Last week, when a coworker asked me about how I check my work email at home, she was surprised to hear me say that I don’t check it at home. “Oh, you mean you can’t get to your email unless you’re using your work computer?” she asked with a slightly concerned smile. As if I’d maybe forgotten, she reminded me that we use a webmail service. “Don’t you ever just go to the website and check your messages?”
“Nope,” I said. “Unless I’m working from home for the day, I don’t check my work email when I’m out of the office.”
She stared at me with wide eyes. “But what if there’s an emergency?!”
“We don’t really have emergencies. But if we did, someone would call. Everyone has everyone else’s cell number, right?”
She mumbled an unconvinced “I guess” before returning to work. The truth is, we really don’t have much in the way of emergencies in our company. We’re a small group, and our problems range from our Xfinity/Comcast service going out for an entire day (which happens way more than we’d like it to, Comcast!), meeting deadlines for print, and occasionally having some errors from the company that prints our magazines. All of which occur during business hours and are outside my ability and responsibility to resolve.
Even so, I understand her reaction completely. I used to have no work-life balance whatsoever. If someone had told me they don’t check their work email outside of office hours when I held my previous job—oh wait, people did tell me that! And I immediately tensed and stared at them in horror. I wasn’t lying when I said, “If I didn’t constantly check my email, I’d get in so much trouble.”
Constant Contact is Bad for the Soul
My previous job was a toxic environment rife with paranoia that I willingly eased myself into without fully realizing the danger. They gave me a work laptop I was supposed to take home with me every night. They gave me a work phone to keep on my person at all times. At the end of my time there, it had gotten to the point that I wasn’t allowed to leave my desk for lunch. A quick run across the street for coffee and a muffin was the best I could do most days. You can’t imagine the verbal lashing I got for missing a (*cough* completely non-urgent *cough*) call to my desk phone from my boss because I had the audacity to—wait for it—leave my desk and go to the bathroom.
If you can believe it, this made me miserable. What this creates is a high-tension workplace that operates under a constant state of emergency. Instead of projecting assignments in the long-term, discussing realistic deadlines, or saying, “Hey, I know I’m asking a lot; is there any way I can help you with it?” everything is given at the last second and has to be completed right away. Every assignment, no matter how small, suddenly carries with it the fear of a life or death situation. For your career, that is. And that really wrecks your work-life balance.
While all this was going on, I participated in that company’s “healthy by design program” that let you get a discount on your health insurance and compete for prizes by earning points for doing various proactive things for your health. It should surprise precisely no one to hear that my health surveys all concluded I was at a high risk for anxiety and depression, and that I needed to seek immediate help. I dropped out of grad school, informed my supervisor, and started looking for professional help. And then I was fired.
There went my health insurance, but also the main source of my immediate mental health problems. Not an ideal situation, but it helped reset my work-life balance.
Your Boundaries Are Yours to Set
Work-life balance comes from being able to keep work at work so you can still have a life beyond your job. At my previous job, I couldn’t set any kind of boundary between my professional and personal lives. I went into that job right after being a student. I was eager to impress. Eager to earn a gold star in that “willing to work past normal office hours” line in the job posting. As a student, I internalized the idea that only the people who went beyond the basic requirements would get to where they wanted to go. Like most advice given to new professionals, it should have come with a reminder that too much of anything can be a bad thing.
As a recent college grad, it is alarmingly easy to force yourself into being a yes-man in the hopes that it will earn you recognition, professional advancement, and maybe even a raise. And in the face of crippling student loan debt, the austere gap between a livable wage and the cost of living, it is all too easy to convince yourself a toxic environment is a necessary evil. That being unhappy isn’t a good enough reason to leave a job. That, somehow, getting fired from a terrible place that makes it impossible for you to succeed is preferable to quitting to find a workplace more deserving of your efforts.
Back then, I feared tarnishing my career by being a “quitter.” Wouldn’t potential employers see me as a risky candidate? Would they worry I’m unreliable? Could I live with myself if I really took charge of my career and my life and made a decision before someone else could make it for me? Back then, I wouldn’t know if I could. Now, however, I know I can. That’s how you manage your work-life balance. I give my time to a job. And I can drop that job if it begins to feel entitled to every second of my life. So can you.