Instead of looking at the various paperwork on his desk, John was consumed with the fact that he was missing his daughter’s basketball game, and it did not appear that he was going to take his son fishing this weekend as promised.
This was the third night this week that John would miss family dinner, leaving his wife Sarah to tend to the kids by herself. Sarah did not outwardly resent John’s work schedule, but he could tell that she was tired and could use more help around the house. John missed spending time with Sarah, and he continuously regretted working through his children’s foundational years. Further, John was beginning to feel his age and he had actively looked back on his life to gauge his levels of stagnation versus generativity. John always came away from that mental debate feeling inadequate and facing ever closer mortality. So, he was faced with a choice: family or the job that provides for their livelihood?
Working full-time and trying to support a family can be a daunting challenge. And as we all know, that comes with stress, the term used to denote current pressure or frustration. When stressed, the body produces a biochemical called cortisol. This chemical is harmful to the heart, can inhibit memory formation, disturb sleep, and cortisol generally makes a person alert, but to a detrimental level. These side effects from this stress hormone can hinder your ability to focus on work, which may in turn cause you to work longer hours which leads to more missed family time, and potentially causes you to lose sleep, exacerbating this cycle.
Stress is an adaptive reaction. It makes us more vigilant, careful, and more apt to protect ourselves from harm. However, excessive amounts of stress can affect your long-term health.
Part of a healthy work-life balance is establishing appropriate boundaries. As such, John could set firm limits, when possible, regarding how much time he spends at the office. Further, he could leave work at work. That means no business calls or paperwork at the house, as that is family time. John could also speak with his supervisor to negotiate times where he could get off work at a better hour so that he can see his kids’ sporting events as well as negotiating free weekends. On the flip side of the home balance, work life cannot be neglected. John could be honest with his family regarding his work schedule and set expectations on this side as well. Being up front about what to anticipate could help ease tensions and disappointments. Finding and respecting boundaries protects you from burnout and helps your family to have more agency in not continually wondering if you will be a part of the evening.
Touched on briefly in the preceding paragraph, burnout is a genuine possibility with an improper work-life balance. Burnout is a general feeling of discontent with your current circumstances to the point of not only fatigue, but apathy towards the situation. If gone unchecked, burnout can lead to anger, depression, and frustration in multiple areas of one’s life.
How do you know when you are burned out? If you notice that your fuse is a little shorter at work and home, you’re having difficulty focusing on tasks, or if you find yourself feeling apathetic, just not caring about your work or life in general, you may be burned out.
So, what should you do? It is unlikely that you can up and quit your job. Likewise, you cannot exactly abandon your family either. The answer to this dilemma lies in self-care. Sometimes people think that taking care of themselves is selfish, or they do not have time, or perhaps they do not know what to do for themselves. Let us take each issue in turn. First, this will sound trite to frequent fliers, but affix your own mask before assisting others. They give you that instruction because if you pass out, you are of no help to yourself or the ones around you.
Taking care of yourself is not a selfish act. In fact, it is incredibly responsible. If you get thoroughly burned out, you will not be present for your family, let alone worth anything at work. Second, if you honestly have no time for even 5-10 minutes of self-care a day, then it could be argued that you could rearrange your priorities at least so far as it would allow you some sort of outlet, however brief. You do not have to spend a great deal of time doing your self-care routine, but make it meaningful. Finally, there is no limit (except perhaps legal and ethical) as to what your self-care can be. Whatever restores your levels of empathy and revitalizes your desire to return to daily life can prove beneficial.
Here in the States, when someone asks, “What do you do?” it is generally assumed that they mean what do you do for a living, as employment. In other parts of the world, that same question is literally meant to inquire as to how you occupy your time (e.g., hobbies, recreational activity, familial activities). This is just to acknowledge that we have a little to learn about balance and, possibly, perspective. Do you think that a negotiation of your work schedule would work for you? What if you are a single parent holding down two jobs with three kids at home? In some cases, navigating the work-life balance is, admittedly, very difficult, but no less important. It is beneficial for there to be open communication and reasonably agreed upon expectations for each member in the family.
Beyond expectations, setting boundaries at work and home will probably prove vital. However, maintaining said boundaries could be another problem entirely. Will you have rigid boundaries where no exceptions are made, where work is work and family time is sacrosanct. Or will you have flexible boundaries, where exceptions can be made and negotiated by the family.
Addressing issues such as burnout and boundaries before they elicit problems is probably the best-case scenario. However, finding what fits for you and yours is the crucial point.
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– Richard DeBord
M.S. Clinical Rehabilitation Counselor, Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC), Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC)
Mental Health Specialist | Email Richard