Illustration: Ashley Siebels
Work-life balance is impossible, and the experts prove it.
An article by Brigid Schulte in New York Magazine highlights the fact that even the people who have all the answers about achieving work-life balance struggle to apply the same concepts to their own lives. She calls this the “expert’s dilemma.”
Schulte mentions how one expert on the concept was leading “the global gender, diversity, and work-life office of a major global tech company,” and jetting off to help workers with it internationally when she ended up in a German hospital with “a potentially life-threatening blood clot.”
Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global, calls herself a “sleep evangelist.” Yesterday, she posted about how when she “collapsed from burnout and exhaustion” 10 years ago, her cheekbone broke, and she “woke up in a pool of blood.” So she got more serious about her health— she eventually left The Huffington Post and started Thrive Global.
When does overwork become too much?
Many overachieving people have stories of working so hard that they reached a point of health crisis: heart attacks, worsening of symptoms of depression or anxiety, or physical injuries. They’re a special breed of wake-up call for workaholism.
Ideally we would be paying enough attention to avoid such crises. Situations like these force the question: Do you finally have to get sick to realize that the way you work is putting you in danger?
Even experts on the subject rarely follow their own advice. Another expert told Schulte, “Every time I have to go give a talk, I always say, ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’”
That expert studies how “work-life balance conflict” makes us feel stressed and guilty, and affects our health, but also deals with stress because of the conflict in her own life — which goes to show that changing one’s own behavior is hard even for those with excellent information to work with.
As difficult as it can be to put yourself first, there are ways to do so— even when you’re getting hit with obligations from all directions.
1. You need to sleep. You really do.
RAND Corporation said in 2016 that according to a report, “a lack of sleep among the U.S. working population is costing the economy up to $411 billion a year, which is 2.28 percent of the country’s GDP.”
Huffington has a lot of faith in sleep. Business Insider reported in 2013 that there were two nap rooms at The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post also reported that Google, Ben & Jerry’s and Zappos followed suit.
Many workplaces have adopted nap pods, and there are a host of apps and daily techniques you can use as well to sleep better.
The key shift in mindset is to make sleep the center of your work strategy. Sleep is not for the weak— you need it to survive at work and at home.
2. You need to take time off, too.
There is a national crisis of ignoring vacation time. A 2016 study of 5,641 American workers who clock in more than 35 hours per week by Project: Time Off and the U.S. Travel Association found that 55% of American employees who participated said they didn’t use all their vacation days in 2015.
We’re not perpetual motion machines. Even if you love your job, getting too used to it makes you less effective. Vacations — even if you spend them at or near home — act as a necessary reset for our bodies and minds. Vacations remind you that you’re a human outside of work, and spending time getting to know yourself and pursuing your interests outside of work can help your personal and professional development.
Need more proof? People who don’t take vacations also don’t promoted. A 2016 study also found that workers who use 10 or less vacation days “are less likely to have received a raise or bonus in the last three years than those who took 11 days or more.”
The study also found that “the amount of time taken also shows a clear correlation to happiness at home. The more vacation days used, the lower the stress at home.”
3. Respect the time you do have
You can’t do everything, so you’ll have to get comfortable saying no. The theory behind this is almost karmic: maybe if we treat time with more respect, time will respect us.
Elizabeth Fenner wrote about how to prioritize yourself for Real Simple — she suggests making a “wish list” to help you carve out for certain things you want to do, then “rank the items in order of importance to you,” and to concentrate on one or two of them.
If you know what you want truly makes you happy, you’ll have an easier time putting yourself first.
Taking your time seriously can help you succeed in your career; at the very least, it can help protect your health.