What is work-life balance? The short answer is that it depends on who’s defining the terms.
For an entrepreneur, work-life balance might mean enough time to work on all their ideas and still grab food now and then. For an office worker whose passion is mountain biking, it could be enough time to get in a ride at lunchtime. For a working parent, it might mean enough time to attend school functions and enough flexibility to keep building their career.
But no matter how you define it, work-life balance means having enough time outside of work to do the things you need to do — eat, sleep, exercise, spend time with family and friends, go to doctor’s appointments and so on — and at least some of the things you want to do. (Start your own business? Adopt a bunch of puppies and make them into Instagram legends? It’s up to you.)
A Problem for Everyone, Not Just Working Women
Work-life balance is often discussed as if it were only a problem affecting women. It’s true that women often suffer a marriage and motherhood penalty in the form of lower pay and fewer opportunities. But it’s also true that in an age when it’s easier than ever to work around the clock, people of all genders and family configurations find it difficult to balance work and life.
And to be clear, the work part of the equation is usually the problem.
“In my experience people often feel the need to be accessible at all times to demonstrate their commitment to the job,” says Craig Cincotta, vice president for brand communications for Porch.com, in an interview with CNN. “Answering e-mail at 3 a.m. becomes a badge of honor. When that becomes the societal norm, it makes it hard for people to find a healthy work-life balance.”
But being always-on comes with a cost. Research has shown that employees who work long hours (defined as 55-plus hours a week) have a higher risk of stroke. Working too much is also associated with stress-related illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and psychological problems.
Beyond that, it will kill your motivation and engagement at work, which isn’t exactly a recipe for success. So how can you create better work-life balance — whatever that looks like for you? By identifying the obstacles that stand in your way.
Obstacles to Work-Life Balance
Many perfectionists develop the habit in childhood, writes Deborah Jian Lee at Forbes, only to discover that it’s difficult to maintain those standards as life grows more complex:
As you climb the ladder at work and as your family grows, your responsibilities mushroom. Perfectionism becomes out of reach, and if that habit is left unchecked, it can become destructive, says executive coach Marilyn Puder-York, PhD, who wrote The Office Survival Guide.
The key to avoid burning out is to let go of perfectionism, says Puder-York. “As life gets more expanded it’s very hard, both neurologically and psychologically, to keep that habit of perfection going,” she says, adding that the healthier option is to strive not for perfection, but for excellence.
Solution: At Psych Central, Paula Durlofsky, PhD offers a few tips for coping with perfectionism, including practicing self-compassion, becoming aware of negative self-talk and breaking goals down into smaller steps.
2. Your Company Culture
Company culture is everything from the physical environment (open office vs. cubicles, central workspace vs. working remotely, etc.) to your company’s mission, values and ethics. A “good” company culture, generally speaking, is one that works to support the organization’s goals. That necessarily means supporting the workers, since burned out, disengaged employees don’t tend to stick around long enough to help the company succeed.
But cultural fit is also important. If you’re a recent grad who just moved for a job, a culture that involves a lot socializing might be ideal. But if you’re a more experienced worker with a family and/or time-consuming hobbies outside of work, being expected to attend weekly happy hours might be a real drain on your time and energy.
Regardless of where you are in your life, beware companies that invest too heavily in the notion of workers as family or socializing as a requirement. Your real family presumably won’t lay you off the next time a recession hits. Mandatory fun is mandatory, but it’s rarely fun.
“Let people go home, let them spend time with their families, let them head to the bar and check out Tinder, let them play in a band and record an album,” advises psychologist Adam Waytz at Harvard Business Review. “Rather than mandating ‘fun,’ give them a day off, and watch their social lives flourish and their loneliness fade away.”
Solution: Look for signs that the company you’re interviewing with has a culture that’s a bad fit for you. If you do wind up in an organization that encourages socializing after hours, participate but don’t feel that you have to hit every drinks session or join every sports team.
3. A Boss Who Never Stops
“When you look at what’s going on, there’s so much stress,” said Dr. Emma Seppälä, scientific director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and author of The Happiness Track, in an interview with The Huffington Post. “What we’re seeing is that people are working longer hours, and there’s less boundaries between work and personal life because of technology. Even when people go on vacation, a large percentage them check in with work.”
Where does this pressure to be always-on come from? A lot of times, from the boss.
Culture flows from the top, as they say. If your boss is works until all hours of the day and night and never takes vacation, you might feel pressured to do the same — and that’s understandable.
Workaholics are bad for team morale, especially when they’re leaders. It’s hard to feel good about clocking out (or setting your cellphone to Do Not Disturb) when your boss is still plugging away. But that’s exactly what you’ll have to practice doing. The alternatives are to tough it out or leave.
“You’ll either work out a schedule that meets both yours and your boss’s needs, leading to a harmonious working relationship, or you’ll realize that the demands of the job and the expectations of your employer aren’t a match with what you’re looking for,” writes Megan Broussard at The Muse. “Remember that any job position is a mutual decision. Don’t just think about it in terms of your employer’s happiness with your performance—take the time to ask yourself if you’re happy, too.”
Solution: Decide whether it’s worth it — and work out compromises you can live with. That might mean practicing setting boundaries, or putting up with a hectic schedule in the short-term to achieve your professional goals (and move on).
4. Your Own Creeping Sense of Insecurity
Would you believe that it’s been almost 10 years since the end of the last recession? If you’re saying, “Couldn’t prove it by me,” you’re not alone.
Although the economy is booming by many measures, shareholders are doing a lot better than workers. According to The PayScale Index, real wages have declined 9 percent since 2006, before the beginning of the Great Recession. That means that although the nominal value of workers’ pay is up — 1.1 percent since last quarter and 14 percent since 2006 — the buying power of that pay is much lower than it was well over a decade ago.
Add that to the fact that one-fifth of American workers were laid off in the five years following the last recession and the average employee tenure is a little over four years, and you have an environment in which it’s very hard to relax into a job. It’s understandable if workers feel reluctant to set boundaries.
Solution: Don’t be your own worst enemy. Yes, the work environment stinks. No, it’s not your fault. But don’t make things worse by volunteering to do more than is required. If your boss doesn’t insist on late-night email checks, for example, don’t do it out of a sense of insecurity. And make sure you’re always ready to move on. Keep your resume polished and your references prepped.
5. Loving Your Job a Little Too Much
It sounds like a nice problem to have, right? But being too committed to your job can be a big problem. When your work becomes part of your identity, it’s hard to shut it off and focus on other things for a while.
But that’s exactly what you need to do. No matter how much you love your job, you can’t focus on it 24/7. For one thing, as long as someone is paying you to do what you do, they can decide to stop. Being laid off or fired is hard enough, but when it threatens your sense of self as well as your financial security, it’s especially hard to handle.
Solution: Invest in other areas of your life. Even if you’re connected to your employer’s mission and love the work itself, you can’t spend all of your energy on it. Make time to connect with friends, get some exercise and develop hobbies outside of work. You’ll be better at your job and happier, too.
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