Work-Life, Unbalanced

Lately, I have been thinking a lot (and feeling all the feels) about the issue of work-life balance: why does balance going sideways seem to happen to some people more often than others? And is getting the balance back really as simple as just “leaving work?” I can’t say that I have all the answers, but I’m getting closer to my own personal solutions.

April was a horrendously busy month for me at work, despite the fact that – as a catharsis, and often instead of sleeping – I found the time and energy to write a handful of blog posts and even have a little fun.

Between being down two officer positions in our section, two other people being on annual leave, backstopping multiple portfolios besides my own, and spending five weeks preparing for and covering two high-level visits from Washington across two weekends in a row (including Easter weekend, which in Australia is four days), my pile of undone regular work was growing by the day. I felt sad, stressed, and was rapidly approaching burnout. There were many nights that I was in the office until after 22:00. Working late helped. But no matter how hard I worked, it seemed my work was never done.

It was in that context that I came across a work-life balance themed article that struck a nerve on one of the professional development forums I follow. It was a feature called “Dear Carolyn” in the Washington Post Style section (by advice columnist Carolyn Hax), and it was posted with the note that “this may be how some of our colleagues view our attempts at work-life balance,” or something to that effect. The link is below, but in case you hit a subscription paywall, I’m posting the letter and reply below.

Carolyn Hax: For this employee, high time to hop off the hamster wheel

Dear Carolyn: I work in an extremely demanding job that has always expected late nights, overtime, uncompensated work on the weekends, and basically a commitment to make it one of the most important things in your life. It’s a charity organization that I deeply agree with, and I have always made that commitment happily.

A new hire started at the firm recently who doesn’t. It drives me to distraction to see “Pat” swan out of the office at half five, never answer emails until arriving at work and rarely work through lunch. On occasion when we have an emergency project on short notice, Pat will chip in with the rest of us, but not often. Pat admits to not understanding our commitment to the job and says it’s different in Europe (where Pat is from), where they “work to live.”

It would be annoying if Pat did this and was failing, but Pat’s work is consistently praised by our boss and put Pat in line for a promotion.

Is this person just so efficient that working hours are enough for what it takes me sleepless nights to do? Or have I just been pointlessly running in this hamster wheel expecting someone to see how much I love my job?


Hamster: That darn Pat, committing flagrant acts of sanity.

Is that really why you work for free — “expecting someone to see how much I love my job”? As in, giving your power to the boss?

If so, then please see Pat as a living flick to the forehead. And a role model.

Maybe start with waiting till you get into the office to start work. Then move on to a firm departure time. If you typically leave around 8 p.m., then choose 7:30 p.m., then 7, etc., backing your way into a life outside of the office. Watch for workplace consequences, adjust schedule accordingly, repeat.

In the hours you free up, read articles on human productivity, especially in desk jobs. Pat might actually do better work because of the lighter schedule and firmer boundaries.

Also, here’s the easiest change ever: Tweak your vocabulary. Pat doesn’t “swan out of the office”; Pat leaves work. Presumably, to do other things Pat enjoys.

In fact, Pat sounds like someone worth treating to lunch — as in, leave the office and order food and don’t talk shop — so you can find out more about working less.

So, OK.

I read this article, and a bunch of its pro-Pat comments, and I admit my feelings were mixed. Obviously Pat is more efficient than Hamster, and Hamster probably has some boundary issues. But the article did not really give me enough information to do more than automatically take Pat’s side. Maybe for this Hamster and this Pat, it is as simple as Carolyn’s advice suggests.

As an admittedly recovered (recovering??) chronic hamster myself, I think we have to delve into workplace circumstances in a more complex and nuanced way – rather than just shaming and blaming hamsters – to really understand how work and life get so unbalanced. What happens in the workplace with one person can have a ripple effect, whether it’s someone not pulling their weight (and in that case, who indeed swans out of the office) or another who consistently steps into the breach and gives too much.

But first let me back up, and unpack this a little. Although the article very carefully avoids assigning gender to either Hamster or Pat, I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess we’re talking about two women. Just a hunch. (If I’m wrong, let me be properly struck by lightning.)

Hamster is kinda wrong. Here’s why. I honestly think that Hamster has not reconciled her intrinsic motivation (passion for the charity) with her extrinsic motivation (wanting validation and recognition from leadership and colleagues). She is bitter that her colleagues don’t work as she does, and she’s making untested assumptions about management expectations.

If Hamster chooses to work the long hours for free and give up her lunch breaks and weekends, she needs to take responsibility for that being a choice. Instead she is making work a competition, and one she is losing. Why the martyrdom, if she’s doing what she really wants to do? Because she’s threatened that someone else is giving less and still perceived as doing “better?”

