work/life balance

Drawing the Line - Vacations (and Work)

I couldn’t make this up.  

A young investment banker client, a guy who had significant work/life balance issues, wanted to ask me a personal question. He knew well that he had lost his perspective about how much is too much when it came to his work ethic. All he knew was working insane hours was bringing him a terrific income and a relatively secure career path – but was having serious ramifications in his personal life. (The fact that he didn’t like his work much was not yet the issue it became later.)  

He was about to go on his honeymoon in Hawaii. I knew exactly what was coming next. He asked if I thought it would be terrible if he worked on his smartphone during the honeymoon. He said it would only be a “couple of hours,” sometimes more, each day.  

He was completely serious. Talk about boundaries! And it wasn’t the only time I had heard about this kind of work issue. It’s quite common in certain professions.  

I asked him if what he was currently working on was high priority, and whether it was expected that he be on call during his honeymoon. Of course everything, in his mind, was urgent, which was a whole other problem. He did realize that management at his company did not expect him to be available during this particular time, but they did expect him to be somewhat accessible during regular vacations.  

My advice to him was that if I were his wife and saw him working, I would throw the phone into that beautiful Hawaiian ocean. He agreed that would be a reasonable reaction. Our compromise was that he would dedicate a maximum of one half hour a day to answering and reading emails, and he would do it completely out of sight of his wife. Hotel bathroom, honeymoon suite, whatever. Just away from his new wife.  

When he came back, he told me it had worked – and he had been happy with his new-found freedom from the device, and from work. He admitted that the company hadn’t fallen apart due to his not being constantly available.  

Easy for me to say, right? I can just hear some of my clients asking that.  

Try a quota system

Ok. I’ll admit I’ve been a serious offender myself. Due to the nature of my business, I tell clients that I am available for emergencies, meaning a lost job or a negotiation, during vacations. Plus it’s tough not to check email for the possibility of new business.  

On one vacation, I checked email a couple of times a day, and by the end of the vacation, I realized I hadn’t had such a great time. It’s tough to relax when you’re constantly going to work, even for short periods. I had been thinking too much about work issues and had spent far too much time on business email. I resolved that the next big vacation was going to involve some kind of quota system.  

The first time I tried a quota system, it was limiting business email to one half-hour run-through a day, and voicemail once a week. Still too much. Still thinking about work on vacation too much.  

Last summer, I think I finally got it down right. Three days a week, quick scan of emails, maybe 20 minutes max, and the one phone check per week. It did work. I limited most of my computer time to reading the online newspapers and used the iPad for books. Period.  

I strongly urge my clients to withdraw from their devices as much as feasible when on vacation, because it’s good for mental health. That’s the point of vacations. And, if absolutely necessary, limit communications to a set time each weekday or maybe even two-three times a week. Sometimes I’ll encourage clients to think that vacation is part of total compensation (it is). If you don’t utilize your vacation, then you’re leaving money on the table. I’ve never been able to figure out clients who don’t take their full allotment of vacation time – and brag about it! That’s like those Wall Street professionals I work with both in my private practice and at Columbia Business School, who will boast about how many hours a week they work. A very New York City thing.  

Many professionals have realized they can fully withdraw from their devices because of the nature of their businesses, and how things are covered back home when they’re away. That helps create a true vacation experience.  

Limits do work.  


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Is it time to leave?

Malaise at Work 
Having a bad week at work is usually transitory. Everyone goes through that. When the bad week extends into several and becomes chronic, or what I call "the feeling sick on Sunday night syndrome," it may mean it’s time for some sort of change.  

It takes, however, some careful thinking to separate out a bad career decision from a bad work environment. Too often I've seen clients and students insist on making a change, either within a field or maybe something more radical. But with a little time and perspective, they realize that the problem may be the work setting, not the career choice.

Write it down
One way to figure out the difference is simply to draw up a list of personal values, i.e., what's important to you at work, and then match it with the attributes of the current job. Is there a strong correlation? That should help you understand whether it's the place or the profession. Or both. What would the change actually look like? Writing it down often provides some perspective and clarity.  

Escape from reality is not a career path
Do you frequently think about another specific profession? That, too, can be a clue. (Please note I’m not talking about your dream of opening a B&B in New Hampshire or a bait and tackle shop in Tahiti. Those are called “escapes.” Often from reality. The truth is that kind of work is TOUGH, and not nearly the idyll that most people fantasize.)  

Get another perspective
You may need some help figuring out this conundrum. It may take some personal assessment, perhaps some formal assessment tools, or some conversations with a trusted friend or colleague. Maybe a professional career advisor can help you get a better perspective.  

When should I think about leaving?
Here are some signs that it may be time to move:

  • If you feel completely stuck, it is probably time to consider either an internal move or a move out.

Of course, there are some who enjoy certainty and repetition and are comfortable with that. For most, though, "stuck" is not a good place to be. Unfortunately, it can also lead to inertia--you start to feel paralyzed. If that happens, then you definitely need to at least take a look at some other options. This doesn't mean a commitment; it just means an exploration.   

  • Constant complaining about work may mean it’s time to consider alternatives. It could also be a personality trait--you’ll have to be honest with yourself here.   
  • A difficult relationship with a boss may signal the need to move. Unless it reflects your own issues, too.  

