Is work life balance actually a thing that people have???
November 25, 2020 9:31 AM   Subscribe

I have a stressful job. It's becoming clearer and clearer to me that I must prioritise my physical and mental health over my work. But I simply don't know how to do that without falling behind at work and creating even more stress for myself. Any help?

I have a stressful job. I am ALWAYS running behind on work; there are not enough hours in the day to do everything that is expected of me.

I've never thought of myself as a perfectionist. I grew up in a non-Western country where there was a lot of emphasis placed on excellence and working hard and always being the best, and because I was never the best I always thought that I was kind of shit at things. I know I'm probably on the better side of average, but I always feel like people are thinking I'm terrible at what I do.

I have a stressful and intense job. Over the pandemic the work situation has been super intense and demanding and I have found myself being basically attached to my computer for hours and hours, going for days without seeing sunlight. It was my mom's birthday last week and I didn't have time to call her because I was so busy. Something is definitely wrong with this picture!

I realise this is bad for me and I'm setting myself up for stress-related ill health, early dementia and all sorts of other things. I realise that on my deathbed I'm not going to look back and think, "well I may have driven myself to an early death through stress and not getting enough exercise, but at least I met all my deadlines"! Really I need to be working a reasonable amount and making sure I spend time doing things like cooking healthy food, getting fresh air and exercise, and meditating.

The problem is I simply cannot fit those things into my day without compromising on work and I cannot compromise on work without getting into trouble because there is so much to do, and I can't get a new job as an immediate short-term solution because I've been looking now for almost a year.

I mean, I'm trying to proactively address the situation. I have made the case for a junior position to be advertised to help with some of the workload. I try to be good about at least taking a lunch break, or a nap during my lunch break. On days that I can safely let things slacken a little bit I do. But the overall trend is one of being stuck at my laptop all the daylight hours, constant stress and overwhelm, not moving my body enough, etc.

So my question is how do I learn to prioritise my health and mental health all the time and not just through random epiphanies? How can I actually start to fit in self-care into my daily routine while not creating additional stress for myself through falling behind on things I need to deliver? What do you guys do to maintain balance and ensure you're being healthy while working hard? I guess it doesn't help that I live alone and don't have a partner or family to remind me that there are other things I need to attend to beyond work.

I feel like I am always asking variants of this sort of thing - clearly I just don't handle work stress very well. I don't think it's a bad thing to care about working hard, I just don't want it to come at the expense of my health.

I know I need to find a new job. As I've said above, I've been looking for almost a year but that hasn't yet happened - I've been applying and networking and interviewing but just never nailing it for whatever reason.
posted by unicorn chaser to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Work-life balance is a thing that some people - even those of us who work in high stress, fast-paced workplaces - actually have, yes. A percentage of these people have it from being lucky enough to work environments that prioritize work-life balance. Others have it because they advocated for themselves, repeatedly communicated to stakeholders that balls were going to be dropped unless resources were either added or rebalanced, and then were willing to let those balls drop.

If you're working as much as you say you are, you have more power and control over this situation than you imagine. Your employers cannot actually afford to fire you. Right? Let's define your real worry: you need to manage your image and reputation with your bosses while you negotiate for more resources or fewer responsibilities or both. That's doable. This can be managed with SPIN. You got this.

So begin by letting people know that since you will be clocking off at ____ pm from now on, X, Y and Z are the balls that will drop. Say, "Let's work out a plan to see whether X, Y and Z can be reassigned to someone else or whether we can shelve them for now." Then stick to your word. Stop saying yes to responsibilities outside your planned, measurable, tracked goals for the quarter. Practice saying, "You're looking for ____, not me," or "We're going to need to hire a ____ specialist if we want to achieve the thing you're saying."

Unplugging is in your control. So is advocating for yourself. You don't necessarily have to do this in a confrontational or hostile way. You don't have to approach this as blaming others or taking the blame. This isn't failure. This is a reality check. You will clock off at ___ PM every day, therefore these balls will be dropped. Present it like the professional you are. Manage this load shedding like you would manage any other project.
posted by MiraK at 9:55 AM on November 25, 2020 [44 favorites]

When you say you'll get in trouble if you work less, what does that mean? What would be the concrete consequences of setting some limits?

