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Is work-life balance an illusion?

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Ahhhhh. Work-life balance: the dreamy decades-old topic that has gotten a refreshing makeover, thanks to the growing adoption of remote work.  Finally, it seems you can achieve that magical balance between work and non-work demands. You can crush a workout between meetings or run errands during lunch. With the time you save not commuting to and from work, you can make time for more meals with family, complete chores around the house, or take the dogs for a walk. For some, remote work has certainly made this balance easier to achieve. But for others, as work crept into our homes, it felt like the workdays never actually ended.  

As more and more companies have embraced remote work and flexible schedules, we are now instantly available to work anytime, anywhere, 24/7. Coworkers can call, text, Zoom and “ping” us at all hours of the day, regardless of time zone. Personal cell phones are now indistinguishable from work phones, which means colleagues can email and text us wherever we are.

Fewer ad hoc conversations happen face to face, so every conversation has become a scheduled meeting.  Researchers from Harvard Business School and New York University’s Stern School of Business found that we now have more meetings, and that meetings are shorter and filled with more people. Back-to-back-to back meetings leave less time to get “real” work done during the normal workday, so employees grind it out during the evenings and weekends.

All of this has led to widespread overload and burnout – which certainly isn’t what most remote workers associate with work-life balance. Balance implies fifty-fifty, and for many workers, the new norm feels far from that. Work has crept into life more than life has crept into work. So, how can we feel productive without feeling burned out? The key to balance is boundaries.

Workers and employers alike need to set and communicate boundaries. Some companies have started to institute “no meeting Fridays” and are adding no-work wellness days to the calendar. Employees need predictable time off to help achieve balance.

On the personal side, be sure to use your allotted vacation time. While on vacation, don’t be tempted to work or check in on work. For some, it can feel stressful to take a true break from work, but it’s important for your mental and physical health.

During your work week, block regular chunks of time each day on your calendar to get work done so that you don’t have to do it after hours. Create time when you don’t check your phone. Pick a consistent time each day when you shut down your computer – and stick to it.

Setting boundaries is the easy part; sticking to them is hard. It might feel uncomfortable at first to say no, to stop checking emails after work, or to put your phone down during dinner time. But it’s important to remember that being flexible is not the same as being always on. Being always on can be detrimental to your health. The time to implement boundaries is before you start to feel emotionally exhausted, have difficulty concentrating, or become increasingly dissatisfied or disillusioned at work. Go ahead and do it today. Your future self will thank you.

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