Work/life balance – is it a myth? It’s a concept I’ve heard all too much about, but rarely seen anyone achieve. I certainly struggle with finding this elusive balance on a daily basis.
Why is stepping away from work – be it after 5 p.m. or for a week-long vacation – so hard?
The explosion of mobile devices and the remote workforce have been both a blessing and a curse. Workers are no longer tied to the office, but that comes with a price. In 2012, a survey found that the average American’s after-hours work equals an extra day of work per week – typically due to after-hours work on mobile devices. This data means the average person is working at least six days a week, while only being paid for five.
On top of the strain mobile devices are putting on our nights and weekends, in the public relations industry specifically, the demands for 24/7 availability are heightened, with professionals serving demands from up to three different entities every day – your own company, the media and your clients, if you work at an agency. Breaking news waits for no man or woman, especially in the age of the 24-hour news cycle.
Age, gender and living situations can also add more pressure at work. In a keynote address at Dreamforce 2013, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg noted the inequalities that still exist between men and women in the workplace. She stated that, to this day, women are continually asked – “how do you do it all?” Men are rarely asked that question. Women are still expected to be the primary caregiver at home, even when they work outside of the home, and subsequently, are tasked with the unrealistic expectation of “doing it all.” Sandberg has said there’s no such thing as work life balance. “There’s work, and there’s life, and there’s no balance.”
Alternatively, those professionals who don’t yet have families shouldn’t be assumed as having it easier. Singles can have a hard time finding work/life balance as well. Many single professionals feel that the work of parents with flexible schedules gets passed off to them so deadlines can be met, and some singles feel they don’t have a “legitimate” excuse to clock out. Are “I have to go to the gym” and “I have to pick up my children” the same in the eyes of management?
Millennial women in particular are burning out before the age of 30, after years of filling their schedules and resumes with extracurricular activities, internships, stellar grades and working 50- to 60-hour work weeks to get ahead, without taking time for themselves.
So what’s a PR practitioner to do, when is appears the cards are stacked against us? The first step is awareness, by catching burnout before it actually affects your health. Burnout is more than a bad day or week – Psychology Today defines burnout as a state of chronic stress and frustration that leads to physical/emotional exhaustion, cynicism or ineffectiveness and can cause insomnia, fatigue and other serious physical symptoms or illnesses. Take the burnout test and see if a weekend away from stress (most likely emails, phone calls, work, etc.) makes an impact in how you feel on Monday.
The goal is to prevent burnout, and find balance early on at a new job or new stage in your life. A few (somewhat) simple steps can set you up for success in being a professional and having a life:
- Decide what matters most: The idea of “doing it all” is unrealistic. Yahoo!’s Marissa Mayerlets her employees decide what in their lives are the “non-negotiables” – what they aren’t willing to miss for work. One employee needs to go to Tuesday night dinners with friends, while another needs to be at their child’s soccer games. Marissa doesn’t let work get in the way of these dinners or games for those employees. No one can have everything they want. But, if you decide what is most important to you, no matter the stage in your life, and work with your manager about keeping it as a priority, you’re less likely to resent your work or employer.
- Determine expectations: I have gotten caught in the after-hours email trap too many times to count. Either a client or a co-worker sends an email at 10 p.m. If I don’t answer, will they be mad? How urgent is the request? Do I need to get home to my computer to work on this project now, or can it wait until tomorrow? All these questions add to anxiety if you don’t set expectations ahead of time. When you start a new job, ask right away – what is expected of me after hours and on weekends? Will you only email me after hours if it needs immediate attention? From then on, you’ll know if responding can wait until the next morning or on Monday.
- Exercise: Healthy habits are almost always the first thing to go when you get busy, but exercise actually improves how effective you are at work, and of course releases the pent-up stress from the daily grind. Maybe exercise is one of your non-negotiables mentioned above, or maybe you use your lunch break to walk outside, but exercise increases the feeling of a balanced work and personal life.
- For Pete’s sake, when you log off, log off: No matter how high up the career ladder you are, your company can survive without you. Whether it’s for two hours for your child’s birthday party or a trip to Europe on vacation, once you decide to sign off, really sign off. Don’t check emails. Don’t let your phone sit on the dinner table. Don’t take conference calls. Prep your teams ahead of time for your absence and set up safety nets to cover while you are out. Vacation time is part of your benefits package, and if you don’t have a company that respects that time off, it’s time to think about finding a better fit. You can’t recharge if you never really unplug from work.
Time will tell if work/life balance is just an urban legend, but the alternative sounds much worse.
What do you do to keep your sanity in the PR industry? Can work/life balance ever really be achieved?
Heather Sliwinski is an account supervisor at Grayling US, a global public relations agency, specializing in technology. She has provided media relations and social media services to some of tech’s most innovative companies. Most recently, she was a senior account executive at Hill+Knowlton Strategies’ Technology Practice. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications – strategic communications from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Sliwinski is the section chair for the PRSA New Professionals Section. Feel free to connect with her on LinkedIn or Twitter.