Flashback Friday: Work-Life Balance

I've often wondered what advice my 30something self would give my 20something self. Now, through the time travel magic of journaling, we can find out. Journal Entry from September 2, 2003 (25 years old; my first semester teaching at Bates College after leaving a PhD program)

Me Then: Today I went in at 7:15am and returned at 6:45pm. Long day. Of course [my husband] has been doing 7 to 7 for two years. I'm just coming to fully realize his frustration and aggravation. I always tried to make him feel better about the time he's been putting in by talking about the money he made or telling him relief's down the bend, after he's put in his due, but what is that stuff really? In actuality, when your time and life are being sucked from you, none of that matters.

Me Now: This big issue that is *just* dawning on you, it's actually a well-studied and often-discussed problem:  work-life balance. Not that you'd call it that; you think work-life problems are only for people with whining kids hoarding around them. Not so. It can be a big problem for any worker, regardless of what their "life" involves, and can cause reduced life and job satisfaction, lower commitment, increased burnout, higher turnover intentions, and higher absenteeism.

Me Then: What role models do I have who have lived unconventionally, i.e., not been slaves to the clock just to earn a buck? I'm beginning to fear that I'll be left with nothing but the job, all day, everyday. And isn't that, truly, what my parents have done forever? And everyone's parents?

Me Now: You don't need good role models. You heard me right:  studies find it's actually better if you have parents who openly struggled with work-life balance. Seeing this struggle will likely make you more knowledgeable, committed to and involved in planning for your future roles, according to research. So thank your parents for their struggles and for not shielding you from those challenges. Then pick their brains about what worked for them and what didn't. And take notes!

Me Then: It's all so wrong. I don't want to accept this as my fate. I fight it actively. I want to be fulfilled and make an impact but not feel like life = work and work = life.

Work-Life Balance

Me Now: What you long for is work–family enrichment, in which "experiences in one role improve the quality of life in the other role” (Greenhaus & Powell, 2006). You will find it, trust me, but only by pursuing interests that naturally match who you are and what you value, like we discussed in Is Your Career In Your Genes?. When you do that, work won't feel so much like work. Your life will begin to feed the career and vice versa. To make that happen, though, you'll have to be intentional, reflective, and proactive. You'll also have to be willing to make sacrifices.

Me Then: Everyone seems so complacent about the issue of work overtaking life. Like after a while of working you "get used to it" or become resigned and just accept that your whole life will be this. Doesn't everyone go through the rage I'm feeling? Or not? 

Me Now: Most young people feel it. 73% of millennials say they're concerned about their future work-life balance. Members of Gen Y actively seek out companies and careers that support that balance. And you will, too. This demand will force more companies to address work-life issues if they want to attract and retain good workers.

Me Then: If people are at one point so enraged, how do they transform into 8 to 6 (or longer) workers, trudging to and from their prison each day, and encouraging their kin to one day do the same? Let me know how this happens because I want to avoid it. I want to find meaningful, useful work for myself, yet not suffer or sacrifice my freedom and enjoyment on the earth for it.

Me Now: "Prison"? A bit dramatic, don't you think? In any event, here's how you avoid it:  you do what you're doing right now. You become aware that you want work-life balance, and then you actively plan for it. People who have high work-family balance self-efficacy, the "belief that a person can effectively balance work and family roles simultaneously" (Basuil & Casper), do a better job creating a career that strikes a balance. It doesn't just happen.

Three tips when planning for work-life balance:

  1. If you know that both family and work roles are going to be important to you, "avoid careers that require long hours or business travel to have more time for family" (Basuil & Casper).
  2. Practice having multiple roles early in your twenties, long before you build your own "family." For instance, you may be a student, a part-time worker, a volunteer, a son or daughter, a "plus one," and a best friend simultaneously. Pay attention to what works while doing this juggling - and what doesn't. Then intentionally apply those lessons in the future.
  3. Pick a partner who will balance you. Having two hard-driving careerists in one family can make work-life balance rough, if you want to have kids. Think of work-life balance as a unit, not as an individual. At times one of you may end up doing too much work and one too much "life," but between the two of you, you can make it work. If you choose to. And if you stay flexible about gender roles in the process.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, rest assured that you will simply get better at work-life balance with age. Because you have to. If I told you you'd one day draft a blog post about a topic you love while managing the toddler who decided to wake up at 5:15am, making breakfast for the family, and setting up voluntary career advising meetings with Bates students, you'd never believe me. Yet that's what you just did. So there.

So what do you think:  Do you hear yourself in any of my former self's concerns? Or was I just crazy?

Basuil, D. A., & Casper, W. J. (2012). Work-family planning attitudes among emerging adults. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 80, 629-637.
Greenhaus, J. H., & Powell, G. N. (2006). When work and family are allies: A theory of work–family enrichment. Academy of Management Review, 31, 72–92.

Be zen like a frog? (Photo credit: Tanja FÖHR)