How to Build a Better Work-Life Balance
Does tech have a role in making us feel overworked?
It seems around this time every year, I am asked to contribute an article on work-life balance. Ironically, this year’s request came as I was pushing to launch a new product for a client, preparing for a vacation across the globe by pre-working on multiple client accounts, and dealing with a serious family health issue.
Everyone’s life can get a little off kilter from time to time. If you want to read some really great advice on daily work-life balance tools, read last year’s article. This year’s focus is on a more chronic condition, our culture of overwork in the U.S., how it affects us and how to move past it.
The U.S. is the most overworked country in the developed world, according to a study by thinktank Washington Center for Equitable Growth. In defining overwork as more than 40 hours a week, the study found that people working in higher-paid professions were more likely to clock in longer hours. This is especially true for people who set their own hours.
Rather than “control,” this can turn into work that never ends. Nearly 30% of management and legal workers reported working 45 hours or more per week, followed by 20% of those working in the farming, fishing and forestry industries. Architects, engineers and people in technology, business and finance, also indicated that long hours were normal.
While the U.S. government put new rules in place in 2019 to strengthen overtime pay for hourly and exempt workers, there are still no clear laws governing the number of hours worked, and employers can generally demand that employees work as many hours as the employer wants. Also, the regulations apply only to employees, and not independent contractors, problematic considering next year it is estimated 40% of the U.S. workforce will be made up of independent “contingent workers”.
Our culture of overworking not only has implications for the individual, it also affects homelife, businesses and the overall economy.
Statistically, people who work more than 55 hours a week have a greater risk of heart attack and stroke. Working longer hours can lead to more anxiety, depression and trouble sleeping. Think putting in extra-long hours at work will help you come out ahead? Research shows that people’s IQ actually drops 13 points when they’re locked into tunnel-vision busyness.
Long work hours affect relationships in an unusual way. In heterosexual relationships, men do not seem to suffer when their female partner works long hours. Women whose male partners worked 50 or more hours a week were more stressed and felt their relationships were of lower quality than those partnered with men who worked 35 to 49 hours. When children are involved, women are more likely than men to cut back or stop working to support the family at home.
Technology: A double edged sword
Technology can be viewed as both a cause of work-life imbalance and a potential solution. Our multiple devices that keep us connected also help work bleed into personal or family time. But many management level employees and contractors find that spending an hour after dinner or after the kids go to bed to sort through work emails helps set up efficiently for the next day and aids in sleeping. Without technology to bring the office home, that would not be possible. The key is knowing when to shut it off, and use it only as organizational time, resisting the temptation to actually jump into a project.
Some of us want to overwork
Having run several nonprofits in the past, which are usually a labor of love, I certainly understand the relationship between a person’s satisfaction with their job and the number of hours worked. Studies find that job satisfaction appears to form a U-shaped curve, dipping for a “normal” work week, rising again after 55 hours. However, some of that overwork is driven by passion, with more job satisfaction in creative roles and for those in the nonprofit “stakeholder” sector over those working in the private sector.
In competitive professional jobs, success is too often measured by people who outwork the competition. If you have a position where earnings are prioritized over job satisfaction, try to eek out some time to volunteer or do a project that truly sparks your passion. Don’t give up on your social life either—schedule time for friends and time off, just as you would an important meeting.
My husband and I try to meet up every day to walk the dog before dinner. Even if I have to finish up a few work tasks afterward, this healthy break gives us a chance to reconnect as a couple and share our day.
When I left my executive job to start an independent business, my husband and I renegotiated some duties. This included him taking over much of the errands and grocery shopping and me picking up a few more household duties that I could fit into my flexible schedule.
Forgiveness of ourselves is also an important skill to learn. Everything will not be picture perfect at home when two busy professionals are on a deadline. Or, if one partner has an easier schedule, they can pick up a little slack while the other works on a big project.
Brad Stulberg, co-author of The Passion Paradox: A Guide to Going All In, Finding Success, and Discovering the Benefits of an Unbalanced Life, recommends viewing balance in terms of seasons rather than hourly or daily. If you know you have an all-consuming work project or are planning to take time off to write a book, that will be your “work season.”
There might also be a season where you are starting a family, ie, your “family season.” If you control your own work schedule, you might schedule a family season around the holidays and during the summer, and large work projects at other times of year. It not only provides more productive work periods, but something to look forward to when you can cut back a little bit.
If you are an employee, this is typically done by how you schedule your vacation time. But you may also have some input on scheduling big projects to not coincide, with breaks in between.
Surviving our overworking culture is not so much about daily balance, but overall life balance. Set priorities for both your professional and personal life with a schedule that works for you and your living situation.