By Kristin Schmittel
“How do I achieve better work/life balance?”
I am asked this question daily when counseling clients about their careers. It’s one of the most common areas of career dissatisfaction.
The term “work/life balance” started in the ’80s and since then has grown into a buzzword that many people become fixated on trying to achieve. Unfortunately, work and life are part of a scale that never balances. So why do we spend time chasing the dream of the perfectly balanced scale?
The idea of balance assumes that we have control and can perfectly compartmentalize the different areas and aspects of our lives. Ideally, we all would love to spend eight hours at work, eight hours at home and eight hours asleep. But, in the real world, it just does not work that way. With today’s remote work capabilities, it has become even more complicated to hit that perfect balance, as we struggle to balance so many work and life roles at the very same time. Our worlds are intertwined.
In both personal and professional environments, we are not the ones in control. We cannot control when the school closes early due to inclement weather conditions. We cannot control when our boss calls a last-minute meeting to discuss a new proposal. We cannot control when a partner gets sick on the eve of a major presentation. Instead of balance, we need to talk about boundaries.
Boundaries are a way that we can exercise some control. Boundaries, if set appropriately and practiced consistently, can be effective in many areas of our lives. They help us establish healthier workplaces and drive up overall career satisfaction. They allow us to be present when we are at work and present when we are at home. They allow us a way to articulate priorities in life. However, they still allow flexibility for when we need to manage a crisis or switch roles.
Setting boundaries can be done in many different ways. I tell clients, “Do as the French do.” In 2017, France passed the Right to Disconnect Law, banning companies from requiring their employees to respond to emails after work hours. Even though a similar law is unlikely to pass in the U.S., we can still, on a personal level, implement our own boundaries around this idea.
Start by turning off work notifications after a certain hour. That way you aren’t even tempted to open that email labeled urgent while out to dinner with your significant other. Set boundaries around email timing. We all know the offices that operate around midnight, 2 a.m. or 6 a.m. emails. Do not get caught up in that game. Set hours in which you are willing to respond to emails and hours in which you are not.
Remain consistent and outline your hours to your colleagues to avoid misunderstandings. Personally, I respond to emails from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., and, on the
weekends, I only reply to emails for a defined period on Sunday afternoon. Use that recovered time to be present with your friends, your family or yourself. A healthy workplace will appreciate someone who has respectable time boundaries.
Boundaries just aren’t set with work. They are set within our personal lives as well. Communicate with your family when you are working from home. Let them know you need an allotted time to focus on work. Find a space where you can have that separation from personal life.
Set the boundary of not replying to any personal text messages or email threads while you are working – yes, that group thread about last night’s football game can wait. As great as it may feel to accomplish those personal tasks at work, that isn’t practicing healthy boundaries.
Last, it’s important to establish boundaries early on and communicate them clearly as you move into a new job. Boundaries are best implemented within the first six months in a new role. While there is a period of transitioning and proving your worth upon arrival, it is important not to overwork and overcommit early on. Set expectations, and don’t set yourself up for long-term burnout and career dissatisfaction.
If you are able to set boundaries, both personally and professionally, I promise you will find greater career satisfaction. Trying to rigidly balance work and life will inevitably lead to failure. Set healthy boundaries and work at being present in the role you are exercising.
You are more valuable and productive to yourself and your employer when healthy boundaries are established. Avoid frustrating spillover, and make dysfunctional and toxic workplaces a thing of the past.
The writer is a career counselor at Del Ray Psych & Wellness. She enjoys helping a wide range of professionals maximize career and workplace happiness and specializes in career transitions. For more information on her services check out delraypsych.com or her IG account @talk2kristin.