Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

The Second Step Towards a Life In Balance

Choose your date wisely

Choose your date wisely

The people you choose to be with are a strong predictor of what you value and how you live.

As I wrote in the last post, a shift in identity will start you down the path towards a balanced life.

However if everyone around you is bragging about how many events they missed because of work, eventually your hours will start to creep back up. To make the changes last, you’ll need a community of people to support you.

First and foremost, if you’re in a relationship, you’ll want to get on the same page with your partner. Does he/she support people-first values? Most of the time, they’ll be thrilled to have you around more. And if you are both on email till midnight together every night, you can start to make the change together. For example, checking email during dinner can be a pernicious habit. But, it is also is a clear behavior that is easy to modify if phone free time together is the priority.

However, if getting a new BMW every year is the most important thing to your partner, they may not support your change in priorities. Mismatched values like this are a red flag for the relationship. Some people work long hours as a way to avoid an unhappy relationship. Could this be you?

And whether or not you’re in a relationship, you’ll need people outside the family to support your change. One great place to begin is by finding a weekly activity to bring you out of the office. I’ve known many people who picked up a class or joined a team just as a way to get out of the office. There, they met their future spouse.

If you are at in Tuesday night volleyball league, everyone else there has decided not to work and to spend time on volleyball too. This is a great place to get to know people who don’t talk about work all the time.

Finally, be on the lookout for a community opportunity, meaning that if someone invites you to do something, say yes! A mindful approach to develop contacts outside of the workplace will increase your flexibility, and decrease any emotional dependency on the work pseudo-community.

What has your experience been with getting out of the office?

Previous Post: The First Step To Create a Life Of Balance

Upward Management Do’s and Don’ts

Chapter 9: Paint Your Environment Part 15

Earlier in the chapter, I shared how I was productive but perceived as “not committed” at my last job before I left the corporate world.  In a way they were right: The company was not the most important thing in my life.  But, I was committed to producing high quality, professional work.  Frankly, I would have stayed longer if I had been promoted.

I’m happy with how things have turned out, but sometimes I wonder if I should have been more like Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook, who used to hide her 5:30 departure to take care of the kids.  I wanted to make a statement, and went out of my way to let everyone know that after-hours was out of bounds.

Successful Upward Management requires firm boundaries and clear communication. For example, I did not answer emails in the evening. I didn’t ask permission not to answer, I just didn’t. My manager once told me how he learned not to expect a response from me to weekend emails until Monday morning, and he was surprised that he was ok with it.  Here is a little secret – I did check email once a day on the weekend, but I did not answer because it was never an urgent issue. I trained everyone not to expect an answer, and they stopped sending me email.

Poor upward management came when I got arrogant: I told my manager my strategy. It pissed him off, and rightly so.  I was showing off, and I think my arrogance held back my career in an unnecessary way. Had I to do it over again, I would have remembered that they are more senior, and should be treated with some deference and respect. I don’t mean ass kissing, but I tended to treat them like we were equals, which we weren’t.

I think my desire to champion workplace flexibility was a holdover from an earlier time in my career, when I thought that I was above politics. I could have quietly gone about keeping my life in balance.  I had what I wanted: a life that put people first, and I was no longer caught up in corporate idolatry.

Moreover, work was not the center of my identity. I had a growing community of friends outside of my company. Together, these helped me set boundaries, and limit my work to 50 hours a week.

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Giorgio Struggles To Cope With Being Laid Off

Chapter 9: Build Your Community Part 10

I spoke to a former colleague of Giorgi’s who thought it was a “crock” that Giorgi was laid off.  “Sometimes your name just ends up on a list.”

Giorgi was devastated when he was laid off, and spent a few weeks catatonic on the couch.  “I did not see it coming.”  Many people called him telling him how wrong it was that he was let go.  But a few people he was really close with never called. “That really messed me up, not to hear from these people who I respected and I thought respected me.”  Years later he found out that his former boss told the team not to call Giorgi, because he was “so upset.”  It is hard to know why the boss did that.  Maybe he made a genuine mistake.  Maybe he was being self-serving.

Giorgio was well liked, and many people did call in spite of what his boss said.  One former report called every day, saying on the answering machine “I’m going to keep calling until you pick up the phone.”  Giorgi said it helped, but many of his friends from outside of work didn’t know what to say.  “The last think you want to hear is that you don’t have to go back to that place any more.”

