Professional, Writer's Life

Work-Life Balance: Leaving Work at Work

I regularly go through old posts to fix any out-of-date information and prune anything that has lost its relevance or value. When I find an older story that still has something to offer, I add a short note about why it resonates with me now.

This post is from when I worked full-time for a company as its social media manager. I was new to setting boundaries to protect my time. It was something no one told me to do until after I hit a burnout point and found a therapist specializing in career counseling.

First published: 07/09/2018

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. “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, 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.”

People Will Take Advantage if You’re Too Available

The “volunteer for everything to make yourself indispensable” mentality was ingrained in me throughout college. At my first office job, I was afraid to say “no” to anything. If I wasn’t willing–or available–to do something, wouldn’t they replace me with someone who was? So no matter how stressful or downright silly it was to try and do everything, I found a way to make it work–at the expense of my mental health.

They gave me a laptop to take home every night. A 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. 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.

Set Boundaries to Protect Your Time

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. No one ever told me how to protect my time.

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 and the austere gap between a livable wage and the cost of living, it is all too easy to convince yourself that a toxic environment is a necessary evil. That being unhappy isn’t a good enough reason to leave a job.

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.

See you out of the office, my friends.

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