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Work-life balance? It's really integration

April 1, 2014
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Americans log more hours on the job than anyone in the industrialized world.

More than the English, more than the French, way more than the Germans or Norwegians. Even, recently, more than the Japanese, according to a report by ABC News.

And Americans take less vacation, work longer days, and retire later, too.

According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report, more than 25 million Americans — 20.5 percent of the total workforce — reported they worked at least 49 hours a week in 1999. Eleven million of those said they worked more than 59 hours a week. And that was in ’99, FIFTEEN years ago now. Raise your hand if you think we’re working any less in 2015.

Don’t beat up your boss

But don’t blame your boss or your work culture. With technology and a global economy erasing the boundaries between the job and home, the corporation is no longer in a position to tell you when to stop working, which tasks to prioritize, or how to draw lines in the sand that say enough is enough, says Cali Williams Yost, flexible work consultant and author of “Tweak It: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day.”

Yost says. “We’re reaching at a natural point where companies can’t do much more than what they’re doing: offering the flexibility and rolling it out well.

How are we managing this flexibility, this freedom from clocking in and clocking out? Some 30 million Americans work from a home office at least once a week. And that number is expected to increase by 63 percent in the next five years, according to a study by the Telework Research Network.

An estimated three million American professionals are tethered to their homes and never enter the corporate headquarters office.

Of course I’m working more

They may not have time to step outside. Author Juliet Schor, who wrote the best-selling book “The Overworked American” in 1992, concluded Americans worked an average of nearly one month more per year in 1990 than in 1970.

Volumes of surveys ask people if they’re working more than they used to. Generally, people say yes, of course they are. (That includes ISHN’s surveys of EHS professionals in the past five years.)

A typical telecommuter is 49 years old, college educated, a salaried non-union employee in a management or professional role, earns $58,000 a year, and works for a company with more than 100 employees, according to Global Workplace Analytics.

Being a manager or white-collar professional increases the odds of being wired into your job 24/7/365. You’re writing and responding to emails at all hours. You can’t resist the temptation to check text messages and emails on your smartphone or tablet device whether you’re dining at a restaurant, at your son’s birthday party, at your daughter’s field hockey game, or, heaven forbid, you’re driving in rush hour traffic.

A manager, supervisor or white-collar employee is also likely to raise the work ethic ante and do things like continue to work when they’re sick, work on vacation (taking emails and phone calls and responding to emergencies) and to return to work more quickly following pregnancy or surgery. These driven higher-ups also are likely to have a strong work conscience. So they’re able to dispense with personal appointments (cable installer, appliance delivery, teacher consult, etc.) without losing a full day of work. Or they make up the hours at night or on the weekend.

The long shadow of the “new normal”

The so-called “new normal” of work has various dimensions:

1) If you’re fortunate to have a good-paying job still after the 2008 global financial meltdown and frustratingly slow rebound, you’re a survivor. And to maintain that job and that income you work like a Spartan if you must.

2) Uncertainty about the economy and the job market, plus horror stories of friends well-qualified, skilled, and out of work for months or years keeps you on edge; an edginess or nervousness that can put you at your desk earlier; leave for work earlier and come home later; and take on more assignments to “prove your value.”

3) Lean corporate staffs and in many cases more decentralized business operations equate to less oversight from HQ. This also often means less communication. Employees at home or in the office who are in the dark about their company’s financial picture, strategies, and goals are out of the feedback loop. Never a good thing. No news can produce more anxiety and stress.

4) Working in any kind of vacuum leaves you vulnerable to the sinking feeling of “what am I missing?”

 5) Increased workloads can lead to the disturbing feeling that you’re just skimming the surface of what needs to be done and eventually “someone” will find out.

All of this throws the old work-life balance out of whack. If you’re nervous about your job security, nervous about your company’s plans, see peers on the unemployment line, and are doing the work formerly done by two or three people, you’re going to dive in, or “lean in” as the buzzword goes today, and work harder. That means less time for families, hobbies, and vacations. How much unused vacation time did you leave behind last year, if you’re not permitted to carry it over? Or, are you a victim of “presenteesim” when you’re with your family? Physically you are present, but your mind is churning about work.

It’s your call to make

Still, many workplace and management experts say, “Quit the bitching. Take responsibility for managing your work and life commitments.” If you are working more in isolation, almost as a contractor or freelancer, with little contact or direction from HQ, it’s time to take ownership of your own little “business” so to speak. It’s up to you to prioritize your time, set limits as to what you will and won’t do for the job in the off-hours of evenings and weekends. It’s your call how you privately integrate work and the rest of your life.

It’s worth remembering Stephen Covey’s adage: Take time to sharpen the saw. In other words, stand back, admire your work, and take some deep breaths. Create your own pockets of “relaxation time” because no one else will do it for you. If you’re the typical 49-year-old telecommuter, you probably have more control than ever over your work. Almost 30 years into your career gives you that lattitude.

I have a small, square piece of colorful tile art, with a warm, roaring fireplace and a pair of feet propped up on an ottoman. A quarter moon hangs outside the window. The saying, “The rest is up to you.”

Doing what you like to do, in addition to what the job demands of you, is not so much like striking a balance on a seesaw, with you on one end and your boss on the other. That’s too linear and defined. It’s more how you decide to integrate the pieces of the puzzle that make up this “new normal.”

Bertrand Russell, the English philosopher, in his 1932 essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” reckoned if society were better managed the average person would only need to work four hours a day. This would “entitle a man to the necessities and elementary comforts of life.”

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