You might benefit from reading the book Essentialism. Key quote: “Remember that if you don't prioritize your life someone else will.”
posted by medusa at 9:59 AM on November 25, 2020 [6 favorites]

So, first of all, I'm so sorry that you're in this place. I have been in it many times and it is truly horrible. You can't wait until you find the perfect new job to try to make this better. I have a few suggestions for you!

First off, literally practice self care. I try to remember that it's called practice for a reason. You have got to JAM some self-care into your day just to get the habit going. Try something very, very small and tiny. For me, it was that I woke up 10 minutes earlier and did a mindfulness practice with an app on my phone. Surely you can spend 10 minutes before the day begins on something that is only for you? If the mindfulness practice is too hard, it can be literally anything that is just for your mental health. Some other possible suggestions:

- Make yourself coffee and make a ritual out of it. Watch the cream swirl into the coffee and just appreciate it.
- Take a few minutes to listen to a few songs you like.
- Spent 10 minutes free-writing in a journal.
- Spend 10 minutes writing an email to a friend.

Honestly it really doesn't matter what it is, as long as you can stay present with it and it is a pleasant experience. You will probably have an inner voice saying "you should check your email" or "how dare you spend this time when you haven't actually finished that spreadsheet you said you were going to send 2 days ago" - but you MUST tell that voice to hush and that you'll get to it in 10 minutes. This is the most important part. You are training yourself to prioritize something that is ONLY for you despite all of your internal training not to ever prioritize yourself. It's hard!

You say you have preserved your lunch break, so you actually are already doing this! I suspect you picked lunch because it's one of the culturally acceptable things to preserve at your company. But now you could try to extend it a bit more so that you have another routine thing (like your lunch break) to protect. What we're going for here is to try to slowly build a foundation of you being in the driver's seat of your life and making the choice to give your time and energy over to your job, instead of the other way around. Right now you are mentally on the clock every second of every day, in instant reactive mode, and you only get to live in the little cracks around the work. It takes a long time to swap this focus and so you can and should start very small.

Second, try to figure out where the pressure is coming from, and stop accepting undue pressure FROM yourself. In your work life, to be successful, I'm sure you prioritize all of the time. You describe a really busy environment with too many things to do, so I assume you know how to figure out which things to leave undone when it's time to stop for the day.

Re-read this sentence you wrote:
I've never thought of myself as a perfectionist. I grew up in a non-Western country where there was a lot of emphasis placed on excellence and working hard and always being the best, and because I was never the best I always thought that I was kind of shit at things. I know I'm probably on the better side of average, but I always feel like people are thinking I'm terrible at what I do.

Businesses exploit this internal drive all of the time. They don't even do it on purpose. It's just built into the system. So do me a favor. Don't do their jerky work of setting impossible expectations for yourself in your head! Don't you already have enough to do?!

Right now, in a global pandemic, the work of survival is harder than it has ever been. We have got to slow down and be kind to ourselves to survive, and that is hard work. So prioritize it. Now is your moment to separate what pressure is coming from work, and what pressure is coming from you, the person who has been trained by your culture your whole life AND your job to prioritize everyone around you before you fill your own plate.

This won't be easy, but awareness is key. When you are feeling intense pressure, just log it. Where is this pressure coming from? What would happen if I did not do the thing? Don't catastrophize or get carried away. Try to be objective.

Good luck. You are in no way alone and you are doing the right thing for yourself by asking this question and I am sure you are going to make real progress. <3
posted by pazazygeek at 10:01 AM on November 25, 2020 [13 favorites]

I'd start by telling yourself that you are awesome a few times a day. This is a true statement, but actually bringing it to the top of your consciousness will probably help you feel emotionally better, which should reduce the level of stress you're feeling for a few moments -- which is a very quick, free thing you can do to improve your life.
posted by amtho at 10:12 AM on November 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm in academia, which is a field where many people don't have a good work-life balance. I do because I just work less and deal with the consequences of this decision. Fortunately for me, the consequences are pretty minimal.

I think by definition, having a good work-life balance means that you aren't constantly working. If this is required for your job, then maybe it's not possible.
posted by chernoffhoeffding at 10:14 AM on November 25, 2020 [6 favorites]

Something we don't talk about is that true work life balancing usually means some degree of failure.

