GETTING REAL ABOUT WORK-LIFE BALANCE
The concept and the terminology dates back over 100 years but the dialogue around work-life balance has changed significantly since women became a major presence in the work place and technology and globalization blurred the lines between hours for work and hours for personal life. I’m certain that you’ve read every article out there and even tried the list of 5 things to do to regain control over your time. You may even work someplace that has a great culture or programs that urge you to leave the office and have a life. Allow me to burst the bubble and get real about this whole thing. (Disclaimer: I am only talking about white collar professions here.)
Lately it seems that every new client asks if, in addition to our focus on effective leadership, we could spend some time on work-life balance. (Just the term makes me cringe!) They want to see their families, exercise, sleep, eat a home cooked meal, have the energy to see friends. And I’m glad my clients want those things. But here is how the conversation usually goes:
Client: I feel so run down. I can’t keep up this pace at work. By the time I get home I am so spent that I have nothing left for my spouse and my kids are already asleep. I’m answering emails until11 every night and spend big chunks of time on the weekends working. I can’t go on like this. Me: Wow. That sounds awful. Tell me two things. What is the thing outside of work that is the highest priority? What can you let go of at work? Client: Time with my family is the most important thing in my life. But there really isn’t much at work that I can let go off. (Then comes a litany of major projects and deadlines and expectations and travel and, and and…) I’ve tried to talk with my boss before about this and I tried to pull back a bit but that didn’t really work. Me: So if I get what you’re saying, even though your family is super important you choose to be consumed by work. Client: No, you don’t get it. I don’t have a choice about my work responsibilities and hours. It’s not entirely within my control. Me: Oh, so you feel like you do have control over neglecting those that matter most to you? So you exercise control (in the negative) with your family but you are helpless at work?
This is usually when my client gets defensive and pissed off. When the venting is over I just calmly say, “So you don’t like the feeling of no control at work so you take control of choices that leave you and your family feeling like crap. There is nothing in this dynamic that sounds remotely sane, healthy or productive.” And then a more real conversation can begin.
I am not going to minimize the real pressures we all face at work but I am not buying that we are helpless lambs forcibly cut off from our loved ones. I’m also not denying that companies are completely outrageous when it comes to expectations of their work forces. What I am saying is that there is a whole lot of bullshit going on when it comes to having a rational conversation about striking this imaginary work-life balance.
Actions absolutely speak louder than words. There is not a spouse or child who actually believes “I don’t have a choice about staying late at the office. I’d much rather be home with you.” If you really do want to be at home that is where you would be. Not always but a whole lot more. I know that you feel conflicted inside but you need to understand that the actions you choose tell the greater truth. You want to be engaged with work. It is satisfying and rewarding in different ways than your family is. And it mostly feels good…except for the volume and exhaustion. If it really felt terrible, trust me, you would make a different choice. We are not wired to be habitually masochistic. We can take it for short periods of time but not as a steady diet. So although you miss your family and friends…including the rewards you derive from being with them…the good stuff you get from work trumps all that. And that’s the real truth.
In the real world it is a rare boss who can’t be flexible about you working less than 14 hour days or wants you to miss every single baseball game your child plays. Most managers have the same desires and will be more generous with you than they may be with themselves. They know it is smart business to support your needs to have a life. They want you to recharge so you can be more productive. So whatever you imagine/perceive/believe is the expectation for your endless devotion to work…it just ain’t so. (I know there are asshole bosses out there who are absolute demons. But they are the exception, not the rule.) Most managers will say, “As long as you get your work done well I have no issue with you leaving at 4 on Thursdays to coach your daughter’s soccer team.”
So here is a cold splash of reality:
- If you are upset about the huge amount of time you spend at work at the expense of all other aspects of your life, look no further than in your own mirror for the answers. Your company isn’t going to institute some fancy program to relieve work load pressures or ring the school bell at 5 to remind everyone to leave. So if you are really unhappy you need to do something different; you need to make new choices and take new actions.
- If your distress about not seeing your family and friends is born more out of guilt or wanting to stop the arguments rather than a heartfelt desire for things to be different, then you need to be honest with yourself and others. Fess up to the fact that work is rewarding. Sometimes that means it is more rewarding than other parts of your life and sometimes it means the two are separate but equal.
- Grow a set and have a good conversation with your boss. You will probably get a green light so it will be incumbent upon you to be vigilant about sticking to the new plan. There will be a zillion opportunities to slide back into the old habits. It is up to you to be sure that doesn’t happen. If it does, don’t blame others.
Our work is very compelling. Along with decisions about marriage and children it is something in which we invest a great deal. We spend 4-10 years accumulating college degrees and then 40 years honing our skills. It forms a core piece of our identity and it offers huge financial, self esteem and achievement benefits. It makes perfect sense that we all devote a crazy number of hours engaged in our work. We don’t have to pretend or deceive others that “my manager is making me do it”. We WANT to be working.
But work is not our whole identity. The people and activities outside of work also provide great benefits: love, joy, health, connection, support, adventure, excitement. Also compelling wouldn’t you say? The challenge is to manage the pull and drive we feel for all aspects of our lives. It’s not easy and our priorities change all the time. But I think a good first step is to be honest with yourself and those around you about what you want.
Once you’ve sorted out what is truly driving your choices then you can read those other articles about How to Achieve Work-Life Balance in 15 Minutes Every Day.