The Consequences of Work Life Balance

Our organization had a brand new VP who we had never met before. We were all a little curious as we shuffled into the large conference room to meet him. We listened as he talked about his background and the vision he had for our organization. Then he paused and took a deep breath and he said, let me tell you something about myself. I am divorced and it is mostly my fault. I didn’t spend enough time paying attention to what I should have. When 5 o’clock comes I want everyone to go home. The problems will all be there tomorrow. The work can wait. Needless to say, we all sat there in breathless silence seeing a leader admit to his failings and admit the consequences of focusing too much on work. True to his word he did lead like someone who cared about his team. Then he retired young to make sure he was spending his good years with his family. That begs the question can you actually have it all? A true work-life balance.

You cannot escape the term work-life balance. It is on every blog, every Facebook page telling you tips on how to achieve it. I want to talk about the truth that all of those articles seem to leave out. Are their consequences for a work-life balance? YES. Yes, there is.

We all know that happier employees are more productive employees. We also know that individuals that have a better so-called balance between work and home life are happier so it would stand to reason that companies would want to promote and encourage this. Companies attempt to do this allowing flexible work schedules and more work from home options. The truth is going after a work-life balance will negatively impact your career. They actually created a new term for this “workplace flexibility bias”. This describes environments where employees believe they are unlikely to get ahead if they actually take advantage of the flexible policies the company offers.

According to a recent study, parents who work part-time have a 21% chance of being promoted within the next three years. Full-time counterparts have a 45% chance. Kate Weisshaar, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina refers to this as the “parenting penalty.” Parents who take time away to take care of their kids and try to come back face an uphill battle. There is a penalty associated with that decision.

This should come as an absolute shock to no one except the people that write articles about work-life balance.

Someone who is considered fully devoted to the company has a better shot than someone who is not. You are fighting a battle of perception. One that you cannot win and that no policy can change. If you need to leave at 3 o’clock to pick up your kids but the rest of the team stays till 6, who do you think the manager is going to give the new project too? It’s not you. People tend to get really upset by this and probably want to disagree with me but it’s true. I have watched it happen time and time again. I have sat in the meeting rooms with executives while they discussed promotions and raises. Everyone is measured against this subjective idea of ‘commitment’. Are they committed to the company and the team? Can we rely on them? I have seen the arguments made. Upon hearing this the common counter-arguments are made. How you are just as devoted and provide just as much value. That may be true, but that will NOT be the perception. You will lose.

We see this principle truly exemplified when we look at vacation utilization. Americans on average are only using 51% of their allotted vacation each year. The biggest reason this happens is because of fear. We feel like we can’t step away, we are too valuable and we are worried about the perception of our peers and our boss if we leave them holding the bag. To make matters worse companies that claim work-life balance have started offering unlimited vacation. Now, this has become a race to see who can take less time off. Richard Branson is the CEO of Virgin and an extremely influential leader. His company offers unlimited vacation and here is what he had to say about someone using it:

“They are only going to do it when they feel a hundred percent comfortable that they and their team are up to date on every project and that their absence will not in any way damage the business — or, for that matter, their careers!”

Did you get that….. You have to prove you can take a vacation. Make sure it is not damaging the business or your career. The subtext is clear. If you actually take advantage of this policy you risk being punished. Workplace flexibility bias in action. It’s kind of like car insurance when you think about it. You are legally required to have it but if you actually are in a wreck and use it they jack up the rates.

I had someone on my team that was having some personal issues and needed to leave early a couple of times a week and occasionally take longer lunches. I was completely fine with this. I told them multiple times focus on yourself and your family first make sure everything is right then come to work. That is my personal management philosophy and one that I follow myself. Did this individual face consequences in their career because of this… YES. We had a new highly visible project come up, could I assign it to that person? No, I could not, because it would require a lot of extra hours that this individual could not handle. I had to give it to someone else I knew would be able to do the extra work required. There is a career price to be paid when you decide to focus on something other than work. You will be compared to others in your team and the organization who have no life and they can stay till 7 every night.

Here’s the thing… SO WHAT. Who cares if your career may pay a price for those decisions. That doesn’t make them the wrong decision. This is where everyone gets tripped up. They want to have it all in perfect harmony or expect to be able to work fewer hours than someone else and get the same result. It doesn’t work that way. WHICH IS OKAY!

You may have an amazing boss and an amazing organization but they do not have some magical control over human bias. As a manager, I had to constantly weigh the benefits to an individual VS what the company was asking of me and my team.

The truth is Work-Life Balance is a bit of a myth in the short term. You are going to have multiple seasons of your life some of them will be bent toward work then some tilt toward more focus on life. Its the cumulative effect with the benefit of hindsight were you will see if what you did was in balance. It is not a daily balance. It is a daily decision on what today will be. Every day is going to be a tradeoff. If you choose work today that means there is less time for family/friends and vice versa. Stop letting articles and random podcasts make you feel guilty or unfulfilled because you don’t have the mythical work-life balance. Every single day will not be in balance. I know when I was younger before I had a family I was completely focused and dedicated to work I didn’t mind putting in extra hours because I didn’t have anything else to do. Then as my kids grew up, I was the one who needed to leave early to make a baseball game. I understood I was making a tradeoff. I have had opportunities to take promotions and make more money and even move to different parts of the country but I turned down those opportunities because I wasn’t okay with the tradeoffs. I fully understood the consequences on my career when I made those decisions.

Now that I have told you that work/life balance isn’t possible without consequences, let me give you one quick piece of advice that can make this a little bit better. Wherever you are, be there. If you are at work be at work devote your whole self to the task at hand and when you are at home be at home. Put your phone down and enjoy your friends and family. Turn it off. This is where I get push back, oh I can’t do that I need to have my email ready, I need to be always available. It is not true. First, you need to accept you are not nearly as important as you think you are. Unless you are curing cancer your job and problems will be there tomorrow. The truth is you do have a choice you just do not want to accept the potential career consequences that come with turning your phone off at the end of the day. I think Ron Swanson from the TV show Parks and Rec says it best “Never half-ass two things, Whole Ass one thing”

I am not the perfect example of work-life balance or some beacon of perfection, far from it. Multiple times in my life I have swung from one extreme to another. I have gotten irritated at my kids for interrupting me writing a work email instead of getting upset that work was interrupting my time with the kids. What I do know is you can devote 100% of yourself to your job and still get screwed over or passed on for a promotion. When you focus on yourself and your friends and family you will always be guaranteed a consistent return. You are going to have a decision to make, and whatever you decide will have consequences. I won’t say there is a wrong answer or even an easy one. You have to choose the right balance for you today. When you stand up in front of your team what will your story be? Will you be like the executive whose story I told at the beginning who found out too late he focused on the wrong things, or will you have something else to share.