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Balancing Acts: In establishing better work–life boundaries, employees have a role to play

Published Date:
Jun 6, 2014

Judging by recent surveys, finding a good work–life balance has become the new holy grail for employees. In a 2013 survey of more than 4,000 professionals by the consulting firm Accenture, 52 percent said they had turned down a job that would have left little time for personal pursuits, while another 56 percent said that having a thriving personal life defined career success even more than receiving a raise or a promotion. What’s more, though employees of all stripes want to bring their home and work selves into a harmonious coexistence, this is particularly important for younger professionals. In a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) study last year that included more than 40,000 respondents, most Millennials (those born between 1980 and 1995) said they remained unconvinced that excessive work demands are worth sacrifices to their personal lives.

In the March issue of The Trusted Professional, I discussed strategies that firms can adopt to help improve their employees’ work–life balance, along with other policies that may help to improve employee retention rates. However, employees, too, have a role to play in ensuring their own happiness, by proactively managing their work and personal commitments and setting firm boundaries. Truth be told, we often cripple our own efforts to get a company to respect our personal lives. I know it’s a crime that I’m also guilty of.

For example, I once told my managers and colleagues that I had to leave work at 2 p.m. for a family event.  But nearly an hour later, there I was, still sitting at my desk toiling away. I was trying to wrap up the last bit of work, which may sound understandable and even honorable. The only problem is, it sent a message to my supervisors that they don’t really have to respect or honor the times that I say I need to leave early, since I don’t seem to be serious about them. You may have encountered similar situations. 

So, how can you improve your balancing act? You’ll have to figure out what works for you and what you’re comfortable with, but here are a few suggestions:

Get clear on what matters. 

Having a work–life balance sounds great, but what does that mean for you? Before you try to set boundaries at the office, take a step back and ask yourself, ‘What’s most important in life?  Who are the people I must spend time with?’ Or, to really put things in perspective, ‘What would I want people to say about me at my eulogy?’  Once you can sum up confidently what and who matters to you, take it a step further and work those people, places and things into your schedule—literally. I’ve found that in order to give important personal appointments the same weight as a business meeting, you have to block out the time for them on your calendar. For example, if it is good for your body and soul to hit the gym, do yoga or run errands during your lunch hour, then set that time aside and block it out on your calendar.  Another perk of this tactic is that it forces you to do the necessary planning to make sure you’re able to honor your personal commitments. On days that I don’t have the flexibility to stay late for whatever reason (I need rest, am meeting friends, or will be attending a professional organization’s event), I mark the calendar in advance and know that I may need to reconfigure my workload that day or the days leading up to it. Keep in mind, though, that if you want your schedule to be honored, you must also honor your colleagues’ schedules as well. 

Fully disconnect during nonwork hours.

Everyone needs downtime to recharge. When you’re off the clock—whether you’re on vacation or simply home for the evening, spending time with family—don’t check and respond to work emails. By fully disconnecting during nonwork hours, you’re 1) sending the message that personal time is important, 2) clarifying what can or cannot be expected of you or your subordinates during nonwork hours and 3) making it known that you want any boundaries you set to be respected. Another bonus: You may be more alert the next day. According to researchers from Michigan State University’s Eli Broad College of Business who followed nearly 250 employees, when workers use their smartphones at night for business purposes, they lose out on sleep and have less energy in the office the next day.

Communicate and manage expectations.

Clear communication allows you to manage expectations and also to establish a reasonable timeline for deliverables. The more transparent you can be about when a task or project will or won’t be completed, the better you will be able to coordinate with your colleagues and meet your personal commitments.  Advanced planning and notice always helps.

Pei-Cen Lin, CPA, SPHR, is a strategic talent management and organizational development professional in the human resources field and a past chair of the NYSSCPA’s Human Resources Committee. She can be reached at

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