The Unspoken Struggle of Good Work-Life Balance

A few weeks back, I got a question from Nikhil Krishnan’s Get Real Newsletter that got me thinking: “What does work life balance mean to you? How do you strive to achieve it?”

It was a question I had thought about for years — one I constantly asked as a candidate in college and one I received for many years in informational interviews.

In my experience, it felt like we were all looking for some level of a simple assurance: “Do you work crazy hours? Are you flexible with remote work? Do people stay at the office for dinner?”

Even if you look at a Business Insider article of companies with the best work-life balance, the themes usually involve some variety of the following:

Unlimited paid time off. Flexible time in and out of work. Friendly employees. Working virtually. Prioritization of family.

While I do believe boundaries and external benefits are a good signal of a company’s commitment to work-life balance, it felt like there was a crucial missing piece in these conversations that often didn’t get tagged in interviews.

As someone who has struggled with work-life balance at different points in my career, I can point to struggles where there were both valid external indicators (i.e. long hours, intense pressure from management)but some where there none: Clear expectations, compassionate management, and regular hours.

That should be everything those companies with good work-life balance promised, right?

It hit me one afternoon a couple years back when I found out about a big project delay at work.

Later that night, I was having dinner with a friend. I remember starting down at the menu, unable to process a single item — my mind was immediately scattering to all the different consequences: Will I get fired? Will this impact my career? Will I have to have yet another uncomfortable conversation? Another awkward one-on-one?

I had sought validation for so long and the loss of validation from this particular company, by particular people, for this particular project had been eating at me.

With that attachment to this validation, it didn’t matter if the company gave me unlimited time-off, remote work flexibility, or ping pong tables — I was living in a prison of my own mental creation.

My own emotional attachment was my barrier to good work-life balance.

It hit me that good work-life balance was more than just friendly colleagues and flexible work schedules. True work-life balance involves drawing your own boundaries and giving yourself permission to fail at work without it impacting your self-worth.

There’s a good heuristic I like to use now in these situations: Imagine that a good friend or loved one was facing the same challenge as you — that they were upset over a project delay or bad meeting.

What would you say to them? Of course, it’s something trivial and their life isn’t going to go to shreds — don’t you owe the same message to yourself?

There’s also a good self-compassion exercise from Dr. Kristen Neff that involves three steps:

  • Step 1: Acknowledge the difficulty, stress, and/or pain of the moment. You might say “This hurts” or “Damn, I feel stressed”.
  • Step 2: Acknowledge that difficulty and pain/discomfort are a part of life. You might say “Other people feel this way” or “I’m not alone”.
  • Step 3: Offer kindness to yourself. Either through a mini reward (For me, it’s Taco Bell!”) or just a simple “It’s ok”.

Back to Nikhil’s newsletter — I shared a lot of this. How I often conflated my job with personal worth and derived my emotional state from how well things were going at work.

He shared a perspective I also appreciated: When your job is NOT your identity, do you find yourself less tied to the success of the company as a whole?

Which brought me to a realization: Having emotional connection to your work has a spectrum and having a healthy passion is right in the middle.

It’s good to have an emotional connection as long as you develop self-concepts that build on top of the identity you build in the workplace.

While we’re in a pandemic, building emotional boundaries is more important than before. While I have of praise for my own employer and how they’ve helped Livongo employees during this time, I also have another quick shout-out.

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield had a great twitter thread recently about the work Slack is doing to prepare for the current pandemic and ended it with this:

In summary — having good work-balance is a combination of a lot of the above: compassion, kindness, flexibility, clear expectations — but most of all, an understanding that your accomplishments and failures at work don’t define your life outside of it.

Any other thoughts of your own on work-life balance? Feel free to add in the comments!

Kushaan is a growth associate at Livongo based out of the Bay Area and enjoys sharing insights around Growth, careers, and personal anecdotes. He also likes meaningless controversies (check out ranking of the best fast food fries) and spending his days finding the best Super burrito in San Francisco. All opinions are his own. Get in touch here or via @kushaanshah on Twitter.

Growth @Livongo • Bostonian • Fan of sports and quirky theatre • Marketing Nerd • Weekly reads http://mindmeld.substack.com ✍️

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