Are you spending longer at work these days, putting in extra hours just to get everything done? And, when you finally clock out and leave, do you bring your job — and workplace worries — through the front door with you?
It can be a constant struggle protecting your precious personal life from the pressures of work. And it’s a battle many people are losing.
The temptation is to do the extra hours tonight in the weak hope you’ll get caught up and be able to relax a little in the morning. But, the ‘to do’ list keeps on growing — and you end up waiting behind again tomorrow.
Eventually, the strain of working late causes your health to suffer. The tiredness affects your ability to work productively and think clearly. Outside relationships go downhill too as your family and friends post you ‘missing-in-action’ from their lives.
For as long as you’re employed, finding the ideal balance between your work and personal life is always going to be a challenge. Demands on you from both sides will change and you’ll need to constantly adjust the way you cope with these on a regular basis.
But, I’m going to suggest a few helpful steps you can take to prevent your job from completely taking over your personal life.
The Myths of Working Late
In these tough economic times, most people are fearful of what the future holds.
You imagine the boss’s cost-cutting eyes are burning into you as you slave away. It looks impressive that you’re clocking up the extra hours to do the best job possible, doesn’t it? It’s more likely, however, that your boss sees someone who’s barely coping with a workload they’ve allowed to spiral out of control. The reality is that, if you always work extra hours, it becomes expected of you and you’ll be given even more tasks to do.
Or, maybe you’re so desperate to win a promotion that staying late and neglecting your personal life must be the best way to get noticed, surely? Truth is, you’ll become known as an employee who doesn’t value their family and friends enough to spend quality time with them. And, don’t forget, there will always be another one of your colleagues — with a worse home life — more desperate and willing to burn the candle even later than you.
Under these kinds of pressures to work late, it’s easy to let the dividing line between work and non-work get so hazy that your job seeps into the rest of your life. If you’re spending most of your time working, though, enjoying a decent home life will inevitably become impossible.
A Briefcase and Long Hours: My Story of a 4-Hour Commute
A few years ago, after a promotion, I used to have a daily 4-hour commute to work. Crazy, I know, but I really wanted the job and, at first, it involved travelling to another city. The demands of the work meant that I rarely got out of the office before 7pm each night. Leaving my home at 6am, I’d eventually return at 10 in the evening. As I’m sure you can imagine a social life outside the office was non-existent. My personal life was crammed into the weekend.
This tiring routine went on for six months, until my employer and I decided that it was time to relocate. So, I rented an apartment less than 15 minutes walk away from my office. I had great plans to make new friends, explore the new city, and generally get back a life after work again.
But guess what happened? Gradually, I found myself staying behind for another 30 minutes here, an extra hour there. Pretty soon, that additional hour became my new stop time. After all, I lived so much closer to the office. I could still be back home much earlier than was possible before I relocated.
The slow creep of the ‘working late’ syndrome had started again for me. . .
How to Protect Your Home Life
Recognizing that you’ve allowed work to overspill into your home time is the first important issue to be aware of. Like I did, it’s easy to add an extra few minutes to the end of the day. Then, you fall into the bad habit of working late every night. Once you’ve acknowledged the potential damage, you can take action to prevent the steady destruction of your home life:
- Ask yourself what you value most in life
Consider what goals you want to achieve at work and in the rest of your life. How do these goals overlap and in what ways are they incompatible? You might realize that you can’t have it all, and you need to re-prioritize your time and attention on what really matters.
When I thought this through, connecting with family and friends was much more valuable to me than clearing my desk at the end of the day. So, I began to leave earlier. After all, the paperwork was still waiting for me in the morning – when I was rested, refreshed and better able to tackle it.
- Manage your work time effectively
Ah, time management: that age-old skill we’re all keen to develop! It’s a true fact, though, that the better organised you are at work, the more you’ll get done. By managing your workload effectively, there will usually be less need to put in extra hours.
If you find that you’re consistently working late, it’s worthwhile checking whether your company offers time management training. Otherwise, you can research the techniques online.
- Say no — and mean it
Be cautious of taking on extra work in order to help out a colleague. You’ve already got enough work on your own plate without taking on someone else’s. I’m not suggesting that you don’t support your team; rather, you need to be sure you can deal with your own duties first before doing more. Do the crucial stuff expected from you first, before doing stuff for others.