It's important to understand that work environments almost always have some kind of significance in terms of family background. Early childhood patterns tend to repeat throughout life. You're always playing out parts of childhood at work and in other life arenas, whether it's a sibling issue (competitiveness?), parental (problems with authority figures?), or parenting (difficulty with subordinates?). 

On the other hand, it can be purely about a difficult boss. For example, a narcissistic boss can be extremely difficult to work with, because, characteristic of that disorder, the narcissist is almost never satisfied. He/she requires inordinate amounts of attention to prop up a fragile personality. That's a tough work situation, and probably a motivation to make a change.  

  • ·The prospects for advancement in your field look grim.

If you do make a decision based on this, you need to be careful before coming to conclusions about industries in decline. 

Sometimes it's cyclical (real estate), and sometimes it's a radical change in direction (publishing, music). Be sure to do considerable research to make that determination and be careful about naysayers, who will offer negatives about any profession at any time.  

I remember clients hearing negatives (no jobs out there anymore!) about technology during the dotcom boom of the late '90's, which was ridiculous. Of course, those negatives did become real in the early 2000's--but turned out to be part of another, newer, cycle.  

  •   The balance between work and life is way off.  

If you value your time off, and you find you're working regularly on weekends, maybe it's time to think about a change. Is it part of the industry culture (investment banking and law)? Or is it cyclical (accounting)? Be sure to research whether it's industry-wide, or whether it's just your organization.

What does a change entail?
Now that you know it’s time to leave, you need to know that a career change should involve a heavy due diligence before implementing a search. This turns the common sequence around a bit. Instead of making an arbitrary decision because something sounds interesting, as most people do at the beginning of their careers, I strongly urge research and informational networking in perhaps two or three different targets.  

This will help to determine whether or not you 
(1) like what you find out, 
(2) find that there is an actual market out there, and 
(3) determine whether your skills and experience are appropriate for the target.  

What you want is a critical mass of opinion--meaning more than one or two people-- so that you can make your decision, and then begin the mechanics of a search. By mechanics, I mean the development of marketing materials (resume, pitch, written communications) and then building relationships which will get you to decision makers.  

Please note that I'm not emphasizing ads or recruiters here, which, while sometimes useful, are low-odds resources for most job seekers.  

Making the final decision
It is difficult, if not impossible, to make blanket generalizations about entire fields, in terms of what's hot at the moment. For example, current consensus says that healthcare is a growing market segment for now and for the future. This is generally true, but does that refer to doctors or nurses or physical therapists or pharmacists or all the other healthcare professions? Obviously, one statement can’t cover them all.  

Finding out what it means requires the due diligence mentioned above, plus research and reading about the industries you're interested in. Intelligent career transition requires a great deal of preparation, not just a quick, sometimes arbitrary decision.

I feel strongly that any career decision should involve the notion that the career should fit you--and not the other way around. It's important to understand your own personal style and values, and figure out whether any career decision suits who you are. Too many decisions are made out of expediency or as the result of not enough reflection. It’s never easy, but isn't it worth the effort to do it right?  

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Vacations - imperative! Don't even ask.

I'm always astonished by clients who ask whether they should take some vacation time. Sometimes, they feel guilty about leaving work behind. Sometimes, they feel pressure--real or imagined--from management, especially in cultures that don't think vacations show commitment to the job. Other times, they’re just reflecting the overall culture (Wall Street--do you hear me?  Giant law firms--same?). In those cultures, workers brag about how many hours they work--and how little vacation time they take.

Of course, there are times when it isn't a great idea to take off. In my role as consultant at Columbia Business School, I know there are three different two-month periods during the year when it's just not possible to get away. I also understand that some bankers and attorneys, for instance, cannot walk out in the middle of a deal. 

But to not take vacation, and then brag about it, is a whole other thing.  

It's what I call "leaving money on the table." Vacation is part of compensation. Why would you not take money that is being handed to you or you negotiated for? When I teach a course in Salary Negotiations, I love to joke that on my ultimate negotiating list, number one is vacation time--and the financial stuff is further down the list. (I'm only half joking.)  

More important, it's critical that you have time, at various points in the year, to regenerate. You do need to get away from it all. I had a client, years ago, an investment banker who actually asked me if I thought it would be okay for him to check emails a few times a day while on vacation-- on his honeymoon!   

The answer is yes, there are certain jobs where you do have to check, but it needs to be kept to a minimum. Like maybe once a day for a few minutes. The purpose of the vacation is defeated if you're answering emails all day. It's tough to compartmentalize into vacation and non-vacation, while you're actually trying to BE on vacation.

All this is on my mind now as I reach the end of a long vacation. (It's been great.) Because there are some emergencies in my work, I do check email once a day, and try to answer only critical issues. But I realize when I do more than that, it wipes out the feeling of being away. A definite downside to this age of connectedness. It's getting harder to say you won't have email access in your vacation auto response, because there aren't that many places left where you can’t get any access!  

So I keep away from the computer, iPad, and mobile phone as much as possible. They sit there calling out to me, but I resist. The vacation is more important. 

photo credit: Carola Chase