But I also feel a little bit sorry for Hamster. Hamster found her passion. She loves what she does. She is offended that it’s “just a job” to at least one of her colleagues. I get that, deeply, actually. Maybe it is because she spends all her time hugging the organization and as much as she may hate to admit it, it would be nice – just once or twice – if the organization would hug her back.

But it probably won’t. She is a product of a toxic, winner-take-all U.S. work culture that promises us – and in particular, women – that we can have it all, if we just make the effort and put in the time. It’s not enough just to work and support yourself; you have to believe in what you’re doing, and make other people believe in it, too. She portrays a “regular” workday like someone totally half-assing their job. And we’re all asking, At what cost? How did we get here? And more importantly – how can we get out?

Not all Hamsters are created equally, or share the same motivations. We know a bit about Hamster from her letter. But we don’t know everything. It’s one thing to be a hamster short-term because you’re crashing on a deadline and doing what it takes to keep everything moving forward, like I was last month. Maybe Hamster’s boss keeps dumping invisible work on her because s/he knows Hamster can handle it, while simultaneously admonishing her for not going home earlier. Or maybe Hamster doesn’t know when to stop raising her hand.

And before we know it, people become chronic hamsters because they aren’t good at setting boundaries with work. Some work in dysfunctional settings and develop a bit of a hero complex. Some work for hamsters themselves and get caught up in the schedule. And some get to experience the downside of being competent and get more work heaped upon them than they can ever do.

Early on in my career, I think I experienced all those things and more, plus the fact that I had busy, demanding jobs that required a “suck it up and get it done” mentality and no one to delegate to. I have only had one job in the last 10 years that did not *explicitly* require me to check email after hours and on weekends.

And, some hard truth: I’ve had a long sucky track record at saying no. I loved to be needed, to Get Things Done for the busy, important, competent, and highly-functioning people I supported – who by the way were working even harder than I was, somehow. There were times I probably pigeon-holed myself into some thankless tasks because I was anxious to please and be a team player. I worked like Carrie Mathison on Homeland (without all the cool espionage ops) or like Doug Stamper on House of Cards (minus the substance abuse, prostitutes, and murder). Always there, and always ready. My husband, also at the peak of his career, was the other half of this power couple. We understood each other. We worked hard, and we played hard.

Not all Pats are created equally, either. The “yay Pat” and “I am Pat, with no guilt” and “See Pat work more efficiently, be like Pat” article comments got under my skin in a “must be nice” kind of way. And then I felt ashamed and questioned my reaction, because in all honesty, there are few people who support a healthy integration of work and life, institutionalizing and automating work, and trying to work “smarter” more than I do. As a supervisor, I have typically approved every time off request I could within workload requirements, no matter why the leave was requested. I very intentionally focus on being collaborative, inclusive, and efficient, trying to reinvent as few wheels as possible. Why would I begrudge anyone from going home when it’s time? I’m going to be very honest.

My reaction was probably because the “Pats” – like the hamsters – I have worked with over the last 13+ years of my federal career fall across a pretty broad continuum.

Some were super efficient and had awesome work-life balance integration. Some were lazy and miserable and hated their jobs, and counted the minutes until they could leave while doing as little work as possible all day – and leave on time they did. And some of the Pats I’ve worked with got their work-life balance at others’ expense, leaving at the same time every day come hell or high water and punting the remainder of unfinished shared work to others, usually people like me who were more junior and eager to pay dues. This is allowed to happen in workplaces for a lot of reasons, especially in the absence of good leadership and management.

There were times I was complicit in letting Pats leverage their balance against my ambition. In the trade-off, I got to be the dependable problem-solver, and the higher visibility led to multiple promotions and exciting opportunities for me year after year. But to some extent, it also eventually led to a feeling of burnout and being taken for granted, not to mention less time with loved ones and for my own personal pursuits. In this way, it started feeling less symbiotic and more parasitic. I started questioning, do these tasks really need to be done now, or even at all? Is the sharing and helping ever reciprocated, or is it only one-way? Why is it that I have no backup, for anything, and when I take time away all the work just piles up? Am I really the only one that can perform these duties?

Doing more with less. I think this has been the mantra in every government job I’ve had. Having worked now at two overseas embassies and dealing with the real impact of short-staffing, I have realized anew that there is a tipping point beyond which more does not get done with less. You can run yourself ragged all you want, but eventually you will have to prioritize, and some things will fall off. I have come to the place where, even though that sometimes makes me disappointed or uncomfortable, I think it is both OK and essential.

I asked someone the other day who was rattling off a long list of to-dos what the priorities were, and he replied, “Everything.” I immediately thought, No. When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. In the Foreign Service context, this can be so tough. When you are in the field, and officers PCS, or any number of unexpected things like get sick or curtail, the team has to pull together. Pat may need to swing his or her buns into high gear for a while so that everyone can keep their resiliency. Resiliency is not just for those who are the best at saying no.