Ten years later, Giorgio talks like someone who has come to grips with a great loss in his past.

I can relate, because if I had been laid off a year earlier I would have been in his shoes – utterly crushed.  I think one of the greatest benefits of “busting my corporate idol” was the mental freedom I found.

In my subsequent jobs, I never forgot that I could be let go at any time.

I realized that I would never invest all of my money in one asset, and should not invest too many of my personal connections in one place either.  It’s just too risky. So, I focused my “connection energy” on building a community outside of the workplace.

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The Connection Between Community, Work, and Happiness

Chapter 8: Build Your Community Part 8

I define a community as a group of people with a common interest who look out for each other.  In his book “Bowling Alone,” Harvard Professor Robert Putnam rigorously documents the decline of community in America. Putnam points to decreasing membership in organizations like the PTA and Shriners, as well as a decrease in the frequency of informal get-togethers like Sunday picnics.

Why is this important? Current research suggests that one of the most important drivers of happiness is community.  (See here for a summary of recent happiness research).   Humans are inherently social creatures; we like to belong and like to interact with other people.  And with less community, there are less opportunities to connect, and therefore less opportunities to generate happiness.

The workplace can look and feel a lot like a community.  We spend most of our waking hours at work.  A good leader will try to pull employees together towards a common purpose, and create a sense of esprit de corps.  And just as a community takes care of it’s members, many companies provide extensive lifestyle benefits to employees, such as on site medical, dental, dry cleaning, and of course the grand daddy of them all, the on-site gym.

Southwest Airlines has made its culture and community a competitive advantage, creating funds to allow employees to help other employees deal with natural disasters, and “culture committees” to plan parties around lifestyle events. (See SWA website.)   Of course Southwest Airlines has something that most other companies don’t – a no layoff policy.

In the next post, I’ll explore whether layoffs disqualify the workplace as a true community.

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Would You Ever Consider Leaving Work Early If You Are a Leader or Key Stakeholder?

Chapter 8: Secure Your Community Part 7

In the last post, I have tips on how to leave work early if chronically overworked.   I shared the post on the HRB site on LinkedIn, and the response has been explosive. The 58+ comments  run the spectrum which I summarize as

  • A good leader creates an environment where things can run smoothly even when they aren’t there
  • As long as you are reachable by phone, it’s ok.
  • Don’t leave too often or other people will start leaving early too.
  • “Leave whenever you got to as long as work is being done or is getting done per expectation & standards”
  • It is more about the mental connection to work than whether you are physically at the office or not
  • Some people didn’t feel they had the freedom to leave early even if they wanted to.

I think there are two issues to consider when deciding whether you can leave the office early:

1. Can you leave without the organization falling apart?

The answer to this needs to be yes.  If it is no, either the organization is not well led, or does not have the right people.  What could happen in your absence?  Will it impact the revenue number?  Will it hurt customers?  Will it send anyone to jail, or create a flag for auditors?  Unless the answer is yes, don’t even worry about it.

2. Can your ego survive if the organization doesn’t fall apart in your absence?

I hate to admit it, but one upon a time, for me the answer would have been no.  (And if I’d been laid off when that was true, I would have been devastated.)  If you’ve read Chapter 7, Secure Your Identity, you are already thinking about this issue.  Many people (including me) suffer from the Illusion of Control, a belief that we have a much bigger impact on the outcome than we actually do.  And when there is trouble in other parts of our life, work can serve as a refuge.  (See posts here and here for more.)

Which is more important to you, the work or the people you are with?

Let’s say you have left the office for an hour to have lunch with a friend or to coach soccer for a child.  The phone rings.  Let’s assume that the reason for the call is “legitimate” and that you will “add value” to the business by answering it.  Should you take the call or call back when you are finished with lunch/practice?  At least for me, once I got a work call or email there was no turning off the thoughts.  And then I was no longer present for the people around me.

Imagine you are with someone at lunch, their phone rings, they peak at the caller id and say “it’s my boss and it’s the end of the quarter, but you are more important to me.”  They turn off the phone and put it away.

How would you feel being that person?   What are the long term benefits for you of making other people feel that way?

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