The Balancing Act

By Judge Audrey Headrick, Chattanooga

I don’t know about you, but I struggle daily with balancing work and family life. When I feel like I’m being an awesome mom, I feel guilty that I’m not working hard enough at my job, and vice versa. On those rare occasions when I feel like I am doing a great job of juggling work and family, I feel like I’m neglecting myself.

Fortunately, I’m not alone in this dilemma. Since I clearly don’t have it together enough to give advice about work-life balance, I turned to (of course) the Internet for guidance.

The work-life balance dilemma primarily affects two categories of families. It affects dual-earner families where both parents work and single-parent households. The common thread with both is that there’s not one person whose sole job is to exclusively manage the household. In today’s world, it’s not surprising that everyone is always busy. However, the “busyness” comes at a price.

Did you know about “tunneling” or “tunnel-vision busyness?” Behavioral researchers found that when we’re overwhelmed with busyness, we’re only able to concentrate on the short-term, easy task in front of us. We develop tunnel-vision and have difficulty in completing high-value, long-term goals. Society seems to equate busyness as a sign of job dedication and ambition. Research indicates that, even if you aren’t busy all of the time, people actively work to create a “busyness myth” illusion. If you’re busy all of the time, chronic tunnel-vision busyness is unproductive. Consider this:  Our IQ drops thirteen points when we experience tunnel-vision busyness.

Before addressing work-life balance, let’s consider recommended ways to break out of tunnel-vision busyness.

First, be transparent. Discuss non-work time with colleagues, such as lunch breaks, vacations and other life events. If you have a shared calendar, post functions that you attend for family events.

Second, be realistic. Tunnel-vision busyness makes us underestimate how much time we need to complete a task. Prioritize your work on a daily basis. To prevent getting behind, schedule blocks of time on your calendar to catch up. If you are caught up, use that time to work on long-term goals. (This works. Sometimes I block time off to work on orders.)

Third, be firm. Be protective of your work time. Consider encouraging your colleagues to have “black-out days” (or even black-out hours) where you have no meetings or e-mail communications. This will allow you to work uninterrupted.

After you address tunnel-vision busyness in your life, next consider some work-life balance insights that I gleaned from my research.

Unsurprisingly, I found that there are no easy answers regarding work-life balance. One article encourages us to give up and simply embrace the imbalance. Since the effort to balance work-life can be exhausting, why bother? The author also spoke of “Corporate Stockholm Syndrome.” The implication was that a work-life balance is impossible. While I don’t necessarily expect easy answers, I wasn’t happy with what I consider a non-answer.

Fortunately, other articles offered practical solutions for work-life balance.

Work

  • Flexibility. Discuss with your employer the challenges to see if work can offer any schedule flexibility. Today, more and more employers are permitting employees to work remotely. Job-sharing might also be an option. (Note: Before law school, I worked at a large law firm and job-shared with a co-worker. It allowed me to attend college while working. In my experience, job-sharing is definitely workable.)
  • Time Management. Be diligent regarding time-management while at work. Don’t procrastinate. Delegate tasks. And, learn to respectfully say “no” when you already have a full plate. I know it’s not easy, but saying “no” will prevent bitterness or martyrdom over your workload.
  • Boundaries. Create boundaries. Unless you have a job that requires you to be “on call” 24/7, it’s up to you to limit your work life to create a boundary from your home life.
  • Breaks. Give yourself a break. Even if you choose to work through lunch, try taking a couple of five- to ten-minute breaks throughout the day, or take a thirty-minute lunch break. If you step away from your work, you’ll look at it with fresh eyes when you return. Did you know that most people can maintain a maximum level of concentration for ninety minutes? Taking breaks, even short ones, can help avoid burnout.

Home

  • Health. First, take care of yourself physically. If you’re not eating a proper diet, getting enough sleep or exercising, you won’t be able to continue to take care of others. Avoid sodas, fast food, and unhealthy snacks.
  • Support. We all need help from others when we have kids or aging family members. Find a friend, family member, or day/senior-care service that you can rely on to help. Ideally, try to have a network of options. Depending on your child’s age, some daycare centers offer a “drop-in” option. Some places (churches, daycare centers, gymnastic centers) offer Parents’ Day Out.
  • Disconnect. When you’re spending time with your significant other and/or kids, put the electronic devices away. Spend quality time together. Take advantage of the many free, enjoyable activities that you can do: walking, hiking, throwing a Frisbee, playing with your four-legged family members, or even blowing bubbles in the yard. When you’re with your significant other and/or kids, don’t just be physically present; be intentionally and mentally present.
  • Mental Health. Take care of yourself mentally. Aerobic exercises and yoga are all known to help alleviate stress. Find an outlet that works for you in reducing stress/anxiety. Many companies offer Employee Assistance Programs. If that’s not an option, talk to your doctor.

(These tips are from the Mayo Clinic, Mental Health America and Talented Ladies Club.)

The Legal Profession

If you’re an attorney, judge or law student reading this, did you know that a study by the AMA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation showed that attorneys are at higher risk for alcohol-use disorders and mental-health problems compared to other professions and the general population? If you suspect you have a problem, contact a confidential lawyer-assistance program.

Finally–and bringing this close to home–remember that the judges on the Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims are human, too. We’ve granted continuances on cases when an attorney provided good cause, including difficult personal/family situations. Better yet, during scheduling hearings, only agree to dates and deadlines that are feasible given your other obligations. And if possible, don’t take the cases you can’t fully commit to, or get co-counsel.

Like I mentioned earlier, there are no easy solutions regarding work-life balance. However, you’ll find that most people understand when unexpected events arise or you’re simply at the breaking point. We’ve all been there, we’re still there, or we’re likely going there.

If you have helpful tips that work for you, please share them.

Savage Gulf Falls

Enjoy the natural beauty at Tennessee’s state parks before summer slips away. Photo of Savage Gulf Falls by Judge Headrick.

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