Balance for all. The most insidious aspect for many employees who are not parents is the unspoken assumption that the ‘life’ part of work-life balance pertains primarily – and most legitimately – to parenting duties. When you do not have small children to care for, traditional U.S. work culture presumes you have less life to balance. This is NOT necessarily true (and definitely indicative of lots o’ judgment about what constitutes worthy adult time spent).

An employee’s medical needs, time with friends, family responsibilities, extracurricular hobbies and activities, a long-planned trip, or even a personal appointment are usually found wanting when stacked up against work to be done and a parent with a child on the curb awaiting pickup. I’m not faulting parents for this – they are trying to find their balance too. But not having my own child to fall back on as a “reason” to leave work has left me at times surprised and defensive about why my personal time is assumed to be worth less. No explanation is owed, and none shall be forthcoming.

I think many young, single women fall into this trap, especially in Washington but it’s certainly not exclusive to Washington: climb the ladder as fast as you can before your priorities and responsibilities change and you may choose to take a step back. Even though we have come a long way, the reality is that for years, men have had wives to facilitate, underwrite, and subsidize their availability for work opportunities, providing ballast to the “life” side of the balance equation so they wouldn’t have to take a step back. Some of us chose a different path, and the workplace finds itself with a new cast and an old script. And women are stuck in between: too much to do at work, too much to do at home, and too little time to do it all well.

At the risk of sounding too hetero-normative here, and with the caveat that this topic could be an endless series of posts in and of itself, the bottom line is that all employees have a right to a life outside of work. And work-life balance should not depend on parental status.

To be clear, I am not angry or regretful about my choices. On balance (no pun intended), I have done well and I would not change much. I’m just reflecting on my work patterns with the benefit of several years’ more wisdom. Most of the people whom I have worked for or with were supportive of me as a professional and a human being. But there are unconscious biases we need to face and reframe. There is kindness and thoughtfulness we need to extend. Everyone needs to feel their work is valued, needs space to evaluate their challenges and advocate for their needs, needs to ramp up or ramp down in different work situations and in different seasons of life in a way that is as fair as possible to the team, and needs to be treated holistically for their own good, and the good of the organization and society more broadly. When you know better, you do better, and I mostly have. I think maybe Carolyn Hax was trying to say this to Hamster, in her own blunt way.

Hamster vs. Pat: Trying not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. It is a little funny that this past week, I received a LinkedIn digest and one of the articles was called “The benefits of strategic quitting.” It talks about engaging in ‘metacognition’ to determine what tasks you could let go of in order to focus better on work that garners higher returns. I also heard a brilliant discussion on the Women at Work podcast recently that was talking about not making the perfect the enemy of the good. In other words, if you spend two hours writing something and it’s 80% ‘perfect,’ and so you spend two more hours working on it to bring it up to 82%, enter the law of diminishing returns.

The law of diminishing returns: The point at which the level of profits or benefits gained < the amount of money or energy invested.

This was a poignant realization for me – someone who has been told since childhood not to “half-ass.” Sometimes, good enough will simply have to be enough.


Last week, I had a meeting in Canberra’s downtown Civic area. It was a 10 minute cab ride from the embassy to get to the meeting, and afterwards, it was such a gorgeous, sunny autumn day that I decided to take a lunch hour and walk back to the embassy.

I walked through Commonwealth Park, stopped by the Canberra and Region Visitors’ Centre at Regatta Point to buy a couple of souvenirs, and strolled near Lake Burley Griffin.

In the distance I could see the National Carillon, National Library, and the big eagle in front of the Australian Department of Defence that some of my colleagues call the “chicken on a stick.” I listened to music on my headphones and the sun warmed my skin against the crisp autumn breeze. I tried to remember when the last time I went out walking at lunchtime was. Summer?

I honestly didn’t really have time that day to go walking for an hour. It meant that I ended up staying later in the evening than I’d wanted in order to finish my highest-priority work.

But I also didn’t have time not to walk for an hour, if that makes sense. We know the research shows that employees – and particularly those in desk jobs – who take breaks during the day to recharge and clear their minds are more focused, more productive, and happier employees. And that’s how I felt.

With only 80-something days remaining at Post, I won’t remember in six months what I had to finish at work that was keeping me so busy that day. But I will remember how Canberra looked in the golden sun, its trees a brilliant array of red and orange around the lake basin.

And I will also do a better job of assessing the seasons of ramping up and ramping down. When I can be the hero Hamster and when I can be the better-balanced and happier Pat. You can’t run a marathon like it’s a sprint.

  5 comments for “Work-Life, Unbalanced

  1. May 12, 2019 at 06:09

    Really great post, friend. I hope you get to take another walk soon…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. May 12, 2019 at 07:27

    It took me about six month in Bamako to realize that there will always be work to do, no matter if I come in at 6:30 or leave at 20:00. Once that sank in, strategic “letting go” set in and I’ve been much happier.

    Liked by 1 person

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Sarah W Gaer

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