Even high-level, externally successful executives, who state in their Forbes profiles that they are home for dinner with their kids every night because they have great work-life balance...have failed at something, at some point. Maybe they have a spouse who does all the emotional labour at a cost to the spouse. Maybe they have bad sibling relationships. Maybe their company is successful financially but has burned out many promising employees. Maybe they strip-mined something.

Failure is a part of life and a part of growth. But in order to get more life in your work-life balance you are going to have to fail at work. So talk to your boss and discuss that you need to reduce your output by 10%, and pick which 10% will fail. That's kind of the only magic bullet here. Then you take your breaks and you log off at whatever point you feel is going to help, and you don't log in again until the next day. Some phrases are:

- I'm afraid I can't get that done by X time but I will have it for you by Y time. [Note that there is no "is this okay?" in this sentence.]
- I don't have enough cycles to get this done for Monday. I can scale it back by doing X, or I can get it done by Wednesday. What's best?
- Dear boss: Today I have A B C D E F G to get done, but I can only get 5 things done. Which two should I drop? B seems reasonable to me but I'm not sure about the other one.

Now these strategies might not work depending on your job - if you can give a bit more detail we might be able to help more specifically.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:22 AM on November 25, 2020 [24 favorites]

Great advice above.

My parents (non-western culture, etc. etc.) learned quickly that if you get all your work done at an American firm, the only reward is more work. They learned quickly that their sandbagging lollygagging colleagues didn't get fired, so why should they try so hard?

I am told that folks in really high positions do work a lot more, but they have also realized that part of their expertise is knowing what they can safely drop, and to only do things that only they can do. They don't try to do everything.
posted by batter_my_heart at 11:04 AM on November 25, 2020 [10 favorites]

"Perfect is the enemy of done" and applying the 80/20 rule

Often it is more important for the work to be completed than it is for it to be executed perfectly. Any extra hours/days I spend working on something don't always have the payoff for the effort and the stress, which ties into the 80/20 rule: where 20% of your work gets you 80% of the way there- if you can identify and prioritize the important work you can actually ignore the rest. I prioritize what is important to me/my career, and I've spent many years pushing back on various bosses to make them prioritize my resources (my time, my effort etc). During the year, when I log off/walk out of the office, I am available to my team by text/call to consult on a project, but when I go on vacation, I am simply not available.

To this day, standing my ground has never cost me a project, a promotion or caused ill will; in fact people tend to respect you more when you tell them no, that simply won't be possible, but work with them to figure out what can actually be delivered that meets the requirements. When my projects are prioritized and my boss says, this project needs 100% of your/your team's effort, I in turn trust them, and give them that effort.

I also regularly sit down with my team members and work through what they are spinning their wheels on, and what their priorities are, but that's more generic management- spending 10mins every week or month to review things makes it less likely that projects or folks get really off track or burnt out.

I work a high pressure job at a fancy big name corp, with a relatively successful work/life balance. However, what I define as a good work/life balance may not look like it to someone else (I still work longer hours than many people do, but because I'm working on things I care about it is worth it to me.)
posted by larthegreat at 11:10 AM on November 25, 2020 [8 favorites]

+1 to Essentialism the book and I would also recommend the podcast McKeown has been doing, as he has interventions with people on just this topic. The people tend to be already on their essentialist journey, and serve as great additional case studies to the book.
posted by chiefthe at 11:13 AM on November 25, 2020

Expectations are always negotiable.

Other people’s expectations of you are always negotiable.
posted by armoir from antproof case at 11:37 AM on November 25, 2020 [6 favorites]

A few years ago I struggled in many of the same ways you described. One day I vented to my boss about how overwhelmed I was & how frustrated I was that “everyone” kept coming to me, for assistance/answers/guidance, instead of going elsewhere or figuring it out themselves. He said to me: “You need to stop being so good at your job, else no one will have any incentive to stop asking you for things.”

It was an eye opener.

It’s possible that in being so good and responsive at what you do, you are depriving others of the opportunity to learn how to make do in other ways.

Also, as someone suggested above: examine and question the idea that you will “get into trouble” for not working harder. Do you *know* that to be a fact? Is it part of your lived experience in THIS job (and not because of something you experienced years ago)? I don’t know your situation, so perhaps that is 100% true; but in my own experience, my [intense, irrational, sometimes debilitating] fears of imagined consequences of being non-performing, we’re so far from reality. I dropped things, I failed, and every time the consequence was laughably far less than I’d imagined. In any event, almost anyone [else] is going to understand you aren’t perfect and will be willing to work with you if you “fail” — I use air quotes because most will not see the shortcoming as a “failure”. Perhaps only you do.

