It’s much easier to talk about work-life balance than to define it. It can even be fun to list all the lofty ideas we have about it in meetings. It’s even a catchy phrase now to throw around in interviews whether you are doing the interviewing or being interviewed. I can’t possibly count the times I heard about the importance of work-life balance at work. I didn’t really have a clear understanding of how it could play out in my life. I also never imagined the lack of work-life balance could turn into burnout or worse. Many regard it as something to be achieved but not necessarily something actually achievable.
Only a few times did management ask me to be available outside normal business hours or while on vacation. I took it upon myself in some instances. I remember feeling a sense of importance knowing I was accessible while on vacations. They could not keep the ship afloat without me. I was indispensable. Not only was I setting an example for others I told myself I was making less work for myself when I did return to the office. Also, if I really wanted that promotion I could only show that by being actionable. When I worked at home it caused additional blurring of the lines between actual “at work” time and, “well, I don’t have anything else to do so I may as well catch up” time. It felt good to be such an asset and a necessity. I mattered.
After about 2 years of constantly being accessible and incessantly checking in or on something work related, I felt much less important or indispensable. I began to feel much more like a slave. A slave to my career and employer. Again, this was caused by some unreasonable expectations by management but also some I set up for myself. My life was no longer my own. I was no stranger to night terrors as I’d had them my whole life. Only now, when I woke up in the middle of the night I was no longer screaming out in fear because I was being chased by some invisible dark figure but by actual clients. I could see their faces and hear their voices asking me why I didn’t return their call within 2 hours as my voicemail expectations stated. I would see my claim diary screen almost anytime my eyes closed. All that horrific red color coding on the claim diary making sure I knew I couldn’t ever catch up. I was perpetually behind. My clients didn’t know that I worked almost daily until 11 pm when the server would shut down while I multi-tasked by watching a tv show in the background & dodging personal phone calls. I figured watching tv while playing catch up was a great thing. I could do it all. My clients didn’t realize I often covered 300 miles in one-day meeting people face-to-face to build rapport. They definitely didn’t know I had to update files within 2 hours after our 1-hour meeting with deposition quality notes. Trying to stuff 120 hours worth of work into 60 while only getting paid for 40 hours started to take its toll. I didn’t have time to get my job done well. I was informed I needed to shift from gathering as much information as possible to work with what you have and pull the trigger. That didn’t sit well with me or my perfectionism. Getting my work expectations to balance correctly left no room for this supposed “work-life balance” everyone kept mentioning. How could I afford to take time away from work only to be that much further behind upon my return? This mentality in the end caused poor mental, physical and emotional health, failed relationships and burnout.
The early part of my career was much more easy-going. Gone were the days when I barely had enough work to pretend it would take 8 hours. Gone were the days I would get a travel day and I could mosey into the office after being on the road for hours. Gone were the days I could stick my mail in a basket marked “Outgoing” and ease on out of the office. There was no team to work with while I was at home. I was my own receptionist, transcriptionist, scene investigator, government agency visitor, mediator attendee, coverage analyst, chauffer, mailperson, demand reviewer and adjuster. There wasn’t much room for my job let alone any room for actual personal free time. I didn’t make myself a priority. I would get the occasional massage or dine out from time to time but my mind was usually reminding me of all the work I still had to get done. I didn’t actually eat a meal in a mindful state. I surely wasn’t taking “a deep breath” or unwinding with a good book. As a Type-A Personality/perfectionist/procrastinator with a persnickety streak, my focus was generally on getting a task done efficiently and effectively. My stress level was not something I thought about. Well, I thought about it but only as an afterthought. I figured I was hired to do a job and my job was to do it well. Better than well. Whatever the task I made sure to get it done, well. I took my work ethic very seriously. That definitely I’m sure comes from my days as a Marine and the values instilled in me by family.
Whether working in an office environment (not my fav) or from home I neglected to schedule time for me. I didn’t really have a lot of family in the area. None, actually. I was living in a relatively new city, without any family near me and continued to prioritize my career above all else. As an introvert, I really enjoyed all my alone time but I didn’t realize my social life was suffering. I was so exhausted from working so much I didn’t have any energy to be social. It wasn’t until I saw how much I missed in bonding and nurturing time. I missed a lot back then. Yes, both figuratively and literally. I missed birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, christenings and dedication ceremonies. I missed holidays and graduations. As I continued to miss the big moments in life and being social I also began missing a lot of work.
Humans are meant to be social. Spending quality time with others or just hanging out are actually good things to do, regularly. Taking time away to just be is actually a necessity. My secret love of lounging didn’t need a rebuttal to being mislabeled as laziness. It is one of the activities that we all need to do in order to function at our best – our optimal mental level. By leaving out proper rest, a (reasonably) healthy diet, physical activity, time for fun and being social, time to reflect and time for mindfulness I was setting myself up for failure. I didn’t have my work life in balance and I definitely didn’t have any work-life balance. I equated doing nothing with wasting time. I viewed hanging out with girlfriends as selfish behavior when there was so much to be done at work. I also isolated myself because under no circumstances did I want to burden another with my trials and tribulations.
My personal recipe for success includes a lot of meditation, a lower sugar diet, reducing my caffeine intake, getting cardio in, journaling, tons of laughter and being social. Each person may need a different mix or recipe for optimal success. Shonte’ Jovan Taylor, a spectacular neuroscientist, and author calls it The Healthy Mental Platter. Included on that platter: Sleep, Play Time, Down Time, Time In, Connecting Time, Physical Time and Focus Time. Each is necessary for optimal neurocognitive activity and true balance.
Similar to any addiction recovery program, any Wellness Recovery Action Plan, or any other recipe for balance, taking care of each part of ourselves allows for true balance. Taking time out daily to be grateful and reflect keep me in a much healthier state. Once I realized I could not sustain my pace without taking out time to just be, I noticed that a lot more than just my life slowed down. My anxiety declined. I felt much more carefree. I spent more time with people I care about and who care about me. I no longer make up excuses to have my rest and relaxation days. I know in order to stay healthy and productive it’s more than ok to have days where I don’t do much of anything at all. Actually having a day with nothing planned has help to save my sanity. Depending on who you speak to that idea seems pretty weird or foreign. My days of doing “nothing” are actually helping me reshape my brain patterns, makes me an amazingly grounded coach, keeps me running at my optimal level and keeps my body functioning well. Lack of play, focus, or down time usually correspond with lower productivity, higher anxiety, poor memory recall, and ultimately overwhelm. I can only control myself and my own actions. By prioritizing my health and happiness I finally began to find the necessary balance. We survivors must remember that constantly doing doesn’t always produce the desired results. Take it easy and find what balances your life out.