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Work-Life Balance: Time Confetti, The Overwhelm, and The Curse of The Ideal Employee
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Work-Life Balance: Time Confetti, The Overwhelm, and The Curse of The Ideal Employee - Executive Leadership Articles

Work-Life Balance: Time Confetti, The Overwhelm, and The Curse of The Ideal Employee

Executive Leadership Articles

Work-Life Balance: Time Confetti, The Overwhelm, and The Curse of The Ideal Employee

“Time confetti” is the picturesque phrase Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte uses to describe a phenomenon most of us are familiar with: little twenty- or thirty-minute moments between dropping the kids off at soccer practice and picking up the groceries at the market in which we manage to cram a couple of emails or phone calls we didn’t get to while we were still at our desks. The kids are in bed and we’ve already showered, so we take another fifteen minutes to sketch a rough agenda for the next day’s meeting. We turn the TV on or pick up that best-seller everyone’s talking about, but we only indulge for fifteen minutes or so before we get lunches ready for tomorrow morning.

Time confetti, the tiny, practically useless trimmings of the hours that make up our days often disguise themselves as leisure, but for many of us, they never amount to true leisure. It may look like we’re taking some moments to spend a few moments with our gardens, but while we’re blissfully yanking those weeds, we’re also constantly aware of the next thing we need to be doing, planning the best route to the kids’ school so we can tick as many things off our to-do lists as possible, or figuring out when would be the best time to return four phone calls.

Schulte, the author of OVERWHELMED: WORK, LOVE, and PLAY WHEN NO ONE HAS THE TIME (Macmillan, 2014), writes that the shredding of our time into confetti results in something she calls “the overwhelm,” turning the verb into a noun, an entity like a monster or a disease. Not only does the overwhelm make it impossible for us truly to find a healthy work-life balance: it threatens our health and compromises the quality of our work.

A lot of this is probably familiar, but Schulte doesn’t offer tricks or tips for taming the work-life beast. She says the accusing finger should not be pointed at us for our inability to manage our time; rather, she faults a workplace culture that values something she calls the “ideal worker,” a mythical standard of excellence that is attainable only by those who turn their entire lives over to their careers, eschewing family and leisure for cold late-evening pizza in the office.

“When you are overwhelmed, when you can neither predict nor control the forces shaping your time, when you don’t even have time to think about why you’re overwhelmed, much less what to do about it, you are powerless,” she says, adding that studies have found that employees who take full vacations are not only more likely to stay with a firm but also receive higher performance reviews, and that workers are not only more creative, but when turning off the constant barrage of emails and the ideal worker requirement to respond to them immediately, people are able to concentrate and get more done with less stress.

So deeply is the ideal worker engrained into our concept of professionalism that many companies have trouble letting it go, even when presented with evidence that says it’s not working. Schulte offers specific cases of companies that have thrown out the concept of the ideal worker and are making work-life balance practically a requirement of its employees:

  • The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Virginia, where two-thirds of the 11,000 employees work remotely at least one day per week. These remote workers are more productive and save the taxpayers millions in real estate and office costs each year.
  • The multinational professional services firm who, when asked by employees for different schedules, has stopped asking “Why?” and now asks “Why not?”
  • The Georgia healthcare system whose willingness to offer flexible hours extends to workers in the laundry, who formulated a plan for building up an inventory of clean linens during the week so they would have enough to allow them Sundays off.
  • The offices in the Pentagon who restructured expectations by examining how work could be shared, time could be saved, and employees could take time off for whatever they needed without fearing the stigma of not putting in their office face-time. Time-saving changes included directives not to correct typos in lower-level office communication, and encouragement for managers not to email their staffs during evening and early-morning hours.
  • The IT firm who did away with offices and created a common collaborative workspace, encouraging employees to bring their young kids to work every day, rather than leave them with expensive daycares or sitters.

Schulte offers these examples to underscore her belief “that the overwhelm never was just a mommy issue. That it’s a father issue. A children’s issue. A workplace issue. A household issue. A family issue. A human rights issue. It’s an issue for society, especially one that purports to value families so highly. The overwhelm is an issue for everyone, really, living in a country whose very mission is to guarantee the right of its citizens to pursue happiness.” The evidence provided by these forward-thinking companies and government entities would seem to indicate that everyone is better off when organizations can break free from the constraints of the “ideal worker.”


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Work-Life Balance: Time Confetti, The Overwhelm, and The Curse of The Ideal Employee - Executive Leadership Articles

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