“There is no such thing as work-life balance,” Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, boasted earlier this year. But don’t believe her. This message that the only way to succeed is to live an unhealthy life focused on your work is a farce.
By Debra Guckenheimer
Sandberg doesn’t appear to live up to it herself. She leaves work every day at 5:30pm to have dinner with her children. But many women do live for their work; in some fields, it is the norm. This isn’t what every worker wants. Therefore, I will show you some ways to improve your work-life balance.
Some companies and organizations are moving toward greater work-life imbalance. Employees compete over who can work the most hours and lose connection with their friends, families, communities, and hobbies. In some fields, employees are expected to not take much or sometimes any time off at all in addition to working over holidays. Taking time off or having outside commitments is seen as being not serious about your career. In some places, women are still penalized for having children
I had naïve views that I had found a bastion of work life balance in academia, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Commonly people across most disciplines work 60+ hours a week, especially at top colleges and universities. Those who talk about or who are seen engaged in activities outside their academic lives are talked about as not serious. To be seen as serious, multiple feminist mentors instructed me at one time or another to not have children until I receive tenure. Some told me to not have more than one child. These mentors are not against having children, but were telling me what the “rules of the game” are in much of academia. And, now with shriveling tenure-track academic jobs, increasingly those who graduate with PhDs are expected to move every year or two on their own dime to take temporary positions. This disconnects people from their friends, families, and communities.
Some companies and organizations have already made changes to try to improve work-life balance for their employees. They do this by offering flex time, allowing employees to work from home, offering more paid time off, and having maternity/paternity benefits. People talk about their families and are not penalized for taking time to care for their families and themselves. Research shows that this effort to have better work-life balance increases productivity and retention. Colleges and universities across the country discuss improving work-life balance for academics through dual partner hires, better mentoring, and flexibility around taking care of infants. With the recession and less funding for higher education, focus on work-life issues tends to disappear.
The differences between these companies has led to drastically different experiences relating to work-life balance, sometimes even within the same field. And, in reality, most work situations fall somewhere in between offering great work-life balance and offering none. Being employed during graduate school as the project manager of a research project allowed me to spend significant time out of state helping to care for my mother. The difference between a job that will limit your options outside of work and one that will allow you to have a fulfilling life is partially a result of individual negotiating skills but mostly the result of institutional factors.
Success should not require giving up on having an outside life. We can be successful in our careers and have a life outside that career. But success is going to require two things. First, that people start refusing to sacrifice an outside life in order to succeed in their careers. We must stop competing with one another about who can sacrifice more and have less of an outside life. Instead, we must create conditions for success that allow us to live the lives we want. Secondly, we must work together to create institutional changes that make the workplace healthier and more respectful of workers as complex people with outside lives.
Improving Work-Life Balance: What You Can Do
You can find scores of recommendations for how to achieve work life balance from MSNBC, WebMD, and Forbes. These lists would have you believe that the way to achieve work-life balance is to change yourself. This focus on individual choices alone ignores that work-life imbalance is an institutional problem. We must create institutional change which supports better work-life balance. As individuals, we either support or challenge the culture at our institutions around work-life balance.
Here are five suggestions that you can do to creating work-life balance that recognize institutional nature of the problem:
- When looking for work, find out about the culture around work-life balance within the organization. Ask questions about how many hours per week people actually work and policies on work-life issues such as maternity/paternity leave. Notice if people talk about having families or hobbies. When thinking about the culture of the office, notice both how people talk about their outside lives, what their practices are, and what the policies are. When negotiating for a job, think about asking not only for compensation, but also make sure that your expectations for work-life balance issues are on board with what the supervisor expects. It is much more acceptable to have these conversations at this point than once you start the job. And, by requiring better work-life balance, you encourage it to be a priority for the organization. For more information about learning about work place culture, check out this Harvard Business Review article.
- If you already have a job, pay attention if you are working more hours than the culture of the office. While that might help you get ahead, be aware that it will only do so at the peril of your colleagues. Work-life balance is not just a personal issue, it is an institutional one as well that we all contribute to. How you work will affect your expectations people have of your colleagues. If you work without balancing having an outside life, it makes it harder for your colleagues to do so without retribution. If you work less than everyone else, there may be retribution.
- If you already have a job and work-life balance is an issue, find allies within your organization that you can organize with in order to create change. As a group, strategically discuss the issues of concern with those who you expect will be sympathetic. Together, you can change the culture around work-life balance at your organization.
- Pay attention to the way in which you discuss work-life balance issues. Avoid critiquing others, especially your colleagues and underlings, for prioritizing work-life balance by having children, doing child care or care for a family member who is ill, who go on vacations, leave work at a regular time, do not work on weekends, or who take leave when they are ill.
- Educate yourself about work-balance and help raise awareness about its importance within your profession and among policy makers. Support and lobby for better work-life balance policies and practices on organizational and governmental levels. Many other countries have laws and policies which allow people to not have to choose between work and life (be it taking care of a personal or family illness or childcare). We can change policy and practice in the United States if we work together.
Creating work-life balance is not just a women’s issue. Women in particular have traditionally moved down the career ladder or walked away from their careers when having children. While work-life balance is an issue that tends to affect women more because women tend to do more home and family care than men, this is not simply a women’s issue. It will affect some women more than others depending upon class, race, sexuality, and (dis)ability. Increasingly numbers of men are interested in participating at higher rates in raising their families and taking care of their aging parents. Men and women suffer from health problems that limit their ability to work. We need to start demanding change, not only for ourselves, but for the betterment of society.