Burnout. Work-life balance. We've all heard or used these terms before.
They are different, but closely related things. They both leave a person with less energy and their common denominator is negative consequences.
Let’s start with work-life balance. It’s important to understand that there’s no such thing as a “perfect” work-life balance. Some people who have the expectations to achieve this elusive perfect balance lead themselves to burnout and a loss of energy.
Life comes in phases. When you are in school, your academic demands are heavier. When you join the workforce, you have the pressure of a new job and building a career. Family usually follows. Show me any parent with perfect work-life balance. Heck, there may not be balance with retirement because someone goes from a hectic work schedule to no work at all. There can be a deep sense of loss.
Overall, looking back, one’s life is balanced. It just isn’t when it is being lived. Life is a period of phases and change.
So how do we navigate our careers and lives the best we can? Here are a few tips:
— Life is an inside job. The better a people takes care of themselves, the better work-life balance will seem. That means burnout is less likely. This includes mental and physical health. The better a person feels on the inside, the better things are on the outside. Think about the last time you heard the safety instructions on an airplane: The attendant reminds people sitting next to children to first put their own oxygen mask on, then the child’s mask. Are adults more important than children? No. The message is that you must help yourself to best help others.
— It is ok to say no. You don't even have to have an explanation each time. While it’s great to be a servant leader, to help others, it is vital that you are healthy. Then you can be a much greater you for a much longer time.
— Remind yourself of the why. Particularly in the workplace, remind yourself why you are doing what you do. I was fortunate to spend half a day with the teachers of the year for the Escambia County School District. At the beginning of the session I asked them to take time to go around the table and share why they became a teacher. Next, I asked them to share a time when they felt great about being a teacher. Even those jobs where the “why” is obvious to others, sometimes the person is so close and buried in their day-to-day activities that they miss it.
For physicians, their “why” is easy, right? They save lives. Yet they have one of the higher suicide rates. It’s hard to believe because we all know what a positive difference they make. So why? It appears with the many changes from electronic medical records, to spending too much time in with documentation, to different employment (many physicians are employed by healthcare systems) to wages staying flat, these lifesavers lose the passion that brought them to medicine. There is even a tool to measure physician burn out called a misery scale.
The key point is that everyone does a job that is important. Take time to reflect on the difference you make.
— Build your skill. Skill breeds effectiveness. When you’re new at something, it may take longer or seem difficult. Don’t believe that it will be this way forever. This projection leads to that loss of energy and feeling a bit hopeless on the way to burnout. Because the job or role takes longer until skill is improved, it can impact work-life balance. If you have experience as a parent, just recall your baby's first bath at home. It often took two adults, all communication to the outside world shut off, heat turned up, special tub, the works. After the first bath, it gets easier. Be kind to yourself when you are in a new situation while committing to build your skill set.
— Hold up the mirror. To have the best possible work-life balance, it takes putting some things on hold. I met with a person who wanted my input on a job decision. Due to the desire to not travel and to be with his family more, he had left his last job. However, a job offer had appeared that was quite exciting. He shared with me why he had left the last job, then described what it would take for him to be successful in this potential new job. He described he would need to build a team, travel and put in lots of hours. The payoff was a great title, good pay and upside. I asked him how old his children were. They ranged from about 8 to 13. Those are great years and personally, I regretted I was on the road and missed lots of these years with my two youngest children. I could see what an honor it is to get pursued for this big job and he would likely do well. He then looked at me and said, “I think I can answer my own question. The timing is not right for this job.”
Burnout statistics show that fewer hours worked does not equal less burnout. Take time to connect your work back to purpose.
And for work-life balance, be realistic. The more realistic the expectations, the more serenity you will have. Build skills and know this takes time. Hold up the mirror and be kind to yourself. We’re looking for progress, not perfection.