Between Bumming and Burnout: Finding a Work-Life Balance

By Deborah Rothberg  |  Posted 2006-05-19

Between Bumming and Burnout: Finding a Work-Life Balance

Today it seems that everyone is talking about work-life balance, throwing about catch phrases such as "work to live—dont live to work" and "escape the rat race." Yet beyond the inspirational mantra comes the reality of IT infrastructure and services that demand 24/7 attention. The pressure of this service level is leading many workers to wonder if they have any hope in balancing their lives.

Mark Gardner, director of desktop services at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, said he is plugged in almost all hours of the day.

"I stay at work until I am done—not usually later than 7 p.m. But, I am on and off my BlackBerry until I go to sleep," he said.

Gardner admitted that he is not very good at scheduling time off for himself, but his primary concern is to be reachable in the event of an emergency.

"Part of the role I am in is the point person when theres a crisis. I wouldnt be doing my job if I wasnt around, or at least I wouldnt feel like I was doing my job. I dont want the people I report to to know whats going on before me."

"I had my laptop plugged in last night at midnight while on vacation; I used my BlackBerry while at a reception," Gardner admitted.

"Wireless devices make it easier [to be contacted] because you are connected, but you also end up feeling like you are not actually getting away from anything. Id like to go to a place with no BlackBerrys," he said.

Gardner explains that the people who go far [in an organization] and are often promoted show a lot of personality and drive. But the further you go, the bigger the expectations are.

"I look at how many hours my boss works and Im not even sure I look forward to that," he said.

The wish for decompression time, or at least greater flexibility of work schedules, is growing. According to a compensation and benefits report by the Toronto-based Hudson Highland Group, released May 17, one in three workers wanted flex schedules as part of their overall compensation. Twenty-two percent said, given the choice, they would choose additional family benefits, including parental leaves and personal days, over job training (13 percent) or supplemental insurance (16 percent).

"People are more interested in having a well-balanced life," Peg Buchenroth, Hudson managing director of compensation and benefits, said in a statement.

Companies that arent sensitive to the demands they place on employee schedules may eventually lose some of their best, warned Ryan Gilmore, a branch manager for IT recruitment firm Robert Half Technology, in San Jose, Calif.

"We are coming out of the downturn we had quite a while back, and workers are in higher demand. Companies that are not hiring with the growth of the organization or using temporary help are going to have burnout among their staff," he said.

In addition, Gilmore advised that managers create an environment where employees can express if theyre overworked. He said this was especially important among technology workers, who take pride in doing whatever it takes to get the job done.

"A lot of people dont admit burnout. A lot of them are working excessive hours and doing the job of more than one person and not getting recognized for it. When you like your job, you might not mind working a little bit harder, but if you begin to feel like just a cog in the wheel and theres little communication between you and your manager, this breaks down. Its the job of the manager[s] to reach out to their staff," he said.

Meanwhile, the threat of outsourcing has done little to soothe fears among IT employees in the post dot-com-bust era that their jobs may not always be safe. Many react by working themselves to their limits, or beyond.

"If youre a developer and you see this reality of companies saving money by sending jobs abroad, its a fear, and you might react to it by pushing harder. Its all about knowing how to utilize your resources," Gilmore said.

Next Page: Rising workloads.


A November 2005 study by Robert Half Technology pointed to rising workloads for technology staff. According to the research, two-thirds of the CIOs polled said their IT teams had more on their plates than a year prior, almost all due to new projects.

A follow-up study in March 2006 revealed a shift in tactics by CIOs from cost-cutting to retention, most utilizing a range of tactics to keep their best on board, including offering training and development and flexible schedules.

"Good, lucrative compensation packages were once considered a cure-all to keep people, but its no longer the most effective strategy in todays workplace. Workers are looking for career growth [and] work-life balance. Retention is the hot topic right now," said Gilmore.

While some employers are responding to employees desires for these "lifestyle benefits," others consider human capital a necessary component for the success of an enterprise, especially for a technology startup.

Brad Feld, a managing director at Mobius Venture Capital of Superior, Colo., said he often sees people in startups hes investing in working around the clock at the expense of their personal lives.

"I often tell people to just go on vacation. Its obvious when people are burning out and I try to be proactive. Many people try to stay in touch when they go on break; they feel such responsibility that they cannot disconnect for a chunk of time and Ive been very forceful about telling people to just go away, the world will not fall apart," he said.

Feld speaks from experience. He has written extensively on his personal blog about working himself into exhaustion, divorce and weight gain when he was younger, and about actively choosing to change his approach to work.

When his second wife threatened divorce if he was not more present in their lives, he said he implemented a slew of changes to save both his marriage and his sanity, including adding more mini-vacations and catching-up dinners, segmenting his office and non-office space at home, and meditating.

"I realized I could be just as effective for long periods of time without traveling all the time and going to each and every meeting—could be more effective by structuring time a little more effectively."

Personality plays a part in having difficulty maintaining a separation between work and home life, but only to a point, Feld observed.

"Ambitious people often feel the need to be in control, and this translates to needing up-to-date information and being physically present all the time. A lot of people have the delusion that if they are physically present somewhere, the outcome will be different, leading them to attend every meeting, even the optional ones, rather than being thoughtful and planning well," he said.

At the same time, Feld doesnt blame technology for its capability to keep people wired to their jobs even when theyre far away. More often, he explains, its the individual who cannot disconnect him or herself.

"In a world where e-mail and cell phones are everywhere, a lot of people dont have the ability to recognize urgency versus non-urgency. For a lot of people who are busy all of the time, when theyre alone or quiet for a minute its very disconcerting. They dont know how to be alone. They dont know how to change gears," he said.

In addition, the time management skills Feld has learned, he said, are nearly workload-irrelevant.

"I dont believe I have more or less work to do than I had in 1999, or 1993. Ive always been busy, and theres always more work to do. Its all a matter of choosing how I spend my time and what I spend my time on. Its a matter of being deliberate versus reactive."

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