Would you speak up if an employee or peer were working himself close to a hospital stay — or maybe even to death?
It’s a query I raised earlier this year, and one that drew lots of reader reaction. As I look over the workplace trends I wrote about in 2014, it is apparent that struggle for balance has become an increasing challenge.
Because we live in a culture that applauds overwork, stories of bosses or peers working themselves to death or collapsing of exhaustion force us to look at what has become the new normal.
In a Sept. 30 column, I noted that many of us hesitate to speak up when we see a bleary-eyed co-worker reach for another cup of coffee, looking every bit like he has slept at his desk for the past week. We resist saying something when we hear a fellow manager has postponed his vacation, again, to cater to client demands. When multiple 15-hour workdays get met with a pat on the back rather than a look of concern, we need to figure out our role in workplace well-being. Based on reader response, I foresee more intervention from those witnessing colleagues or loved ones working themselves to the brink.
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Another column that drew feedback addressed men and workplace flexibility. For the past decade, men have been an afterthought in conversations about workplace flexibility. In my Nov. 4 column, I referenced a report commissioned by Working Mother that found men are exercising flexibility in their own informal way. Unlike working mothers who push for formal flexible work arrangements, working dads are using flexibility under the radar, working at home as needed to care for a sick child or shifting their hours to coach their child’s sports team.
Of the men surveyed for the Working Mother report, most said they prefer a mix of working from home and the office. With working dads taking on more childcare responsibilities, I think we will see the conversation around flexibility become broader and more relevant in most workplaces.
BLENDING WORK, LIFE
In our struggle to do it all, it looks like many of us have figured out a key strategy: blending our worlds. While we are logging on to work outside of traditional work hours — from our bed or a soccer practice — we are also taking time for our personal lives during our workday.
In a Sept. 23 column, I detailed how almost everyone, from the office secretary to the store manager, makes a personal digital escape thoughtlessly throughout the workday. We use our cellphones to text our kids from our cubicles or check Facebook from our lunchrooms. Work and home no longer are separate spheres.
Lisa Kauffman, vice president of marketing at Celebrity Cruises, uses her smartphone to stay connected with work all the time — even on weekends and vacations: “I have a demanding role in a competitive business, and work never stops.”
However, because she can connect to the office from home, Kauffman says she has established her schedule in a way that she can fit her three children’s needs into her workday when necessary: “If something important is going on at school, I’m going to go. I can manage my schedule to feel a part of what’s going on with the kids and school and their extracurricular life.”
Laura Demasi, a researcher at Ipsos, says technology has transformed work into something we do, rather than only a place we go: “More broadly, it has created a new kind of ‘life on demand’ culture, where we do what we want, when and where we want.”
TIME TO SLEEP
In these stressful times, sleep issues are an increasing problem. Laurie Sallarulo, CEO of the Leadership Broward Foundation in Fort Lauderdale, admits she doesn’t sleep much. After a full day’s work, she will eat dinner with her son and get back on her computer to work some more — often until 1:30 a.m. And then, it’s up early the next morning to start her day again. When exhaustion sets in at the office, Sallarulo turns to coffee for a boost.
And so it goes in America. We’re working, working some more, sleeping less and drinking coffee — or Red Bull — to keep us awake.
In an April 30 column, I noted that some high-profile business leaders want us to change our behavior because getting enough sleep can make us better thinkers and decision-makers. Donna Shalala, the high-energy president of the University of Miami, has become an outspoken advocate for a good night’s sleep, as has Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group.
With more attention on the issue, some workers are starting to recognize the flaw in that logic that caffeine or willpower can compensate for lack of sleep. Even Sallarulo has begun giving herself permission some nights to slip into slumber at 9 p.m. instead of her 1:30 a.m. bedtime: “I have to tell myself, ‘Whatever it is can wait.’”
In March, my column that tackled the topic of workplace fairness drew a big response. In an effort to be family-friendly, some workplaces may be inadvertently penalizing childless workers. Jennifer Verdeja, a massage therapist at a South Florida spa, talks excitedly about her job until the conversation turns to the unfairness of her work schedule: “Just because I don’t have children doesn’t mean I should get the Saturday night shift every week.”
As businesses make more effort to accommodate working parents, the resentment from nonparents is rising. Early results of a new study of 25,000 workers shows two-thirds of nonparents say they carry an undue burden at the office and are expected to work longer hours than workers who have children. “There has to be an objective measure in place that applies rules equitably to everyone,” says Donna Flagg, the author of Surviving Dreaded Conversations and founder of The Krysalis Group, a management consulting firm. “Only a handful of companies have achieved it, and most are a long way off.”
ONLINE GAMES, WATCHING TV
Even with multiple demands on our time, I discovered that American workers are indulging at least two guilty pleasures: online games and binge TV-watching. After a day of negotiating legal contracts, Gail Serota sinks into her couch with her iPad and immerses herself in playing Candy Crush. The Miami real-estate attorney finds that playing the mobile game relaxes her: “It’s a good stress relief.”
On July 22, I noted that whether for relaxation or diversion, full-time workers also are making time for marathon TV-viewing sessions. A new study by Harris Interactive on behalf of Netflix shows 61 percent of us binge-watch TV regularly, watching at least three episodes of a single series in one sitting.
“People are looking for refuge from the constant press of business,” says Grant McCracken, a cultural anthropologist who helped conduct the Netflix research. “At the same time, the stories are getting better than they used to be.” With a steady stream of new series debuting on TV and online, I expect this trend to continue.
Mindfulness in the workplace is another trend I saw unfolding in 2014. In the rush to accomplish multiple tasks or respond to job pressures, people often lose connection with the present moment. They stop being attentive to what they’re doing or feeling and react from a place of stress. Mindfulness is the practice of focusing awareness on the present moment.
Teaching and encouraging mindfulness in the workplace has become a part of corporate efforts to reduce stress and prevent burnout. Miami attorney Paul Singerman said not only is he personally working on mastering mindfulness, but his law firm, Berger Singerman, has sponsored workshops for clients, employees and colleagues: “I really believe mindfulness can make you more effective and enhance your prospects for success.”
As 2014 closes out, it marks more than a decade of my columns on work/life issues. What has changed most is the widespread acknowledgment that work/life balance is not a problem just for women or a concern that is going to be solved: It’s an ongoing challenge. I look forward to another year of providing you discussion and solutions around your work/life challenges.