I used to think of work-life balance (WLB) as a rigid construct that I had little control over. Once I accepted a job, I expected my manager (and the company culture) to dictate the hours I worked and then I did the best I could with my nights and weekends. Most of the time, work was my priority, so I gave whatever was required of me—no questions asked.
When I had a kid, things became more complicated. Work was no longer the default top dog and I had to put more boundaries around my time, which, frankly, was uncomfortable. When it came time to look for a new job, Firewood felt like a great fit in part because of their promise of work-life balance.
As it turns out, the promise is true. Being at Firewood, I feel comfortable making it clear that work won’t always come first. At first, I didn’t spend too much time analyzing it beyond that. Then one day as we were preparing for our quarterly company all-hands meeting and the office was bustling with talk of Firewood values, I found myself wondering: Is work-life balance really a thing or is it just a buzzword that gets tossed around? So I set out to interview my fellow Firewoodians. I wanted to hear their definitions of WLB, whether they felt like they were achieving it, and, if so, how. I wondered whether I’d get anything beyond a list of weekend passions. I didn’t for a minute expect to have my entire concept of WLB turned on its head.
Firewood tends to attract people who care deeply about their lives outside of work. And whether what they care about is kids, triathlons, pets, or bands, Firewood respects their outside-of-work time equally. Talking to Firewoodians, I heard WLB described as:
So far, so good. I work with creative, articulate people who live meaningful lives. However, it’s one thing to say it, do they actually do it?
In fact, they do. And here’s the thing: the more I listened, the more I realized that people who have work-life balance take complete responsibility for achieving it. What’s more, they tend to exude confidence. They get their work done, have great communication with their managers, and are exceptionally self-aware. They told me that to achieve WLB, you had to realize that:
Some people block time off on their calendars, set alarms, plan in advance. Others practice extreme efficiency and get their work done with no distractions so they can have time for other things that matter. But everyone actively works on maintaining their work-life balance all the time.
Finally it hit me. My employer isn’t responsible for my work-life balance and neither is my manager. It’s been me all along. That decision to suffer a four-hour commute? Me. Sitting at my desk for lunch every day? Me. Giving up things that were important because I didn’t want to set boundaries? Again, me. People who achieve WLB work at it all the time and are confident enough to set and keep their boundaries.
Yes, having a supportive work environment is huge. When work-life balance is something a company is built on and there’s support from management and coworkers (like there is at Firewood), you’ve hit the jackpot. But it’s still up to you to be aware of what you need and have the confidence to stand up for it. WLB isn’t about time. It’s not the number of hours you work in a week. WLB is a feeling of balance, and it can change daily. You also have to be great at managing your time and communicating with your managers. That’s quite a tall order, and that’s exactly why achieving WLB is so hard.
Here’s another thing: consistently not having work-life balance poses a very serious threat to your health. No joke. The Firewoodians I spoke with who had learned about WLB the hard way, by letting themselves fall out of balance, had paid for it dearly. While the stories ranged in severity, from a general feeling of being out of whack to being hospitalized for stress-related disorders, the consequences were real. So if you’re feeling disengaged, burned out, and like you’re on automatic pilot all the time, or if you’re getting sick on a regular basis, it may be time to readjust your WLB. Listen to your body and take an honest look at the areas of your life you might be ignoring.
Search on Google for the term “work-life balance” and you’ll get millions of results. Clearly, this is a topic that generates interest. Promises of WLB are often used to lure new employees: work weeks that are strictly limited to 40 hours, the ability to work from home, unlimited vacation time, nap pods, office bars, company offsites—the list goes on and on. Because it’s so often presented as a perk, it’s easy to give up control and blame an employer who doesn’t live up to their promise. But in reality, no employer—no matter how sincere—can know what you need. Work-life balance means very different things to different people and not only is it your job to understand what you need, but you also have to be brave enough to stand up and ask for it.