By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, Tribune Newspapers
September 6, 2011
In "I Don't Know How She Does It," which opens this month, Sarah Jessica Parker's character bolts frantically from demanding job to loving husband to her two kids — the quintessential "have it all" woman who ends up having everything halfway.
Late to meetings, falling asleep before sex and bursting into tears when she misses her son's first haircut, Parker's heroine confesses: "I love my work, although sometimes I wish I didn't love it so much."
Such is the conundrum in the quest for work-life balance, a kind of holy grail for modern fulfillment. We aspire to love our jobs and accomplish great things, yet in seeking balance we rob some of that energy to direct it elsewhere.
As Carrie Bradshaw might have put it in Parker's former life: Does passion suffer when you impose moderation?
Akhila Kolisetty thinks it might. Kolisetty, 22, a recent college graduate working in Washington, D.C., is choosing to forsake balance to focus on her job at a civil rights law firm and her volunteer work at a nonprofit that provides legal aid to Afghan women. She estimates she spends about 70 hours a week on that work, plus more weekend hours writing grants for the nonprofit, leaving a couple of nights free to spend time with friends.
"If I want to be able to make the most impact, I have to spend this amount of time," Kolisetty said, adding this is the time to do it because she has few family obligations.
It is a controversial opinion, as Kolisetty discovered when she wrote about her anti-balance philosophy in a blog post earlier this year and was slammed with angry comments testifying to the physical, emotional and mental toll that a single-minded pursuit of work had on people's lives.
With a third of U.S. employees overworked and reporting more mistakes and poorer health as a result, experts and studies say there's value in moderation — and rather than dampen passion, balance helps fortify it.
First, define 'balance'
What a healthy balance entails is different for everyone — and it might not even be the right word.
Rather than seek "balance," which connotes a 50-50 split or an either/or bargain, Judy Martin views the struggle as a work-life "merge" to account for our culture of 24/7 accessibility.
Many people fear they'll lose their competitive edge if they put down their BlackBerry for a minute, but it's a recipe for burnout, said Martin, who works as a TV news anchor in Long Island and runs worklifenation.com, where she explores workplace issues.
The key to managing the merge, she said, is prioritizing the things that are most important to you and communicating boundaries to employers, spouses and anyone else who demands your time.
"It's about going into the boss's office and having a solution," Martin said. That might mean asking to come in early so you can leave early for school pickup, or designating dinnertime off-limits to work calls but vowing to check in right after.
Martin's interest in workplace wellness began when the Twin Towers tumbled a decade ago. Reporting on the attacks for a radio program, Martin found a way to manage her stress and grief by volunteering each night to sit with the kids of survivors who trekked to ground zero searching for loved ones.
For Martin, balance meant making time to volunteer and meditate so she could refuel. But it's up to each individual to figure out an energy source.
For Kathy Caprino of Connecticut, balance meant seeking work that mattered and making room for hobbies she had long neglected. After 18 years chasing money and ego up the corporate ladder, with her leftover time spent with her two kids, Caprino felt depressed, angry and chronically ill.
Her turning point also came with 9/11, when she was laid off in the ensuing economic crash. She was so one-dimensional at the time, she said, that she continued to put on a suit every morning and just drive around.
Eventually, after trying on a new hat as a therapist, Caprino founded Ellia Communications, a career coaching business that meshed her knowledge of the corporate world with her passion for helping people. She said she works constantly, more than she ever did before, but she can carve out time for other interests, such as tennis and singing, as well as her family.
"It's moderation that leads to a healthier, happier individual," Caprino said.
Both genders affected
While the struggle for work-life balance is often associated with working moms, men actually experience more work-family conflict than women, according to a 2008 survey from the nonprofit Families and Work Institute. Traditional pressures men feel to be breadwinners, combined with new pressures to be more involved in family life and workplaces that don't fully support those dual roles, has resulted in what researchers termed the "new male mystique."
Leo Babauta remembers his breaking point: It was a Saturday in 2005; he was a speechwriter for the governor of Guam and furiously trying to crank out the annual State of the Island speech when he had to call his wife to say he couldn't make it to his son's soccer game. The disappointment brought him to tears.
"My life was upside-down," Babauta said. "I was spending the most amount of time on the stuff I didn't really like and the least amount on the stuff that was most important to me."
Babauta made a long list of the commitments in his life, from his soccer coaching gig to his post on the parent-teacher board, and then a short list of the four things that were most important to him: spending time with family, writing, reading and running.
Babauta trimmed commitments that didn't fit with his priorities, starting with the easy ones, like going to fewer parties, and ending three years later with the scariest, which was quitting his job.
Now living in San Francisco with his wife and six children, Babauta, 38, has quit smoking, lost 70 pounds, become a vegetarian and eliminated debt. He writes the blog zenhabits.net, one of Time magazine's top blogs in 2009 and 2010, to share the joys of a simplified life.
"The exact balance isn't really important," Babauta said. "It's just creating the space for what's important to you."
Making room for relationships
To cope with work demands, many people put their romantic relationships on autopilot, which leaves both partners unsatisfied and at greater risk of seeking other avenues to fulfill their emotional needs, said Pepper Schwartz, professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle and the chief relationship expert at the dating site Perfect-Match.com.
While prioritizing work is understandable when a project or crisis demands a person's full-time attention, it can go on for only so long before a relationship needs some play and affection to counteract the malaise.
"Co-presence is not the same as being in a relationship," Schwartz said. "They have to remember their partner is their lover and that has to be preserved."
Maintaining a date night without kids and where there's motivation to dress up is important, Schwartz said. Couples should carve out time for talking, set guidelines for how to keep the relationship romantic, and pay attention to sex, which is the main thing that differentiates a romantic relationship from a friendship.
The neglected partner, who usually is the first to raise the alert, can help by suggesting specific solutions, such as getting tickets to a baseball game or asking for a Sunday together, rather than complaining, "I never see you," which is too big and vague for an already-stressed person to tackle.
As for breaking the news to an employer that the office isn't your only love, it's usually less scary than people think.
"Sometimes it's not that your work doesn't understand," Schwartz said. "It's you who feels like you need to be available all the time, giving 110 percent, when in fact you could probably give work 95 percent and give 15 percent to your partner."