Of course, your manager might ask you to carry out additional responsibilities as part of your current job. If you’re already struggling under the weight of your existing pile of work, the stress will only intensify unless you discuss the situation with him or her.
By all means, do the extra work if you can – but, if you’re going to have difficulties, you need to think seriously about speaking out. It’s always best to raise an issue of overwork way before it gets out of control.
- Leave work where it belongs
The boundary between work and home is blurred with today’s technology able to plug you into your workplace at anytime, from anywhere. Unless you deliberately choose to be disconnected, you can access your job from the comfort of your living room.
Resist the urge to connect with the office when you’re in ‘home’ mode. That means switching off the cell phone and keeping the laptop powered down. Unless you’re paid to work from home, leave it alone. Unless you’re forced to be in contact with the office, when you go on vacation, don’t even think about mixing business with pleasure.
It’s essential that you keep work and home time strictly separate when it’s possible to do so.
- Resist the ‘culture of working late’
In my office, it was expected that we’d work late. On my first day, I knew late nights were normal, and didn’t think twice about it. However, even when our workloads meant we could have finished early, most of us would continue laboring away. No one asked us to remain later than we had to; we did it because our colleagues did it.
In some workplaces, it can become part of the unspoken rules of employment that folk put in overtime — even though the actual level of activity doesn’t require it. If you’ve completed your assigned tasks for the day and the rest can reasonably be put off until tomorrow, why not go home? You’ll return the next day raring to go again (hopefully!).
- Ask for help
When you’re finding it difficult to manage the balance between work and home, don’t worry about it in silence. Have a chat with your supervisor or manager to explain that your workload is difficult to handle. Rather than allowing the stress to get worse, you can both explore the range of options available to ease the problems.
If talking things over with your manager doesn’t help, try chatting with someone from the HR department, an Occupational Health worker, or an Employee Assistance counsellor.
After six months of working 16 hours a day (with four hours of travel thrown in), I began to feel exhausted. I probably could have gone on for a while longer, but this wouldn’t have been good for either my health or my ability to do a good job. After a discussion with my line manager, it was decided that I get assistance to relocate.
I’d been understandably nervous about raising the matter as I thought my employer would view me as not up to the job. Instead, they totally understood my position and supported me. They were only able to do this because I told them in the first place.
There are always solutions to workload issues — you just have to admit that you need help. It’s in no one’s best interests to have a stressed out member of staff when there are options available.
- Find alternative working arrangements
Check whether your employer offers flexible working arrangements, such as telecommuting, job sharing, flexi-time or part-time working. You might think it’s a sign of weakness to admit you find the traditional 9 – 5 set up difficult. But, it’s better to work in a way that helps you balance your personal life and reduces stress. Otherwise, your performance will suffer, which no one wants.
- Private life: Keep Out!
Don’t underestimate the vital importance of protecting your home life. Safeguard the scarce time you get to spend away from the daily grind – on your own and in the company of others.
Ringfence your relationships, so that you allow no work-related diversions to cause you to miss once-in-a-lifetime family events or socializing with friends. Without care and attention, relationships can wither if you don’t keep up with them.
Is any extra time you devote to a job really worth the end of a partnership, family bond or friendship?
When you truly appreciate the value of life outside your place of employment, you’ll take steps to protect it when external factors threaten to take it away. You owe it to yourself and those closest to you.
Sometimes, we simply can’t avoid having to work late every so often. But, this can become the norm if we let it, with our home lives coming off second best. The more often you stay behind at work, the fewer hours you’re able to spend with family and friends. You’ll miss out on sharing quality time with those special people in your life, and relationships can become strained.
Equally as important, when you’re tied to your workplace later than you should be, there’s little opportunity to switch off from the everyday pressures and relax. You need to jealously guard your home life for the sake of your health and wellbeing.
The above tips will help you to re-build the divide between your work and personal lives for everyone’s benefit.
How has working late at your job affected your personal life? What tips do you have to help get the balance right?
Please share your own experiences in the comments section below. I’d love to hear your views.
Photo by Karrah Kobus (Used with permission from the artist)
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