Do you ever feel disillusioned when you read advice on burnout prevention, stress management and work-life balance? Because I certainly do.

Any manager worth their salt struggles in these areas, and few are able to apply the well-meant recommendations to their own circumstances. Being a manager is a lifestyle choice, to an extent, and we tend to like what we do. Many of us don’t have fixed working hours, which makes it difficult to distinguish between work and leisure. And our pay is often based on results rather than time spent.

For these reasons, simplistic work-life discussions – the kind that start from the premise that there is too much work and too little life – are rarely helpful for us. Instead, I think we’d do better to view it in terms of what invigorates us and what drains us out. Pursuing a work-life balance from this angle, rather than merely looking at time allocation, has certainly been meaningful for me.

Defining what matters

I’d like to think I know what matters in life, and yet I can still be guilty of getting my priorities wrong. At times I have even put the demands of my job above the wishes of my family. I consider myself a high achiever, a completer-finisher, and a goal-oriented kind of person – so hard work is something I enjoy, and my natural inclination towards it is not always easy to control.

My all-or-nothing personality, however, means I unwittingly set the bar at a level that’s often well beyond most people’s idea of fun. This can cause tensions in my personal life, but it serves me well at work. Managing a company with clearly defined roles, rights, rewards and responsibilities is easier for me than negotiating the ever-shifting goals and entangled relationships of the private realm.

At times I have also struggled to recognise the elements in my life that zap my energy without yielding a satisfying return. Am I stressed because of my work or my private situation? Discovering the causes and dealing with them requires courage because they are often things I cannot simply remove from my life.

The house I call home. The tasks that provide me with my income. The voluntary commitments that allow me to give back to the community and my industry. The intellectual pursuits that keep my mind young and sharp. The fitness that supplies endorphins. The family and relationships that make me a better person. Each of these can cause stress, but since getting rid of them is not viable, learning to manage them is the only option.

If you were to ask me for a single piece of advice on how to become professionally satisfied, I would say be good at what you do. It’s easy to enjoy doing what you do well. If you are employed as a manager, be a manager through and through. Think like one, speak like one, act like one – whether someone is watching you or not.

And my advice for being satisfied in your personal life? Don’t let your job be the only thing that defines you. Single-minded workaholics rarely make inspiring leaders at work, and they’re seldom the most riveting company outside of it.

Impostor alert!

I understood something profound about my work-life balance when I stumbled upon the definition of impostor syndrome. The revelation that I was suffering from something similar came through talking with friends, and it was only later that I discovered the syndrome was a genuine phenomenon recognised by clinical psychologists.

Impostor syndrome refers to high-achieving people who are unable to accept and internalise their successes, and subsequently live in fear of being exposed as frauds. Dismissing any external evidence of their competence and accomplishments, they brush it off as luck, personal charm or even an ability to deceive others into believing that they are more competent than they are.

Feeling guilty, these gifted people proceed to work doubly hard to prevent others from finding out what ‘impostors’ they are, leading to a never-ending cycle where each new success, promotion or recognition causes the person to feel more like a fake. Getting better at the job doesn’t help, because the more you enhance your knowledge, the more you discover what you don’t know. The more you move up the ranks, the more you meet talented people to compare yourself negatively against.

It hardly comes as a surprise that impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women. Some sociologists suggest it’s a key reason why female academics switch into less ambitious jobs at some point in their career. We look at our senior colleagues, deem that they must be ‘superwomen’ and conclude that we could never emulate them. We don’t realise that they might feel inadequate as well. I have been labelled a superwoman in the past by friends, colleagues and even by my children, so I should know.

The only solution, many experts say, is for the ‘impostors’ to talk about their insecurities more. That would lead to us not being alone with our feelings of guilt, which in turn would enable us to relax and start to set limits for how much we push ourselves at work. As managers, we should also provide our teams with regular, factual feedback on their performance to alleviate any potential impostor feelings they may have. We should create an objective body of evidence for them by documenting and celebrating their accomplishments and success stories.

Play to win – or not

When I do manage to be at peace with my professional achievements and stop feeling guilty about the level of my contribution, it frees energy for other areas of my life. In the past couple of years I have experimented with many new pastimes outside of work. And I am learning to enjoy activities I may never become very good at.

Being a novice at anything feels horrible. But since I don’t get paid for my leisure activities – I pay for the privilege of doing them – there is less pressure to perform to a high standard. Consequently, I’m a reluctant runner bereft of a regime, an infrequent bodypumper stuck lifting only moderate weights, a trainee golfer who never ventures out of the driving range, and a West Coast Swing dancer who can’t freestyle.

But, hey – not guilty!

Director’s Cut, Leadership, Management