Good luck.
posted by armoir from antproof case at 11:49 AM on November 25, 2020 [5 favorites]

I don't really believe that you can't compromise on work without getting in trouble, unless you've actually attempted to negotiate the expectations placed on you and been kicked to the curb. You have made a case for extra resource, so the idea that you are operating beyond your capacity wouldn't, honestly, be a surprise for your boss. Talk to them and see what can be done.
posted by plonkee at 11:51 AM on November 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

I read this HBR article on "insecure overachievers" a while back (not calling you either of those things, btw, but the description from the article might resonate).

It was helpful for me to realise that this is a thing that some strands of capitalism are deliberately trying to target and exploit in the workforce. It's a bargain that overwhelmingly benefits the employer, and one that only works as long as the employee believes they have no choice but to play along. The people who successfully do busy, high-powered jobs without just working all the time are the ones who've examined that bargain, said, "thanks, but no thanks" and done the negotiation exercise other commenters have described above where they make it clear in a professional and collaborative way that they can only do x% of the things on their plate, and then stick to that boundary.

Capitalism already overwhelmingly benefits employers over employees, so why make that job even easier for your employer with you by offering no resistance when they ask you to do the impossible or unfeasible, especially if doing so is at the expense of your health and the rest of your life?
posted by terretu at 11:57 AM on November 25, 2020 [11 favorites]

Been there, done that - professional services firms in particular live and breathe on young grads so deep into impostor syndrome that they set themselves on fire to keep the company warm. Push back on any ASAP deadline, and for things where they ask you when it can be done, pad your estimate by at least 20% or a day (whichever is longer). For each new task ask yourself if you're really the only person who can do it, and delegate or recommend that your boss delegate it - maybe a peer recently took similar training or mentioned at the (virtual) water cooler that this type of task looks interesting or they did it in a previous job? And don't be afraid to say "I don't know" to whatever question you're asked, or "I don't know, but I think doing this would be helpful to find out the answer".

The secret? The quality of your work goes up at least 50% when you have time to sleep and that extra day to take a break and come back to your output with a clear mind. This will benefit both you and the company. And give you a much better frame of mind to job hunt.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 1:11 PM on November 25, 2020 [13 favorites]

I've never thought of myself as a perfectionist. I grew up in a non-Western country where there was a lot of emphasis placed on excellence and working hard and always being the best, and because I was never the best I always thought that I was kind of shit at things. I know I'm probably on the better side of average, but I always feel like people are thinking I'm terrible at what I do.

Perfectionists are never satisfied with their work. They think they should always be perfect, but that's not possible, so they have a dismal view of their capabilities and their work. The defining characteristic of a perfectionist is having impossible standards, and therefore thinking of yourself as a failure.

It's a very stressful way to live. Working with a therapist is both helpful and difficult for perfectionists, because perfectionists think they shouldn't need therapy, don't deserve it, and will probably just screw it up. So, see if you can give yourself permission to fail at therapy.

A recovering perfectionist
posted by BrashTech at 1:40 PM on November 25, 2020 [6 favorites]

You need to start failing at work. As a reformed workaholic, I realised that the more I took on, the more they’d give me. It doesn’t matter if you’re burnt out, as long as you keep doing the work of two people, they don’t need to hire anyone else because you’re already doing it. Your company will only give you help once it becomes clear that the workload can’t be successfully done by one person. So you need to start not completing it all. Take your lunch break. Go home at a reasonable hour. Sure, do overtime occasionally just to be a team player but not every day. Take your life back because your company sure as hell won’t offer to let you have it if they can squeeze more dollars out of you. Short of quitting, it’s the only way.
posted by Jubey at 5:30 PM on November 25, 2020 [10 favorites]

I didn't know what it would be like to fail at work, until I failed. I had two huge projects that were both super-important and both overdue. I reached out for help on both of them, and no help was forthcoming. It was just me. Normally I'd have dug deeper & delivered anyway, but on this occasion I also had major real-life shit going on, so I hit the wall and I failed. I signed off sick & took three months away from work - therapy, SSRIs, etc.

