It begins: I Start Talking About Work-Life Balance

And I might never stop. Some of you will find this ironic, since I have little work, and little life (I don’t have kids or anything like that) right now. But this subject is extremely important to me, because it has been a theme in my career.

A few weeks ago, I was reading an arts administration blog that I generally really like, and they were giving pithy advice about how to get promoted in your organization. Most of the advice came from a source that is not non-profit focused, but then there was a coda. It included the following “tip”:

“Your work / live line is too rigid.  While it is fair to separate work from life, too rigid a demarcation line and the image that woe be to anyone who crosses it suggests you aren’t really a team player and that the job is only that.”

I agree with this statement in principle. I think the key phrase is “too rigid.” I think the intention of this piece of advice is to say, “be game” or “be willing to help out.” I have certainly observed situations in which not contacting someone who is out-of-town (or unavailable for a key decision, or to provide important information) has had a lasting negative effect. “Too rigid” might also mean that you are always handing off work to other colleagues, creating an uneven distribution of tasks. Too often in non-profits and the arts, the live-work line is so flexible that the “live” part feels altogether not possible.

I know this is not universally true, and I know many amazing arts managers who have negotiated flex-time, work-from-home, and other flexible schedules. I myself used to work a shortened week because I had spent so many weekends traveling and attending work events.

However, I see far more examples of arts managers burnt out from late nights in the office, constant emails, texts and phone calls (on their personal cell phones), 50+ hour work weeks, weekends in the office or working at home, and denied vacation and time off.

When I worked in the theater, it was common for me to work nights and all weekend, but it meant that I could come in later in the morning (which was related to the fact I also only worked a part-time schedule). Since transitioning to office-based arts administration, I have found that the “boundaries” between work and personal time are not respected as much. So much of what I experienced and witnessed seemed to be related to the manager/supervisor’s work-style. If the manager loves to come in at 11am and leave at 7pm, no matter how early you arrived at the office, closing time was after 7pm. If a manager wakes up in the middle of the night to shoot off 5-10 emails on his or her Blackberry, these emails were meant to be attended to (or at least acknowledged) before the beginning of the work day in the office. If a work event was happening on your 30th birthday, you were going to spend it at the office. (These are all examples! Not real things that have happened to me!)

There is such a skill as managing up, by which an employee can set boundaries and proactively manage expectations. We can stop ourselves from going to the office on the weekend unless a deadline is absolutely firm. We can work with colleagues to distribute after-hours and weekend work evenly. We can instate a “tech Sabbath” and not check work email on Saturday or Sunday (or both!). We can take up a hobby or a set a personal goal that allows us (through the personal motivation) to take time away from work. In the end, it’s about mutual respect. And space. And being willing to stand up for oneself. 

My own coda: with seasonal work, I think the work/life balance can shake out very differently. If you have a busy season, it’s all hands on deck, and then during the less busy times, the office can collectively take a breather. I am fully in support of this type of practice. But when your busy season is “all the time,” you have a different kind of problem. When things never slow down, and workers can never catch up on projects, work on long-term goals, attend professional development events, or take (a real) vacation, it’s a problem. It creates burnout and extremely high rates of turnover, which are inefficient and extremely expensive. 

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