On average, women who work full-time outside the home still bear more of the burden of household labor and management than fully employed men. To confound this inequality, employers are often more likely to assume that women are “distracted” by their personal lives. Case in point: though 75 percent of women report having been asked about marriage and family in job interviews, 40 percent of women feel that they can’t talk about family at work if they want to be taken seriously. And 52 percent of working mothers shortened their maternity leave for fear of negative impact on their careers.
But it’s not just women who feel—and report being—plagued by impossible expectations and recurring burnout from trying to find that elusive “balance.” Through my work in gender diversity and inclusive leadership training, I’ve heard about this issue from the married and the single, parents and the childfree, men and women. I’ve met a lot of people from all organizational levels who constantly feel under siege and under water but are afraid to talk about it. In this respect, the numbers are almost equal: 50 percent of men and 56 percent of women report feeling stressed about balancing work and the obligations of their personal lives.
I believe that, in part, this problem can be attributed to the lingering effects of the traditional business model, which values competition, information hoarding, and top-down authority. The new business model, one that is being built as more women enter and advance in the workforce, offers a solution. It promotes self-directed teams, a flattened management style, and relationships based on trust and collaboration. Within this paradigm, the desire for work life balance stops being a liability. I like to call it work-life harmony, in which everyone has enough time and space for all the pursuits and obligations of a whole life.
So how can you create work life harmony? Here’s how:
1. Have realistic expectations.
Be honest about what you wish you can do and what can you actually do. Most of us would love to be able to be a rock star at work, volunteer at the homeless shelter, cook all family meals from scratch, train for a half-marathon, and learn Mandarin. A few supermen and superwomen can do and have it all, but most of us can’t and that’s OK. Instead of setting yourself up for failure by buying into the fantasy, figure out what your priorities are and what you can truly accomplish. All the goals you’re supposed to strive for but don’t really care about or have time for? Forget about those.
If you’re the boss, then you have to think bigger—what are your company’s priorities and what can your team truly accomplish? Remember to factor in the legitimate and essential need for lunch breaks and days off.
2. Get comfortable with negotiation.
In my experience, the people who suffer the most from work life imbalance are those who can’t say no. A few years ago, I worked with a group of women in Silicon Valley who, in a company-wide HR survey, had scored the lowest on satisfaction with work life balance. These were senior execs, women in positions of power, and yet they said yes to almost everything that was asked of them and accepted extra assignments and tight deadlines without hesitation. Inevitably, that led to them taking on too much and, over time, feeling burned out. This is a common phenomenon—women tend to negotiate brilliantly when negotiating on the behalf of others, but not so much when negotiating for themselves. Remember that whole put-on-your-own-oxygen-mask first thing? Negotiate with both your colleagues and your clients to create a workload that you can handle with deadlines you can meet without sacrificing your personal pursuits and responsibilities (or your sanity).
If you’re the boss, foresight, sensible goal-setting, and delegation are key. Negotiate with your employees to establish their fair share—and make sure you’re not biting off more than you can chew.
3. Stop creating competing commitments
Be 100% present with what you are committed to. That means that you don’t check your email at 5:42 while on the sideline of your kid’s soccer game. You don’t leave family dinner to take a call from that needy client. And you don’t respond to a text from your boss under the table on a first date Saturday night. When you’re on, be all the way on and when you’re off, be all the way off.
If you are the boss, you must be a role model. The top of the leadership chain sets the tone for the company culture and its norms. So don’t email your employees on a sunny Sunday afternoon, even if you don’t expect them to reply. Leave the business for business hours and go take care of the other important tasks and people in your life—including you!