Balancing work and life

Everyone seems to be under increasing pressure to work harder and faster to produce more in less time. This may seem to make sense to the bottom line of companies or their stockholders – after all, more hours on the job means more widgets out the door. But this stress takes a toll, not only on workers, but also on their employers. Unhappy workers aren’t as productive as happy workers, and this is bound to affect the quality of the widgets. Clearly, what’s needed is a decent balance between work and the rest of life. The not-so-new question is how to do this.

Sometimes it can be as simple as saying “no.” When I was a young lawyer at the US Department of Justice, I was involved in a big case and had worked hard to pull it together. As often happens, the trial judge scheduled argument for a routine motion right in the middle of my long-planned vacation. But instead of cancelling my vacation, as many people might have done, I told my boss I couldn’t argue the motion and handed him the file with everything prepared. He was somewhat stunned, but accepted the file, argued the motion for me, and was so impressed by my work that he recommended me for a departmental award (which I later received for my work on that case). Obviously this approach wouldn’t have been appropriate in many situations and might have gotten me fired, but it didn’t. In fact, if I hadn’t done it, my boss would probably never have known how good my work was and I’d never have gotten the award. Go figure.

A round-about way to say no is to simply take some time for yourself during the day. For example, I slip out in the middle of the day a few times a week to go to the gym. If I can make this a routine, I can concentrate on my work much better. It is time well spent. It puzzles me that employers don’t recognize this and make it possible for their employees to get a bit of exercise.

Sometimes there really isn’t any spare time and this requires a different tack. For the last 13 years, I’ve been a single mom of three with a full-time job and am now a grad student as well. No number of no’s will make much difference here. This situation requires me to set priorities, hone my planner down to the minute, give up my notions of perfection, and forget about sleep and time for myself. It’s quite amazing how much one can actually tolerate, but over the years, it does begin to take a toll.

Productivity is really the key after all and both employers and workers have a role in ensuring productivity. Employers have a right to expect their employees to work hard and work efficiently, but employers who work their employees to the bone will end up with high turnover and, in the long run, lowered productivity. This makes no economic sense.

I would argue that a smart employer makes sure employees have some down time in their schedules. Judging by what I hear about real life as a designer – impossible deadlines, insufficient fees, too much turnover – it doesn’t appear to be happening in the design field. Is a more sensible balance between work and life possible in design? I guess I’ll find out after I graduate.

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