I used to work at a fast-paced, high volume law firm. My average week consisted of working about 10 to 14 hour days. I often brought work home with me. I didn’t have time to work out. I didn’t have time to eat a proper lunch. I was often late for date night with my now-fiance. And when I would finally show up I would be so tired that I would fall asleep on his couch, in the car, while sitting, basically anywhere. I didn’t want to read for pleasure because I spent all day staring at a screen. I would work 60 to 70 hour weeks. I started to develop upper respiratory infections that wouldn’t go away. I had heartburn all the time. My sleep was the worst it’s ever been (and it’s naturally pretty poor). I couldn’t take time off because that wasn’t viewed as acceptable. I couldn’t take time to go to the doctor because again I had to be tethered to my desk at all times. I often would wake up, roll out of bed and turn on my laptop before even having my morning coffee to start working on the next brief or complaint, or e-mail that wasn’t actually going to change the outcome of anything.
My job was killing me and making me hate myself. It was making me a really bad and unreliable partner. I was becoming a terrible daughter. And toward the end, I think I was even becoming a terrible attorney because I was so irritated all the time. I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I couldn’t do it anymore. Thankfully, fate stepped in and hit the brakes on that whole way of life. But when I tell you that work-life balance is essential to good health trust me that I’ve seen how quickly things can turn around for your health once balance is restored.
I read a study recently that defined work-life balance as ” achieving satisfying experiences in all of life’s domains, and to do so requires personal resources such as energy, time, and commitment to be equally distributed across domains.” (Greenhaus, The Relation Between Work-Family Balance and Quality of Life , 2002) I tend to agree, if one is devoting too much time to any particular domain of their life, an imbalance is bound to occur, whether it be work, family, or even self. The key is to try our best to achieve an equilibrium between all facets of our lives. In my case, work was overwhelming everything else, it was taking away time with family, and even taking away time with myself.
One major component of constantly working and not having enough time to decompress is reduced sleep. I already have trouble sleeping because of my asthma but with work taking so many hours of my day, I found myself routinely only getting about 4 hours of sleep per night, sometimes less if I had a big hearing the next day. A study out of Australia found that women are disproportionately reporting fatigue on a regular basis. This is in part due to women typically having additional responsibilities, which include not only working long hours but also tending to the needs of family. Almost 60% of the women who reported feeling fatigue also reported that they felt their health was being adversely affected as a consequence. (Skinner, A Work-Life Perspective on Sleep and Fatigue , 2015) Lack of sleep not only affected these individuals health but also their mood, which in turn affected their relationships.
It’s not just that you’re not getting enough sleep because you’re devoting too much time to work, you’re also getting too stressed during the many hours you’re spending at work. Lawyers and doctors probably have it the worst but more and more professions are making more demands of their professionals and in so doing are stressing the heck out of them. Every time you read an email demanding something be done five minutes ago (even though it’s useless paper pushing) your cortisol levels go up. When your boss starts ranting about the latest side project he wants done right now your cortisol levels go up. When you get the fifth call from that client who thinks you’re a magician instead of a lawyer, your cortisol levels go up. It’s been known for awhile that high levels of cortisol lower immune function, increase weight, cause heart disease, decrease memory, and increase blood pressure.(Cortisol: Why the Stress Hormone is Public Enemy #1 )
So what can you do to bring some more balance into your life?
- Put Your Foot Down – Set your boundaries with your boss early on. Let them know that you will work reasonable hours. If you work in an office there’s no reason why a standard 9-5 shouldn’t work, even if you’re a lawyer. Very few lawyers are doing things that are so time sensitive that they can’t wait until tomorrow.
- Don’t Answer Work E-mail when You’re Home – Don’t set a bad precedent by answering work e-mails at all hours of the night. Once you get home you’re home, whatever it is, can surely wait until tomorrow. If it can’t then they probably need a police department or fire department and I’m pretty sure most of you are neither.
- Carve Out Quality Time with Loved Ones – This can mean making sure you’re home for dinner every night at the same time, having a movie night that you never miss, or making sure you’re always home with enough time for story time with the kids. Prioritize it.
- Schedule Personal Time – Make an appointment with yourself to get a work out in (and no you can’t reschedule it). Allow yourself periodic mental health days every couple of months. Make a monthly spa appointment. Go on hikes. Whatever relaxes you and feels like self-love, schedule it for yourself and do not reschedule. No work will get done if you’re burned out.
- If You’re Unhappy at that Job Find Another –If you’re dreading every morning going to work even after you’ve had discussions with your boss about boundaries and appropriate work hours it’s time to start looking for something else to do. And it’s okay if that something else is totally different so long as you think about how whatever new thing you take on will affect the other aspects of your life that you hold dear.
Since leaving traditional law firm life to chart my own course, my health has improved (I’ve been sick once in a year and a half). I make time to exercise. My relationship with my fiance is stronger than ever and I’m generally a lot more fun to be around. Plus, no more falling asleep on the couch.
Let me know in the comments how you make sure you achieve work-life balance, or if you’re struggling, what’s giving you the most trouble. Also make sure you subscribe to the email list so you never miss a new post, which you can expect every Monday and Thursday.
Until the next one!