I thought 10 p.m. calls and 11-hour work days were normal until I reached a breaking point that showed me I was doing it all wrong
- The term "work-life balance" highlights a flaw in our thinking - it puts "work" before "life."
- There are three important rules to protecting your personal time that can help you find better balance in your life.
- They are: don't let small compromises add up, learn the value of your health, and be a life-work evangelist.
I started my career in one of the most notoriously overworked cities in the world: Seoul, South Korea, where the workweek ran Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., and half-days on Saturdays. We arrived before our supervisors, and we left after they decided to go home - except for when we were invited out for drinks after work. On those days, we were lucky to be home by midnight.
At the time, I was a single, eager newbie working my way up the corporate ladder, so I pushed through it for two years. It wasn't until 1997, when I moved to Singapore and got married, that I was finally able to get some perspective on how crazy the culture in Seoul really was.After we got married, my 10 p.m. calls to places around the world quickly got on my wife's nerves. She's a patient and supportive person, but my 24/7 work schedule was wearing her thin.
We decided to take a trip to unplug for a few days - which would have been great if I'd actually unplugged, but I continued to take call after call from work. Things boiled over on while we were on a bus tour. My wife got off with everyone else to see the sights, but I stayed on to take yet another call. When she got back on the bus, I was still talking. So she grabbed the phone from me, hung it up, and stuffed it in her bag.
The message was clear: If this marriage was going to work, I'd have to change.
How to strike balance in your personal life
Life-work balance - notice how "life" comes first - is an important part of overall happiness. The "World Happiness Report 2017" reports that balance "emerges as a particularly strong predictor of people's happiness." But barely half of Americans feel satisfied in their jobs, and many say poor balance is the source of their dissatisfaction.
Here are three things I learned about protecting my own personal time that can help anyone find better life-work balance:
1. Don't let small compromises add upMy biggest problem was that I made little compromises: I would take just one more phone call or work just one more hour at night. But those little sacrifices added up to big sacrifices.
After that bus tour, I made three promises to my wife:
- I will always make it home for dinner.
- I will leave work stress at work.
- On vacations, weekends, and nights, I will pour my energy into my family.
Inevitable work crises encroach on these rules to some degree, but by being intentional, I've made those crises exceptions, not the norm.
It wasn't until I set clear rules and didn't compromise on them that I was able to put my life in better balance. Well, my family life at least - my health was a different story.
2. Learn the value of your health
Poor health negatively impacts the economy to the tune of $576 billion per year. If you really want to be productive, you need to be healthy.
By the time I started working in America, 14 years spent hunched over a desk had taken their toll, and I underwent back surgery. I was prescribed six to eight weeks of rest, but I felt obligated to get back to work and returned to the office just 10 days after my operation. To this day, I have flare-ups in my back and occasional numbness down to my foot.
That's why I added health as a component of my life-work balance. I now exercise regularly and stand at my desk all day. While I'm probably in better shape now than I was in my early 20s, it was a bad idea to push myself to the absolute brink. So now I'm out to help others learn these lessons the easy way.
3. Be a life-work evangelist
Once I moved into a management position, I began thinking about why I had let my work and life fall out of balance in the first place. I realized it was because I was in a competitive environment where everyone else was out of balance, too.One of the most important ways to hold yourself accountable is to get everyone around you (co-workers, bosses, etc.) to balance their lives as well. You have to walk the talk and be a culture leader at your company.
Recently, I encouraged a colleague who underwent surgery to listen to the doctor's advice and not make the same mistake I made. Whether or not my experience returning to work too soon helped to sway her thinking, she did not come back before the recommended date. The bottom line: When you take a stand on life-work balance, others appreciate it and tend to embrace it.
This "health and family first" approach to your work and life is not about some managerial altruism, nor is it magic. It's just what works best. You, your family, your co-workers, and your company will be better off because of it.
Emile Lee is a senior vice president and the global head of communications at Dun & Bradstreet. Emile has also served as a communications executive at Johnson & Johnson, SAP, and EDS. When not at work, he can be found with his family watching or bantering about baseball.