In a recent article I provided some advice for young engineers on ways to distinguish themselves in their jobs and the importance of doing so early in their career. Part of this involves investing extra time to learn the business, focus on quality and deliver as much or more than their peers. Of course, more time invested in the job means less time available for personal activities, which leads to the age-old issue of work-life balance. I’m sure you’ve heard the adage “we work to live, not live to work”. Every generation deals with this, and I won’t attempt to stereotype a Baby Boomer approach vs. Generation X or Y. Clearly, the environment from which we come (our roots), and through which we develop and experience life strongly influences our attitudes, behaviors and value systems. In the United States we enjoy a quality of life that many nations will never see, and that we often take for granted. However, our materialistic culture also places importance on salaries and titles, because as those increase we can get more “stuff”. Company culture plays a role in our behaviors as well. There are books dedicated to probing generational differences, understanding why we act like we do, etc. My purpose here is only to acknowledge that there are differences, not only between generations, but also within the same generation. Rather than stereotype by age, it is important to recognize that everyone is different, especially when it comes to work-life balance. That is, only the individual can assess whether or not he/she has acceptable “balance” in his/her life. However, while it’s an individual’s own assessment, there is often input from others who may influence that assessment, such as family members. One person’s idea of balance may not align with the spouse’s idea of balance, who is at home dealing with kids, competing schedules, activities, etc. Does the question “When are you coming home?!!” sound familiar? It’s also important to remember that balance is not a fixed point, but rather a continuum. Achieving this as we go through life is an elusive goal.
We all know “workaholics”. At least we consider them workaholics when measured against our own perception of proper balance. They may, or may not consider themselves out of balance. We also know people who may be the last to arrive in the morning and the first to leave in the evening. When you observe this and feel that twinge of resentment, your balance meter is likewise translating that behavior as not meeting (your) acceptable balance threshold.
So what is it that we’re balancing? It comes down to work time and personal time. How an individual spends their personal time is a choice, heavily influenced by the priorities in their life at any given phase. That’s a separate topic. For now, let’s just focus on work vs. personal time. Let’s say that a typical work day is 8 hours, and there’s an expected level of performance that represents the average, or norm. In most companies, the pace of a person’s progression (promotions) is heavily influenced by their performance relative to the norm, i.e., how well they distinguish themselves. In a group of capable people, an employee’s volume & quality of work output is most often a function of his/her efficiency and level of effort (how many hours they work). If you accept the basic premise that people who produce more high quality work and deliver more results than their peers should be rewarded, then it follows that those people willing to put in that extra effort and sacrifice their personal time should reap the benefits. The real question for you is “are those benefits worth the sacrifice?” Assuming you are meeting job requirements (“the norm”), you have to decide just how much extra time and effort you are willing to invest in the job to accelerate a potential salary increase or promotion. That’s a personal choice, and you have to be comfortable with its associated benefits and/or consequences.
In my various management roles, I’ve often heard the complaint, particularly from our younger population, that “we need better work-life balance” in our company. When I probed deeper into the issue, more often than not I found that what they really wanted was to work fewer hours, but they still wanted generous raises and rapid career progression. While it would be nice, premium compensation for average performance is an unrealistic expectation, and does not work in a capitalistic corporate environment.
The real dilemma for young professionals is coming to grips with the choices inherent in determining work-life balance, as well as reassessing it from time to time. It takes some soul searching as well as open communication with loved ones who are likely to be affected. From a manager’s viewpoint, I clearly see a benefit for a young employee’s balance to be weighted towards work early in their career to learn the business and jump-start their progression, but at some point every person will have to face the same question of how much is too much. As most people progress in their careers, the phenomenon of “plateauing” is inevitable. The farther up we climb on the corporate ladder, the fewer positions there are, and the competition only gets tougher. Somewhere along the way, most folks judge the sacrifice to climb any further is just not worth it, and are completely satisfied with that decision.
The term “satisfied” here is key. From what I have observed and experienced for myself, those folks who decide “I don’t need to be a future company president or department manager” opt for more personal time, and trade rewards at work for rewards outside of work. If fact, they can be quite passionate about their off-the-job activities and can draw immense satisfaction from them. There is a lot to be said for improving the quality of life in a community, whether it be as a scout leader, little league coach, church leader, PTA member, band parent, hospital or nursing home volunteer, etc. Who can put a value on watching your kids grow up & participate in sports or school activities, going on camp-outs or helping with neighborhood charities? How about your own hobbies? Regardless of your work/life balance point, you should always reserve some time for YOU, which includes taking care of your health and getting exercise. That should actually be your highest priority, before work or leisure. You should always reserve time for your health. Everyone needs time to refresh and recharge their batteries. What’s the point of all the effort if you constantly push yourself but die young?
What I haven’t addressed so far is the case where you are consistently working long hours and barely keeping up, or not achieving “the norm”. That’s a tough situation, which warrants some candid discussion with your manager. While we all have to do what’s necessary to survive, that pattern is unsustainable over the long haul from a number of perspectives including health, career longevity and work-life balance. If you find yourself in that position, you should seriously consider your alternatives.
To summarize, work-life balance is a personal choice. The choice you make helps to define you, both in how you see yourself as well as how others see you. Both companies and communities need balanced, contributing people. There are rewards on both sides of the balance. It’s not just about the money or the “stuff”. There’s no price tag on health and happiness. Take care of your health so that you can be around to enjoy life and make a difference in other people’s lives!
John Barnhill graduated from USC in 1978 with a BS in Mechanical Engineering. Originally from St. Matthews SC, he has worked for Exxon Mobil for 32 of those 35 years in New Orleans, Pensacola, Andrews (TX), Midland (TX), London, Melbourne (Australia) and Houston. For the last 23 years he has focused on international drilling operations before moving to Drilling Operations Manager for the Asia Pacific region. Most recently he was given the assignment of dealing with corporate acquisitions. While the Barnhill family resides in Houston, there are strong Garnet and Black ties back to the College of Engineering and Computing. Gamecock sons Jeff (’09 Chem Engr), Matt (’12 Mech Engr) and Tim (’14 Chem Engr) all work or have worked for Exxon Mobil in some fashion. Jeff works in production operations in the Gulf of Mexico, Matt is with XTO Energy, an Exxon Mobil subsidiary, and Tim co-oped in California production operations before accepting a position with Conoco Phillips. John and his wife, Nancy, have built a retirement home on Lake Murray, and look forward to returning to the Palmetto State in a few months.