Achieving work/life balance has been credited with making workers more productive, more loyal and less stressed, and yet a recent survey from Harvard Business School shows that even global executives feel the need to be on the job 24/7. One even commented that his own inability to delegate means that subordinates should “be prepared to get emails at night.”
Said another: “I think that people today expect that you are available and going to be available at all times, and if you don’t return an email within an hour, or even minutes, then people think that you are not paying attention to them.”
Meg Cadoux Hirshberg knows a thing or two about trying to juggle the demands of work and a personal life. As the wife of Gary Hirshberg, founder of Stonyfield Farm, she and her husband struggled to balance the demands of a business with the demands of their children and marriage. Meg has also been busy with her own career as the author of two yogurt cookbooks and as a regular columnist for Inc. magazine. She currently is promoting a new book, “For Better or for Work.” I caught up with her to see what survival lessons she could share about balancing life in this 24/7 culture.
AB: Because of the difficult economy in the last several years, do you feel finding a work/life balance has become more difficult?
MH: Intuitively, I do feel it’s more difficult because we’re all under so much pressure to find a job or keep a job and that becomes the crisis. We tend to prioritize whatever is screaming the loudest and a lot of times other things fall by the wayside even if you don’t want them to.
AB: What are some of the common complaints you hear?
MH: Everyone is distracted, which is not new. But with the devices that keep us available 24/7, it’s more imperative than ever than we consciously prioritize our friends, our family and our community. There are some kinds of jobs that require you to think even when you’re not at work. We’ve got salaried executives who don’t take the vacation time they’re allotted because they don’t feel they can and they want to show they’re working hard, especially in a tough economy. So that means that critical bonding time with family starts to ebb away.
AB: But couldn’t they still stay connected to work even on a vacation, but still spend time with their family?
MH: I’m a big believer in vacations. It says to other people when you take that time away with them that you’re sweeping everything else aside and making the unspoken statement: “This is important to me.” You’re creating memories. If you’ve got to bring a device, at least limit the time you’re on it.
AB: Do you think work/life balance is more difficult for women than for men?
MH: I do think that women have a much heavier cross to bear. The bulk of maintaining the household falls to women. They’re expected to have dinner on the table and be at the child’s play. I think that’s changing, but that’s still largely the case. Women are much more prone to guilt. I had one woman tell me that she’s not mothering the way she was mothered. And she has tremendous guilt about that.
AB: Do you think we should share more with our children about what’s going on at work? There are a lot of people who still worry about job security and may be facing layoffs or other cutbacks.
MH: This is a subject that generates a lot of emotion. When children are small, as long as they have their toys and their friends and a roof over their head, they’re fine. But if they’re older, the question becomes should you share a financial problem? How old is old enough? You don’t want them to start to feel insecure when there’s nothing they can do. But I think sitting down with older kids and explaining some financial issues and explaining you may not be able to afford the trip to Disney this year is OK.
AB: Even if we don’t address work or financial issues specifically with kids, how much do you think they pick up anyway?
MH: I think it’s important to be aware that your children are soaking up everything, including your attitudes at work. How that affects them later, who knows? But if they see you venting about work, talking about hostile interactions at home and then you get fired, they may think they really have to toe the line and behave or one day they’ll get fired like mom did.
AB: How much do you think is healthy to share with your spouse or significant other about what you’re going through at work?
MH: I think it depends. Venting is important, but it should be more than that. It’s important to keep your work worlds connected because your spouse spends so much of his day doing something else and it’s important to understand what he goes through. But that being said, you really have to resist using your spouse as a dumping ground for your anxieties because they’re carrying around their own anxieties.
AB: You’ve suggested that in order to stay connected to your spouse and his or her work, you should try to go to a conference or visit a workplace.
MH: Try to be a part of that person’s world when you can. Work your spouse’s booth at a conference or spend a few hours with him on the job or attend a social event where you get to meet the people he works with. That way, when he comes home to talk about work, you know where he’s coming from. By getting to know the job and the people, you may also be able to offer your spouse another perspective and you’ll make more informed comments when you know what’s going on.
AB: But what if you don’t want to talk about your spouse’s job and you just tune him or her out?
MH: Anytime you tune a spouse out about anything, it’s a warning sign. You must remain interested and honest, and you need to figure out why you don’t want to hear it. Maybe because it worries you to hear about problems at work because the family relies on your spouse’s income. If you are the person coming home and unloading troubles, you’ve got to respect the fact that your spouse may feel powerless and completely at the mercy of what happens to you at work. That’s when you change the conversation to a vision of your future and limit what you share from work.
AB: Some people believe that working from home is the answer to achieving work/life balance. Do you agree?
MH: The best and worst thing about working from home is that work is only footsteps away. So, it’s much more challenging to set limits. I’ve had to eat a lot of crow the last year because I’ve been consumed by this book project. Sunday becomes the same as Wednesday. I work straight through. So I understand it takes enormous discipline to take time away from work. It’s not a viable long-term strategy to just bring that work home and have no boundaries. It’s like a blinking red light and you better pay attention. It’s a serious danger.
AB: Any strategies you can share that you do in your own life when working from home?
MH: No computer in the kitchen. I don’t put any work stuff in my family space. I think it’s a good place to make a stand.
AB: Does that include your smartphone?
MH: It’s tough. Technology is pervasive and we’re all addicted. But we do forbid phones at the dinner table when we’re eating. That’s a critical time for us as a family. A smartphone at the table – even if it’s not ringing — changes the nature of the space.