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Balance

When a heavy workload and family pressures take a toll Add to ...

When Debby Hamilton filled out the work-life balance quarterly check-up recently on the Globe Careers site, it was a shock to admit to herself that her stress and work-life balance were at the red alert level. The 56-year-old executive director of the Vernon Women’s Transition House Society in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley knew she lived a pressurized life, overseeing an organization that helps women to flee violence and deal with the aftermath of sexual assault. She knew she didn’t have time for the many priorities tugging at her – work, family, long-time friends – let alone the luxury of proper vacations and fun.

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But the scorecard didn’t involve somebody else declaring her situation desperate. She was being asked to rate her current stress and work-life balance like a traffic light: Green for moving ahead well, amber for be careful, and red for stop. And she was admitting to herself she had to stop and make changes.

About a quarter of the survey’s respondents – 23 per cent – like her, rated their stress levels as red, with a further 52 per cent awarding themselves a cautionary amber. Only a quarter of those who took the survey felt things were basically all right, or green.

Ratings for work-life balance echoed those levels: Twenty-three per cent were red, 46 per cent were amber, and 32 per cent were green. (You can assess your own status by clicking here).

People may have been reluctant to admit the gravity of their situation, however. When asked to score their stress levels on a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 highly stressed and 0 unstressed, 45 per cent rated themselves as a 7 to 10 on the scale. On the other hand, when asked as a comparison to think back to December, before the holidays, and rate their stress then, only 26 per cent were in the 7-to-10 range. That surprised me, since people usually are highly stressed before the holidays, tired from the accumulated pressures of the year and the holiday preparations, so I expected levels to be lower at the end of March. Interestingly, the work-life balance scores were roughly the same for the two periods: 50 per cent listed themselves in the 7-to-10 range now, compared to 51 per cent in December. So much for March break bringing some relief.

Respondents were asked to compare their numerical scores for work-balance levels today with what they would prefer it to be. Thirteen per cent had scores at their ideal level, and 27 per cent only rate the difference as 1 or 2 points on the 10-point scale, not too much of a mismatch. But that meant 60 per cent were 3 or more points away from their ideal.

The pressures ran the gamut from long commutes, to job insecurity, uncertain job transfers, divorce, office politics and bad bosses. “I am a fairly shy guy. My supervisor is loud and outgoing. I feel pressured to be more open and when I don’t I get stressed about feeling inadequate,” one respondent wrote.

A British Columbia teacher was worried by possible strike action by her union, which she had voted against. Lack of sleep and lack of exercise were mentioned frequently – along with work overload. Indeed, long work hours were cited by 18 per cent of respondents and too heavy a workload by 26 per cent when asked to name the top factor increasing their stress level and toppling work-life balance, with office politics in third place at 12 per cent.

Ms. Hamilton is passionate about the work she is doing – she would be helping to combat violence against women even if it wasn’t her job – and so that means she doesn’t turn off easily. She puts in gruelling hours at the office, and brings work home, playing out ideas in her head for improving the organization, answering e-mail, and taking the occasional call when a situation boils over at the transition home. “It’s all I can do to stagger home sometimes,” she says. “I get straight into my pyjamas. If I let myself, I would sit in front of the television all evening.”

Her three children are adults, but one son is several hours away by car away while another son is a plane flight away in Edmonton; both prefer her to visit them, which adds time pressures and guilt. Her daughter, who has a developmental disability, lives in her basement, requiring some assistance. Her aged mother has health issues, and it’s a 14-hour drive or $1,200 plane ticket to see her in Terrace, B.C. “That’s another layer of guilt that I feel I should be with her,” she says.

She moved from Dawson Creek, B.C., to the Okanagan 12 years ago, and has not made new deep friendships to replace the old. As executive director, she is reluctant to turn workplace colleagues into friends, but that has left her with some loneliness. A clutch of long-time friends live in Edmonton, but there’s never enough time on her visits there to fully spend time with both them and her son. “I get caught sneaking around on one or the other,” she notes.

Vacation time goes to family visits. She longs for a real vacation, for herself and her husband. She remembers the freedom as a child to ski and swim, whereas these days when she works in exercise it’s as another obligation, creating even more pressure. She lives near a beautiful park and tries to take the dogs there on many nights, and also walk at lunch hour. But she says, “It’s not recreating – re-creating,” stressing the idea that a vacation should reenergize so that you come back as a new person. “But I guess it’s better than nothing.”

The Globe’s Work-Life Balance Questionnaire asked her to list goals for the next three months. She will try to reduce the number of extra projects her organization takes on, since those always end up run by her in non-spare time; exercise more; and watch less TV.

For Barbara, a 49-year-old human resources manager in Niagara Falls, Ont. her goals for the next three months are clear. In April, she will try to help her daughter get re-established in the city and find work after moving back home to finish some course credits for a university degree. In May, she will deal with the BlackBerry her bosses want her to have, and see whether it can help her productivity without ruining her work-life balance. Throughout the period she will be training two new key staff members, using June to finish that up.

She doesn’t rate her stress currently as high – three or four on the scale – but those three issues have been nagging at her. Especially the BlackBerry. She has a laptop she uses at home, but tries not to check it too much. “With a BlackBerry I could address things more immediately. But that can be a negative as well as a positive. It’s good sometimes to have a pause,” she says, having time to reflect and slowing the pace of communications. But she has been told she is getting one, and wants to make sure she makes it a good thing. Hopefully in June, when it’s time for the check-in after the next quarter, her stress and work-life scores won’t move to amber or red.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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