If you knew that there was something so utterly simple you could begin to do start changing the conversation about work-life balance and let’s face it, the lack thereof, would you? I didn’t expect to have this mini epiphany today but it struck me as I finished having a brief chat with a colleague I ran into at work. She asked me how I was enjoying the start of summer break and my immediate response was how much more I was going to enjoy it once I took off for a vacation. We both smiled and nodded, as I briefly shared how I’m planning on getting out of town for Memorial Day weekend to spend some time away with my husband. She shared her own travel plans while bemoaning the fact that in our line of work there is never really a good time to take vacation, as there is always an experiment just beckoning to be done (or a boss reminding you that time is ticking until the next manuscript). In that moment, we both connected over the shared guilt of intensely looking forward to our time off and yet being acutely aware of how difficult it is mentally to even be gone in the first place. As we parted ways, I couldn’t help but think that if that exchange had happened just a few years ago I don’t know if I would have been so forthcoming with my plans for taking some time off. In fact, this has been a fairly recent development in my life.
Since I can remember I have felt like I had to be careful at work about proclaiming that I was going to spend a week in the summer back home visiting my parents or planning to take off the entire week of Thanksgiving to spend time with my in-laws. This reaction was not due to anyone ever saying I couldn’t do these things but the reality is that you get the message very early on that long stretches of time off are just not what you do. This is true in many jobs and academia is no different. For all the flexibility that it offers, there is an undercurrent that expects a certain amount of unhealthy devotion, you know, for the sake of the science. I always felt dreadful when I would inquire about the holiday plans from fellow students only to hear that they were planning to be in the lab most of winter break. I would say to myself that I better not make them feel badly by letting me know I am going to be spending time with my family. I now realize that not speaking about partaking in the many, perfectly normal and dare I say healthy, things that human beings do like take time off, go on vacation and sometimes mental health days because you need a break were actually making me complicit in perpetuating a culture that promotes an unhealthy work-life balance. For all they knew, I was going to be doing the same thing, making it seem like we were all entrenched in our work, plugging away regardless of how badly a break was needed.
I know that most often we are told to keep our personal lives from influencing our work, but whether we believe it or not, our lives will always have a way of impacting what we do. It’s human nature. Life doesn’t exist in three discrete eight hour blocks of time each day with the perfect amount of time for lunch and two 15 minute breaks in between. Life is very messy and while it is important to be professional; minimizing who you are in the workplace and what matters to you is just a harmful practice in the long run (it’s called burnout and it’s very real). The more that we can bring our whole selves into whatever it is we do, the less we have to compartmentalize and surprise, the better and more productive we will be at whatever it is we have our hand in. We should celebrate and encourage one another to lead healthy, pleasurable lives, filled with the things that bring us joy. I know that it may still be a struggle sometimes but I feel so much lighter knowing that I can share the joy of taking time off to be with my loved ones and not feel a sense of guilt at the very same time. It’s a small step but if we all start making the change and stop worshiping at the altar of busyness, life will be just that much sweeter for everyone.