Work-Life Balance and Toxic Work

Work-life balance… What does that even mean? Well, it means something different for everyone. Work-life balance cannot be a one-size fits all, but the phrase has definitely been used in that way lately. If someone tells you “you need more work-life balance” they are typically saying “you work too much”, I can’t say I have ever heard that phrase used in the opposite form towards someone. This can come across as passive aggressive or a way to judge the way you choose to live your life. However, when an individual says “I need more work-life balance”, it can mean a plethora of things from “I work too much” to “I miss my family” to “I am unhappy at my job”. So let’s dive into this feeling of imbalance, identify if a toxic work environment is a leading cause, and see if we can help you find NOT “work-life balance” but instead contentment in your current place of life.

Why We Should Ditch The Phrase Work-Life Balance

We need to ditch the phrase “work-life balance” because it is an easy way out to a more serious conversation either with yourself or with loved ones. When others approach you about work-life balance they need to speak their true concerns, such as “I am worried you work too much and you will get burned out” or “I miss you and our relationship is on the edge because you work too much”. If we ourselves say we need more “work-life balance” then we need to be real and understand the root causes for this imbalance. The phrase “work-life balance” does a poor job capturing the complexity of each individual life, individual priorities and the depths of our unique wants and needs.

Getting to the Root of the Imbalance Problem

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When you say “I need work-life balance”, it’s important to notice your immediate emotional tie to the phrase. Do you have a twinge of happiness and pride? If that’s the case, you pride yourself on the fact that you are an unstoppable workhorse, you enjoy your work and that’s awesome! Others may judge you, but you do you, girl! Of course, if your late nights and weekend phone calls are negatively impacting those around you, then it’s important to have a very real conversation with your loved ones or co-workers about what balance looks like for them. Just know that if your work brings you this much joy, then it brings out the best in you and makes you a better person/spouse/friend outside of working hours. So if you feel you are giving up too much of your life-giving work for others, then you need to vocalize this to your loved ones. Finding this balance between your needs and others expectations of you is a tricky charade, but worth the investment of discovery.

Perhaps you do enjoy your current work balance in life, but yet you fear burnout. You work long hours and you enjoy your work, but you don’t want to overdo it and end up hating your job. You may be a perfectionist or a “I have to get everything done right now” kind of person. This is where setting boundaries is crucial. Know your limits, set strict working hours, communicate these hours to all parties (work and personal) and have them hold you to it. If you promise to log off at 5:00pm everyday unless for an emergency, then you better be off that computer at 5:01pm, no excuses.

Personally, I don’t like to work more than 40 hours a week if I don’t have to. Outside of 40 hours/week, I feel like I lose a lot of who I am. I pursue hobbies and non profits, fitness and family hobbies that give me life and allow me to be the best person/coworker/friend I can be. I have come to believe that if I have to work more than 40 hours a week on a regular basis, then either we have a staffing problem or we have a process problem. In other words, we either don’t have enough people, or I need to find a faster way to get my work done, whether through better time management, faster systems, or more training. If I had an option, I think I would be chasing that 4 day week gig, but nonetheless, the moral of the story is that its not a one-size fits all. When we appreciate each other’s differences and priorities we bring out the best possible employees and loved ones.

If I have to work more than 40 hours a week on a regular basis, then either we have a staffing problem or we have a process problem.

Now there’s the other side of the phrase “I need more work-life” balance, a dark side. When you say this phrase you are riddled with stress and anxiety or you’re near to tears and sick to the stomach. Now it’s time to get a good hard look at your current work or personal life. Is there any one thing or person that is causing feelings of stress or negative emotions? Can it be avoided and is it short term? Sometimes it’s okay to have an occasionally stressful period due to a temporary circumstance or a big project. I mean work is just that… work, that’s why they pay you, because it isn’t always fun. Some people say if you do what you love you will never work a day in your life, I call lie’s. No matter what you do, you will have bad days, you will have days you don’t want to wake up, you will get tired of your work. When you are thinking of quitting a job ask yourself “Is this a bad day or a bad job?”. I will say, it is very important to recognize if there is actual toxicity in your work or personal life. Having a toxic personal or work life will lead to all kinds of imbalances in your life and lead to potentially serious health issues from high blood pressure to depression. I have listed a few red flags for a toxic work environment in the section below. Know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, you will find brighter days ahead and you should never stay in a toxic environment for very long.

When you are thinking of quitting a job, ask yourself “Is this a bad day or a bad job?”

Toxic Work Red Flags

I have listed some red flags for a toxic work environment below. Unfortunately, I know them all too well, as I have been in toxic work environments before. A toxic work or manager is a form of an abusive relationship, it can make you feel trapped and lonely. If you’re anything like me, or most women in the workplace, we undermine our true feelings and assume it must be us, we don’t want to be seen as emotional in the workplace, but instead show that we can handle the cut throat business life. In addition, we have hope that we can change it, change them, and make it better ourselves.  It wasn’t until I saw a therapist that I finally came to the realization of the incredibly harmful effects of a toxic workplace. I am very passionate about domestic violence and serve on nonprofit boards to do what I can to end the horrible cycle of domestic violence and particularly build confidence in women. I was shocked when I came to the realization that I myself was in a form of an abusive relationship. In a way it helped me see how so many women get trapped, how they stay in toxic relationships and how they feel. You are not alone nor trapped. If you are finding yourself getting short with loved ones, feeling oppressed at work, getting depressed, feeling sick a lot (headaches, stomach aches), then you may be in a toxic work environment. When you’re at work, try not to judge or change your feelings, instead appreciate them as a warning sign, telling you something might be off. Here are some red flags to look for, even just one of these flags is enough to call a work toxic:

What to do if you are in a toxic workplace. First, document everything. Write down notes of conversations that seemed off, what they said and how it made you feel, save emails and voicemails that seemed inappropriate. Now you need to decide if your manager is a safe person to discuss your concerns with. If not, do you have a mentor or another ally in the workplace to discuss your concerns and see if things can be better. Do not gossip, as that could get you into trouble. Finally, go to HR and share all your documents with them, regularly. You can ask them to remain confidential. It is important HR has seen you a few times in case something does boil over and your manager or co-worker tries to pull one over on you. You can also discuss moving into another department or another role with a different manager or team. If the toxicity is embedded in the culture, then leave. I know that quitting can be a scary solution, but it’s in your best interest, you are not meant to be there and no one deserves to be treated poorly. You will find another job, I promise.

Defining Balance

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Defining balance is different for everyone, there is no one-size fits all. First thing to do is get out a piece of paper and write out all the things that are important to you in your life. Is travel important? Maybe fitness or family time? You can use the image below to assist you with categories. Next, determine your priorities from your list, give each item a number (1. Family, 2. Career, 3. Hobbies, etc.). Be realistic about your list, even though travel may be really important to you, having a good paying job to allow you to travel may actually be more the priority. Next determine a percent of time each item currently takes in your life, equaling no more than 100%. Typically, work/career is a good chunk of time that you may not be able to control. Finally, assess if things need to change, is family number one but you spend the least amount of time on it? Well no wonder you feel out of balance, you have the power to change that. Take control of how you spend your time and you will feel liberated!

Now go be true to yourself and find a balance that works for you! Remember work-life balance is not a one-size fits all, strive for contentment in your current stage of life. Happy days are ahead!

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