Changing Attitudes to Create Work Balance

I teach a workshop called “Dealing with Increased Work Demands.” The workshop focuses on taking personal accountability for creating a more balanced life – because in my experience you are the only person who cares enough to ensure you have the right balance. Also, balance means different things to different people. Have I ever worked with a company where the leaders say to their staff, “Stop working so hard. Don’t do so much!” ? No, I have not – although the Harvard Business Review recently wrote about how Sony Pictures and their “energy project” have attempted to get more by asking for less. Generally speaking most workplaces expect you to manage your own personal balance.

In terms of responsibility I cover two aspects of it – responsible for being aware of how you self-sabotage, and responsible for setting appropriate boundaries and protecting them. Self awareness of temperament, work preferences, bad habits and attitudes like perfectionism, martyrdom, controlling and high achiever, are useful when discovering why things get out of balance and stay that way. Setting boundaries is more about dealing with increasing volume, demanding clients and bosses, and protecting your capacity to deliver.

Disturbingly, each time I teach the program, I find one or two participants with a defeatist attitude. I’m not sure why they enroll in the program – perhaps they are “sent” because they have complained too much about their workload. By defeatist attitude I mean that they come in already having decided that “I can’t do anything to change my situation for the better.”  This becomes apparent as I introduce tools and techniques for self management – a prioritization tool; a time use self-audit tool; a set of sorting questions.  They frown, they shake their heads, they refuse to sample the tools until I ask the inevitable question, “What about this isn’t working for you?”

“None of it. I can’t prioritize my work – it is all urgent. I can’t say No to people, they are my customers and my job is to serve them. ” 

Step back. Breathe. How did anyone in Canada (or North America) get to the point where they feel so utterly powerless? Why are people in the workplace convinced that they have no choice but to work themselves to death? Worse than that, why when they have to make a choice are they are left floating in the middle of the sea without any help in sight?

I sympathize. My workshop might be a start, but the first hurdle is reclaiming your right to choose. Traditionally it is the support service jobs (I.T., Office Administrator, HR) and the front counter, face to the customer jobs, that have become the most bitter about balance.  As work piles on, as customers get more demanding, they are rarely given the criteria they need to sort the ever-increasing demands. If they suffer in silence and manage it all – more is at the door. It’s no wonder that they look at the practical tools and techniques I offer and think “easy to provide, impossible to use.”

Stepping back and looking objectively at any job we can see two factors which need to be in balance:  Supply and Demand. Supply is the capacity of the individual in the job. Each person needs a realistic handle on their capacity. They need to know how much they can get done in the 7 or 8 or 10 hours they are on the job. They need to ensure they manage interruptions and make good use of technology and other tools so that they really have the capacity that is required and expected. They need to be giving their best on the job, but not pretending to have more capacity than they do. Longfellow once said, “We judge ourselves by what we think we are capable of doing – others judge us by what we have done.”

Once capacity is established, demand must be managed. If we have a possible 1,000 customers and we can manage 45 in a shift, than we must be aware of the proper sorting criteria. Like a nurse in Emergency that knows how to “triage” the patients, we must sort and line up our work. We are the gatekeeper of our own sanity and health. Working with our boss and the organization we can figure out what and who are the most important at any given time. The criteria we use for sorting must be visible and approved. Better yet, educate your client base so they see it too.  Then be prepared to say, “Wait your turn.” or “No.”  Just as you can wait 3 hours in an Emergency room with an ear infection, only to be bumped just as your turn comes up for the car accident victim, so you need to be ready and willing to bump whatever was on your schedule.

Out of balance? There are two levers to push on:  increase your capacity or manage the demands. It really is as simple as that.

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