be a liberating exercise.

2. We Find Our Identity In Our Work
Because our culture puts so much emphasis on career, it is easy for us to define ourselves by what we do. I was at a men’s retreat last year where one of the rules was that you couldn’t ask about a person’s job. It was very revealing to see how hard it was to be able to introduce yourself without saying, “I’m a coach,” or “I’m a teacher.”

3. We Lack a Theology of Rest
Most Christian leaders carry a deep sense of urgency and purpose about work. There are souls to save and people to serve, and time is of the essence. But that urgency makes us feel guilty when we try to take a day off, go on vacation or just cut back a little. Rest is uncomfortable because we can’t articulate a Biblical reason for not pushing ourselves.

God’s Work Habits

But the Bible does lay out a theology of rest. Interestingly, it is rooted in imitating God’s own work habits. We get a picture of God’s work-week during creation. For six days, he built and shaped and created the difference parts of our world. At week’s end he stood back, reflected on what he’d done, enjoyed a sense of genuine accomplishment (“He saw that it was very good”), and then took a whole day off and rested. That “complete rest” in Hebrew is our word “Sabbath”. So to work without rest or respite is literally un-God-like.

Sabbath is the discipline God gave us to keep ambition and overwork in check. calling_journeyThe act of setting aside a day a week to do absolutely nothing productive resets our internal compass away from putting our identity in work. In order to sit still and not go stir-crazy, you have to actually have a life to enjoy while you aren’t working. And that act of rest surfaces the drivenness and sense of obligation that keep us from ever really being satisfied with what we do accomplish. God’s own example of work was satisfying work: he could sit back and really enjoy it instead of being driven to do more and more. Sabbath is a great antidote to the causes of overwork.

Sabbath as Coaching Tool

What does this mean for you as a coach? It’s not your job to tell people they are doing too much work, or that they ought to take a Sabbath. But if a client is wrestling with doing too much work, the discipline of Sabbath-keeping is a great, practical tool for creating change.

One possible initial action is a quick Bible study: what is God’s work pattern? What is the Sabbath for? (Exodus 31:11 is instructive.) Or discuss what a true day of rest would look like for your client. What recharges your batteries? What would make a restful, refreshing day for you? (Hint: God doesn’t require sitting around and being dour and spiritual on the Sabbath: that was the Pharisees.) Another possible action is to take a Sabbath and track how it affects you. Do I only feel good about myself when I am productive? What activities make me most ready to engage the next week with energy and passion? Was I more or less productive this week by taking a Sabbath?

Tony is the author of 11 books, has trained thousands of coaches and has several websites including where you can purchase coaching materials and where you can learn how to look at your life story from God’s perspective.