Student affairs practitioners, and particularly those in residence life, often have a problem with overworking. It’s not hard to understand why. Many of us enter this field because we were superstar over-involved undergraduate student leaders. We are also a profession of “helpers.” We do this work “for the students” and that sometimes means that we have to put their needs above our own. A propensity towards achieving and helping, without regards for setting boundaries, is something that is almost inherently baked into our collective DNA.
As much as we’d like to help everyone, we can’t truly be effective if we are overworked and burnt out. Focusing too much on others and working at all hours isn’t a long-term, healthy, or sustainable strategy. Furthermore, when we’re surrounded by others who are susceptible to falling into the same trap, it’s hard to reverse a culture that may reward “overworking” as normal.
So how do we break out of it?
“Balance” Is A Construct
One of the words one will often hear discussed when talking about these issues is the concept of “balance.” The idea of balance belies that there is a optimal mix of work and leisure time that, in theory, should allow one to feel fulfilled in both aspects of one’s life. If one works too much, then this balance can be thrown off. (Note that this concept of imbalance only seems to be applied in one direction. One rarely would say someone is taking too much vacation time and is therefore out of balance.)
A quick Wikipedia search offers up this bit of insight into the history of the term, “work-life balance:”
The work–leisure dichotomy was invented in the mid-1800s. Paul Krassner remarked that anthropologists use a definition of happiness that is to have as little separation as possible “between your work and your play”. The expression “work–life balance” was first used in the United Kingdom in the late 1970s to describe the balance between an individual’s work and personal life. In the United States, this phrase was first used in 1986.
What strikes me about this snippet is that the concept of work-life balance didn’t even exist prior to there being a structured “work day” brought on by the industrial revolution and the emergence of professional work. The concept of “balance” revolves around the construct of “work.” It is an entirely societally created construct. This was likely exacerbated by the creation of the standardized work week and hourly schedule. While the work week, in theory, should help with balance by segmenting our time spent at home and our time spent on the job, it does not fit particularly well for jobs like those in residential life that often require working hours outside of norm. (We can see some of the effects of this as it relates to the updates to the Fair Labor Standards Act, FLSA.)
There are many criticisms of the word “balance,” and rightfully so. “Balance” implies that an equilibrium can be achieved and that it is a desired outcome. It also tends to imply that balance is static and that work and play are dichotomous. Perhaps it is better to think about balance in terms of work-life integration that involves many facets one’s life along with a recognition that this can change over time.
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The Underlying Work Structures
So how can you integrate all aspects of your life into a harmonious whole? That’s not an easy question. A quick google search for “tips for achiving work life balance” will result in a number of blog posts offering up bulleted lists of suggestions and strategies.
While these tips may help, it may be even more helpful to examine the way your work life is structured and organized in the first place. This is difficult because it is often outside your locus of control and requires buy-in from your supervisor (and their supervisors and supervisors). It may also run afoul of rules established by Human Resources and state and federal law. The tips and strategies you find by Googling are great, but what about the underlying structures at work? How can these be changed?
By changing workplace structures, maybe we can change the work-life experiences of employees. Examples can be found in a number of innovative new companies that are “reinventing” the rules of the workplace. Netflix, for instance, allows “unlimited time off” for their employees. Google and Pixar have completely redesigned their physical work spaces to encourage creativity and collaboration. There are also changes in attitudes towards telecommuting, alternative work arrangements, and project and contract work. Although these new styles of work are not without their own challenges, its possible that they may hold the key to helping many student affairs professionals with their overworking problem. The first step to addressing a problem, however, is to admit that we have one.
Amount of Work Time ≠ Effective Work
To begin to address our professional propensity towards overwork, it requires a culture change. A culture change means that:
- We will not regard the overworked as “heroes.”
- We will recognize that our “work” and “personal” lives are not two sides of a neatly organized binary.
- We will remember that priorities in our lives change dynamically through time.
- We will look out for one another and help each other in balancing our responsibilities and needs.
Lastly, though, we need to recognize that there are formal and informal “work rules” that may need to change. We need to work smarter, not harder. We need to recognize that being effective means one is able to focus on what’s important, and achieve it efficiently, instead of toiling away for hours when the outcome is likely to be the same regardless of the amount of time we put in.
This kind of cultural and self-exploratory work is hard. It is not easy to do. But the dividends of this effort will put us all in a better place.