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Work-life balance means different things to different people

Avoiding ‘professional commitment guilt’

By Brian Kreissl

I recently returned from vacation in Florida. It was a nice relaxing break, but at the same time I felt disconnected and a little apprehensive about returning to the office.

In spite of previously blogging ‎about how enjoyable it was going on vacation and not worrying about keeping up with work emails, things were a little different this time around. For one thing, my portfolio was significantly expanded as a result of a colleague retiring at the end of July.

I also ended up leaving the office with some unfinished business so we could catch our flight. Because of that, I worried quite a bit about work while I was gone, although I made a concerted effort not to check email in my absence.

In fact, I didn’t even check my social media accounts while I was gone. That was partially due to a self-imposed blackout and also because I knew it would annoy my wife if I was checking work email on vacation.

However, the biggest challenge came after I returned from my vacation on the Friday of the Labour Day weekend. While I had fully intended to check my email to get an early start on my work week, due to an expired password I wasn’t able to access work email on any of my devices (other than my work laptop, which I had left in the office after leaving work and travelling directly to the airport the night we left for Florida).

Feeling stressed out lately

Things were a little different this trip because we are extremely short-staffed at work right now and because half of my former colleague’s portfolio was allocated to me in addition to my existing responsibilities. As a result, I have been feeling rather stressed out lately. I even considered not taking some planned vacation time before our Florida trip.

However, I believe strongly in taking my allotted vacation time and I would rather have a break during the summer. My boss also encouraged me to take the time off and not to think about work while I was away.

But feeling disconnected all that time made me dread coming ‎into the office the day after Labour Day. I had assumed everyone would want a piece of me and there would be a pile of additional work for me to complete on my return.

While I worried about all of the emails and deliverables on my return and it took me about a week to catch up on my messages, I’m happy to say things weren’t nearly as bad as I feared they would be. 

In spite of this pleasant surprise, the experience really got me thinking about the whole concept of work-life balance and how we achieve balance in our own way and depending on the situation. For some people, being able to quickly check a work email or staying 20 minutes later to finish an important deliverable brings them peace of mind and much greater balance than they would achieve otherwise.

That’s not to say people who are obsessive control freaks and simply cannot let go when they’re out of the office and have difficulty delegating don’t require coaching, training and some level setting. There really is something wrong if someone can’t take a week or 10 days off work for a well-deserved vacation without constantly checking her email.

‘Professional commitment guilt’

Blaine Donais (author of several of our books) and Joel Moody recently wrote an article for Queen’s University IRC entitled “Professional Commitment Guilt and the 24 Hour a Day Workplace.” They argue modern technology, unrealistic work demands and a culture of urgency and immediacy are causing professional employees in particular to feel guilty if they aren’t able to respond immediately to work-related inquiries at all hours.

Somewhat surprisingly, they do not recommend employers limit access to technology after hours, as it can actually allow for greater flexibility and better work-life balance. With respect to vacations, for example, quickly checking email every morning can actually help some employees deal with fear of the unknown and feel more relaxed.

Employers need to have reasonable expectations and avoid having a culture where an immediate response is expected after hours or during vacations. But some conscientious people may actually feel better if they can stay plugged in to some extent when they’re out of the office, and that should probably be accommodated by employers.

Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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