Learning to disconnect from the job can help you become more engaged at home and work
By Kimberly Olson
By appearances, Hajar Shirley had a good life. A successful business technology leader, she was married to her college sweetheart and had two young children. But something was awry. “I was exhausted,” she says. “I felt like I was on a hamster wheel.”
More than one in four Americans say they’re “super stressed.” Professional workers feel increasing pressure to get to work early, stay late, and be ever-available, creating a new “time macho” culture, a term coined by Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of New America, which addresses the challenges of rapid technological and social change. Meanwhile, the average employee takes only 54 percent of his or her allotted vacation days.
Work-related stress can make us irritable or depressed, zap our concentration, compromise our relationships, and even impact our physical health. A study of more than 600,000 workers by University College London, for example, found that those working over 55 hours per week were 33 percent more likely to suffer a stroke than their peers who worked 35 to 40 hours.
But you needn’t choose between career and a personal life. There are ways to thrive at work while making time for friends, family, and personal interests.
Hire a coach
To disembark her hamster wheel, Hajar Shirley enlisted certified life coach Annie Lin, founder of New York Life Coaching. The two focused on three areas—career, family, and fun—brainstorming strategies for achieving balance. Shirley hired an au pair for hectic times of day, for example. “I helped Hajar practice being present so she could show up more fully, with family and work,” Lin says. “We achieved that by practicing meditation and thought inquiries.”
Upon becoming pregnant with her third child, Shirley once again sought Lin’s counsel. She wanted to soak up every minute of her son’s early life, reconnect with her daughters, and pursue a lifelong dream—teaching at the university level. “I like working—but not 60 hours a week,” she says. “I told Annie, ‘I’d like to work ten to twelve hours a week.’ I can make a great impact in ten hours, but I was so nervous to have this conversation. I wanted [my manager] to know that I was still invested in my career.”
Shirley discovered that her company actually wanted to promote her, so Lin helped her negotiate favorable terms, including working just a few days a week.
“I took the promotion, I’m doing the university thing, and I’m the mom that I want to be,” says Shirley, who’s also prioritized date night. “If you give me the flexibility,
I can do great things.”
Explore new ways of working
Many companies, like Shirley’s, are willing to discuss alternative working arrangements like telecommuting, a part-time schedule, or job sharing. New research by WorldatWork and FlexJobs showed that 80 percent of companies surveyed offer flexible work arrangements—although not all have a written policy—and 67 percent of managers offer flexibility to all or most of their employees.
When negotiating a flexible schedule, share the benefits with your employer, including being able to work when you’re most fresh and focused. Detail how you’ll maintain communication with your colleagues, and offer to try your new schedule on a trial basis, to ensure that everyone is happy.
Draw clear boundaries
Regardless of work schedule, make efforts to safeguard your personal time. “One indicator that work is becoming all-consuming is that you stop doing the things that you enjoy,” says Nicole Coope, MSC, LMHC, NCC, founder and owner of Crossroad Coaching Services. “You’re not making it to the gym or family events, or you’re canceling on your girls’ night out.”
Coope suggests being aware of people who don’t respect your boundaries. “For every reason that you say, ‘I can’t work until 6 p.m.,’ they’ve got solutions: ‘Well, call a babysitter’ or ‘Ask your mom [to babysit],’” she says. “They come up with reasons for why your ‘no’ is not sufficient. They’re putting you in defense mode, and that’s a subtle way of finding yourself unable to disconnect.”
Coope suggests thinking of colleagues as circles in a target. “Someone who is supportive is right there in the bull’s-eye,” she says. “You can say to them,
‘I can’t stay late because I’m going to my daughter’s play,’ and you can share that joy. Those who demonstrate that they don’t care or don’t listen are further from this bull’s-eye, so minimize what you share. If they say, ‘Can you work until 6 p.m.?,’ just say ‘no,’ so they don’t get an opportunity to refute your no.”
Learn to detach
You may occasionally need to work after hours or on a weekend, but try to set personal rules for using email, cell phones, and laptops at home. Research shows that checking work emails outside of normal working hours can impact your stress level and behavior at home, lead to emotional exhaustion, and cause job burnout. (In 2017, French citizens in companies with more than 50 employees earned the legal right to ignore after-hours emails.)
Let your colleagues know when and how you’d like to communicate. You might also tell your manager that research shows that employees who unwind after working hours are more engaged at work and are better at problem solving.
When you’re not at work, focus on quality time. “Women sometimes tell themselves, ‘I didn’t have time this week to focus on myself,’ says Belinda MJ Brown, an international speaker and ICF-accredited coach with Equanimity Executive LLC. “Most steps take a couple of minutes. It’s about your mind-set and the stories you’re telling yourself.” Engaging in a hobby or mastering a new skill can be especially helpful in recovering from work stress.
While spending time with friends and family, avoid multitasking. While enjoying dinner with your spouse or watching a baseball game with your child, put your phone away and give him or her your full attention.
Disconnecting isn’t always easy, but it can pay off, as it did for Hajar Shirley. “My kids love when I’m balanced and present,” she says. “And my husband is just proud: ‘Yeah, that’s my wife!’ I’m constantly assessing, ‘Am I feeling exhausted?’ Now I have the awareness.” DW