ive years ago, a reporter at the Washington Post wrote a book called, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. It was a cri de Coeur, a heartfelt lament about not being able to meet the competing and constant demands of her job and her family.
People related immediately.
The struggle of working in America comes on two sides of the same coin. On the first, those who work strict 40-hour weeks almost inevitably complain about not having enough income to support their families. On the other, many better-paid professional workers know that a ‘work week’ is just a theory; there is no time off that assures uninterrupted enjoyment of personal pursuits. It’s Monday-through-Sunday without end. Cell phones and emails do not take a day off.
I don’t have any ready remedy for those whose hourly wage condemns them to borderline poverty. But let me throw out three things for those who feel like “time off” never arrives:
(1) The Past: The Man in the Glass Office
Not too long ago I knew a man who led sales and marketing for a consumer brand whose name you would recognize instantly. He set strict standards for his staff. Every person leaving the office…for lunch or for the week…would have to walk right past his glass wall. He kept track.
However, he was also known for this: on Friday afternoons at 5p, he would often get up from his desk, walk out into the employee pool, and yell the following: “I’m leaving for the weekend. And if you need me—YOU BETTER HAVE A GOOD GOD DAMNED REASON!” The work/life boundary was strictly defined, right from the top. And it applied to everyone.
(2) The Present: Slow Progress. While the pull between work and home can affect anyone, the situation is hardest when there are children in that home. In America, federal law mandates 12 weeks of unpaid family leave for new parents, or those needing to care for an ailing family member. However, there is no mandate for paid leave. Somehow, 70 other countries have managed to stay intact while offering this...including Sweden, where paid time off can run to 480 days.
Overall, it's estimated that only 13% of U.S. workers are granted paid time off for family. The larger the company, the higher the salary and the more "professional" the job, the more likely the benefit will be offered. And that can extend to things like on-site daycare and flexible work schedules. While most blue collar, minimum wage and temporary workers can forget about paid time off, there is progress. Eight states have enacted their own versions of paid parental leave. And hats off to Netflix, which offers a full year of paid time off for new parents.
(3) The Future: Recalibrating Balance. There’s another consumer brand that you'll find on the shelves of any grocery store you walk into. It’s modern, and its appeal crosses generations. The CEO of that company has come up with a novel take on this issue for his workers: to paraphrase, “work/life balance is a myth...it doesn't exist anymore. Forget about it.” But he's not being an ogre; that's just his preamble to a novel solution to the problem. He reasons that if work is going to intrude on personal time...then personal time has an equal right to interrupt work. His remedy says to people, “take off whatever time you need. If you want to work out at 10 am on Monday…or coach your kid’s soccer team at 4pm on Thursday…do it.” In his company, balance is an organic, dynamic process. He claims his employees are happier, and that they do better work.
The backdrop for why more companies don't adopt similar policies was laid out in The Shareholder Delusion. (Link here.)
The point is, if your employer really cares about you, he or she will pay you a reasonable wage, put you to work in reasonable conditions, and offer reasonable benefits. It's not just possible--it's profitable. How much does business lose to stress and bitterness?
In the work/life balance…there should be no surrender on life.
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