Guess what? No-one really gave a shit about the two projects that weren't delivered because now they had exactly zero people to work on them. When I came back to work, I found that one of the projects had evaporated entirely without any apparent harm - and the other was still sitting there, exactly where I'd left it. I picked that one up again & completed it at my own pace. The customer waited & thanked me when it was done.

About a year later I got a new job. This one moves at a _much_ slower pace, which tbh I still find uncomfortable. But I'm trying to get used to it.

fwiw I also failed at therapy, but that's a different story
posted by rd45 at 2:46 AM on November 26, 2020 [2 favorites]

Does everyone at your workplace work as much as you do? I suspect not. You need to start setting boundaries as you sound very close to burn out. Talk to your supervisor- use the word burnout. Develop strategies to reduce your workload and set reasonable expectations for turnaround times. Start saying no to assignments and pushing back when requests aren't feasible. Being the workplace martyr doesn't win you any prizes, it just wins you more work that other people don't want to do.
posted by emd3737 at 5:13 AM on November 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

I’m guessing you don’t get to the end of one of your long days and think “I’ve finished everything! There’s nothing more I could possibly do!” In most jobs there are always more things to do and, as in life generally, we never reach “the end”.

It sounds like you’re trying to cope with this by getting as close as possible to “the end”, as mythical as it might be, by working longer and longer hours.

You need to recognise that there is no way to complete everything, even working longer. In which case it’s not a bad thing to work more regular hours - you still won’t complete everything, like now, but you will survive.

It will be tricky to change - everyone you work with sees how much you get done and think this is standard for you, whether they know how long you work or not. So you need to have yourself and others recognise this isn’t standard, and that you will now set limits on what can get done in a day.

Acknowledge that you can’t do everything, but you will do what you can, as well as you can, in a standard working day. That’s what they’re paying you for.
posted by fabius at 5:19 AM on November 26, 2020 [2 favorites]

Sure it is possible, even in high-stress type jobs with lots of external drivers for deadlines.

Here's how I do it but note that for me, balance is working 60 hours a week, including maybe 5 hours of reading / thinking that I would do even if not paid for it. For me, balance is about not working more than that on average and having a very limited number of weeks where I work substantially more hours than that.

For me, the key is having a system for recording tasks, measuring how much time I spend on things, and keeping track of what has been delegated that I just need to keep a eye on and what I have to do.

I'm a big fan of the Getting Things Done philosophy. You can really disappear down a rabbit hole with the details but basically everything you have to do gets broken down into discrete next actions, every action is something you either do, defer, or delegate.

I start my day by doing the following:
-Reviewing all overnight IMs, voicemail, and emails and either responding right away, deleting, or adding an action to my list. Emails all get filed away so there is nothing left in my inbox.
-All actions then get either delegated to someone else (with a reminder for me to check on status at an appropriate time), deferred for me to look at later, deferred for me to maybe do (in practice this is just to keep me happy - I know very well that these things will probably never get done, or listed as an action.
-If it's an action for me, I assign a time estimate to it.
-I then divide my day up into timeblocks that correspond to projects I'm working on. My scheduling process for the day looks like:
--Input all calls, meetings, etc. that I haven't been able to get out of.
--Put in project related timeblocks around them
--Put in timeblocks for non-work stuff: I'm not procrastinating right now, I'm in my daily "online" block.
--Stick the actions into timeblocks

Now, so far, none of this enforces work-life balance at all. What does is that:
-I track the time actually worked on things
-When a timeblock is over, I stop working on that thing (If there is a project deadline on that day, I will just assign the whole day to that project as I know I'll be working on it the whole day)
-When I have finished my timeblocks for the day, I have a 30 minute "guard band" at the end of my working day. In that time, I first do anything urgent that got pushed around during the day, then re-schedule any work that didn't get done but can wait to the next day
-If I have a "bow-wave" of work that keeps getting pushed to later and later days, I drop projects or ask for additional resources

For me, a lot of trouble I had with delegating and turning down work came from a lack of my own visibility on what I was spending my time on and a feeling that I wasn't being productive enough. Having the data to hand that showed me what I actually did over the course of a month made me feel much better about saying: "You know what, I spent an average of 50 hours a week productively engaged on high priority projects, and another 10 on admin, reading, and other things - that is enough and I'm not doing any extra".
posted by atrazine at 6:36 AM on November 26, 2020 [4 favorites]

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