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When is Enough Really Enough?: Work Life Balance

Q: I love my work even though I put in 10-hour days, monitor my blackberry for weekend and evening calls that usually require follow-up, and have never taken a vacation that involved being totally unavailable. I am—and have always been—fine with that. My doctor is not.

Recently I started having trouble sleeping and developed headaches almost daily. I go to work tired and pop a few Advil throughout the day. When I started getting winded after short walks, and experienced chest pains for no reason, that’s when I saw the doctor. There’s nothing wrong with me except my lifestyle.

I’ve taken control of what I can—cook more, take-out less; exercise early in the morning before work; and took the television out of my bedroom too. The symptoms aren’t going away. I’ve gone back to the doctor and the message is the same: the way I work isn’t conducive to a healthy lifestyle. If I keep this up, something will go seriously wrong, that’s what my body is apparently telling me.

Here’s the problem: My job requires this level of dedication; my boss puts in longer hours than I do; the people who report to me are under pressure too. How do I make the case that my workload and way of working aren’t tenable without losing my job? How do I achieve a work life balance?

A: There is no question that your health comes first. Of course, the simplest way to respond to this challenge is for people to say, “turn your phone off” or “just disconnect,” but the reality is we have professional responsibilities that require our attention, at times around-the-clock. I’ve been guilty of checking my Blackberry while at a family dinner or sneaking away to write a press release during a vacation. There is nothing wrong with this type of dedication as long as you love your work and it brings you great satisfaction. But when you have a physical decline, you can’t ignore the warning signs. Take it seriously and reframe your day-to-day schedule.

First, sit down with your manager. Explain that your current pace is not sustainable and a potential hindrance to your department’s ability to deliver results. Most people managers are reasonable and understand what that could mean to the bottom line. If you happen to work for someone who isn’t as sympathetic, speak to your HR contact. It is in the best interest of your employer to keep you healthy, happy, and motivated.

Second, propose a plan. This is your opportunity to pitch a mitigation strategy. For example, consider a “smartphone off” period. Let your boss and direct reports know that between 6:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. you will not check your phone. Hide it under your mattress and forget it. You may think, “what’s a few hours going to do when I have to go back to an inbox with hundreds of emails?” The emails will be waiting for you, but hitting the “off” button for three hours can do wonders for your perspective and ability to refresh.
Third, think outside the box. We are living in a time when we are truly connected—from our phones to our tablets to our TVs. You can work anywhere, any way you like. Restructure your team and think about a “work from home” Friday rotation. Not only will this be a relief to your employees who may need a pace change, it’s a good way to get some space and quiet for you to work.
Fourth, get comfortable with the idea that there is no perfect balance. We put a ton of pressure on ourselves to deliver 100% at work and at home. It isn’t realistic. Some days you’ll hit it out of the park at work, and some days you’ll be a superstar at home. The key is to keep overall balance. Don’t stress over the perfectly divided, colour-coded calendar that parcels time equally between work and personal. Use that energy to find pockets of time devoted to family, friends and yourself.

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A: I started my HR career in the financial services industry. While it gave me an amazing grounding in corporate policy, procedure and organizational structure, it didn’t quite fit my personality. Through trial, error, and some luck, I found that agency environments matched me perfectly.

Long story short: you should first figure out if your job and industry are a good fit. Reach out to people in similar roles to investigate if extended hours, weekend email and interrupted vacation time are par for the course.

If you find these things are unique to your company, perhaps it’s time to update your resume and high tail it outta there. If, however, these are challenges your entire industry faces, and you love your job, approach your manager with a request for change.

A clearly articulated business case always goes a lot farther than showing up and complaining that you’re tired and stressed out, so try this:
State your objective I’m a huge fan of the one-page business case. State why you are making the request, or the intended objective of the meeting, in a sentence or two.

Define your current state Go over the steps needed in current processes, systems and structures. Create a map or whiteboard this step before putting it on paper. That way you can clearly view the steps involved in the work being done. Stop right here if you aren’t intimately aware of the way things are being done, or if you haven’t investigated ways of doing them better. Working hard and working smart are different things.

Propose a future state Outline the changes that should be implemented and the efficiencies that will be created by them. Will new technology be needed? Additional headcount? Look a year down the road. Can your changes serve future needs as well?

Address benefits/risks What are the benefits to the company, culture and morale of your changes? Can they be quantified? Get your HR department to help with some statistics on your department turnover and absenteeism. Will your recommendations mean an improvement in department turnover and a reduction in absenteeism? Both are very costly to a company. Are there any risks involved with the recommended change? Be honest about them. Be prepared to show you have given them consideration.

Cost it out I have never been witness to a manager turning down anything that would improve efficiency if it was free. But I have witnessed the tossing of a proposal due to a lack of understanding of how much it was going to cost the company. Be honest and specific with your numbers.

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A: My initial reaction is that you’re in the wrong job, period.

Some expectations come from you and some come from the job, and until you manage your need to control, and for perfection, the anxiety and stress will never go away. This is as much about your own desires as it is about the expectation of your workplace.

At some point you have to accept that’s the reality of your work—late nights, no vacation, etc. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, it just is. The job you’re in might actually require commitment and energy that you don’t have. My advice would be go find another job, not go talk to your boss.

However, if talking to your boss lowers your stress, then awesome—you should do that. But I don’t think it will because you’re putting the blame for your challenge on your job instead of on yourself, and you are responsible for your own choices.

As an employer, I have an expectation that people will work hard and do their job. But if someone said to me: “I can’t work as hard as you do, but I will give it my best,” then I’m ok with that. How can I expect anyone who works for me to work as hard as me? It’s my company. Most entrepreneurs understand that.

But here’s why I think your work’s not your problem: People often take a job because it’s going to be good for their career, not because it’s best for them. Sometimes we make a career move that’s not a great choice for our talents and abilities, and it becomes a trap: we get overwhelmed by the requirements, but we get the salary, the position, the authority. It’s all great except that we hate it, or it causes us stress. In this case, you love the work, but you have the stress.

If there’s a physical manifestation of stress—even though you went and changed stuff, like eating better, sleeping more, etc.—then this is not a lifestyle issue, it’s a career issue. So go find what makes you happy. That’s easy for me to say, right? Because quitting means giving up security…but this is your health and nothing is worth that, is it?

If there’s an expectation to work this way, then you need to make a decision. It’s all about choices and, ultimately, if it comes down to your health, screw it. Nothing’s worth that.


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