I like to think of myself as a crusader in the cause for work-life balance. A bit dramatic maybe but there are few things I’m as passionate about as eradicating the misplaced notion that success means working 80 hours a week. In reality, few of us actually work more than 40-45 hours a week. Yet the insidious notion remains that to be a top producer, an employee of value, requires complete and utter commitment to one’s profession regardless of how ridiculous (and dangerous) it can be.
I recall a particular moment when I was interviewing with different graduate programs and right before each interview I’d leave my engagement ring in my suitcase. I didn’t want to be judged for being engaged; soon to be married with the added leap that babies would inevitably follow. Even now that I have been married for several years and move closer to that particular stage in my life, every once in a while I catch myself wondering how I would be perceived at work if I became pregnant.
It’s terribly shameful that as a society we have conditioned people to value work and image above all other things. When did it become acceptable to devalue our family and personal lives in favor of making more money for whatever company you happen to work for? This really hit me when I came across an article earlier this week about interns at SpaceX reportedly working 80 hours a week. Interns! Young, bright folks putting themselves through the ringer because SpaceX is considered a ‘cool’ company and a launching point for bigger and better things.
In a way I get it though. It takes a while to dispel the expectations all around you about what success looks like. It can be especially hard to do this when you’re a student or just starting out in the workforce. It’s easier to use those around you as a model of what is acceptable employee behavior, and if your peers or mentors are emulating an unhealthy devotion to the daily grind, then why not jump off the deep end yourself?
Like all things, experience really is the key difference in making informed decisions about what works best for you; to slowly shed the Pavlovian response that more hours equals better work. Even when you do realize that you’re not living according to your values and are fed up with unrealistic expectations, it can be intimidating to live your truth.
We’re social animals, and being seen going against the grain in your workplace can be a true fear-inducing activity. I remember the first few times I dared to leave work before my boss. I would feel my throat constrict a bit, some chest palpitations. What will they think of me I wondered? Am I going to be reprimanded for this? Will I be seen as less committed to my work?
I don’t necessarily possess a completely carefree attitude when it comes to my work hours because after all I am getting paid to do a certain amount of work per week. What I do possess is an unshakable belief that you don’t need to be a workaholic to make a significant contribution to your projects. Often we confuse passion and devotion for something entirely different when it comes to our jobs. Even though I genuinely like my work and for the most part enjoy the time I am there, it doesn’t change the fact that my top priority is my family and my own well being. Feeling like I come first, and the work second is not an unhealthy way to live, yet it seems like so much of the world values that particular mindset.
Work-life balance may be an overused, meaningless phrase according to the internet but for me it still represents a very much achievable goal worth striving for. Not just for ourselves, but to slowly transform our institutions from these intractable places where people’s needs and wants come second, to places where we can all flourish given the right tools.
It may sound naive but I believe that it’s entirely possible to create this transformation. It starts with refusing to glorify a culture of overwork. Responding with disdain any time someone humble brags about how much they work or how busy they are. There is nothing positive about neglecting your well being regardless of what society tells you. Keep your needs at the forefront, express them often and refuse to compromise and work-life balance won’t just be a cliché.