Navigating the Realities of Work-Life Balance

Much is made of the idea of work-life balance. The reality is not only far from balanced, but the concept is a complete misnomer. This is an unobtainable—and undesirable—abstraction. Undesirable, because aiming for such a goal sets professionals up for failure. Balance brings to mind the scales in a high school science classroom. A substance is placed on one side, and then weights or other substances are carefully added to the other side until it hangs perfectly even. That works well in a lab. Life does not work that way.

The notion of work-life balance implies that one should put work on one side of the scale and life on the other, and then find something to remove or add to one side until it hangs perfectly. No one’s obligations are so contained or measurable.

What adults are all facing is much more akin to work-life spaghetti. It’s tangled and twisted, with work and the rest of life overlapping all over the place. Educators especially have plenty of overlapping agendas and activities.

The fact is, this has always been true. You’ve always been advising, but have simultaneously been worried about your mom’s health, or knowing whether your partner was having a bad day, or remembering something you need from the store, or emailing a mentor about a project you’re working on, or needing to find a plumber. You have always been a whole person.

The Good News

The disruptions we as a society are experiencing now—like the pandemic—have added to that list. But there is good news—those same disruptions mean that nobody has to hide this truth anymore. Everyone is showing their full plate right now, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of in that. As a matter of fact, this is your chance to show your skills.

This provides an amazing opportunity to demonstrate how you juggle whatever obstacles life throws your way, and the humor and grace you use to deal with different—often competing—obligations.

Highlight the Struggle

Why would you want to highlight the struggle? Because, as an adviser, you are always teaching. Your students, their families, and your colleagues are watching to learn how anyone can do even a fraction of what you do. If you continue to pretend that nothing is happening in your life except what goes on at work, you’re missing a chance to strengthen these children and your relationships with them.

Seeing you as a whole, three-dimensional person with a pet, a family, and a to-do list, along with feelings and frustrations and strategies for managing life—that is a completely different level of authenticity. That authenticity builds empathy and connection. It allows you to demonstrate a whole range of skills, even while you’re leading students on their own journey. You get to demonstrate to them how to be a grown-up.

Please don’t misunderstand—authenticity does not require transparency. There are experiences and emotions in your life that are not your students’ business—or their family’s or even your colleagues’. You can put some things off limits while still showing your true self.

The Silver Lining

This year’s plate of spaghetti is harder because so many things are going to change again and again—how kids “attend” school, where and how you’re asked to interact with them, what is required of you and what opportunities you have to plan, and how best to carry out those plans. Everything is up for grabs.

Not only is it up for grabs—and endless debate—but these days, making a decision doesn’t really mean it’s decided. Things aren’t set in stone; they’re barely written in sand. This new reality is stressful for everyone.

On the flip side, it’s also the major advantage of this year.

It used to feel impossible to change something once the school year had gotten started. Kids together who are not a good mix? A schedule that pulls you from one end of the building to the other? You could make a request, but the chances of getting any of that fixed in that same school year were almost zero.

This year, everything is shifting, and new options are continually being evaluated. This is good for two reasons:

1. Leaders are learning that it isn’t necessary, or often possible, to get the “right” answer on the first try. As professionals, it’s common to feel a huge amount of pressure to figure out the best solution to any problem and then stick stubbornly to it no matter what. Whether it’s setting up the school facilities, deciding on content or agenda, or any other plan, there is a belief that one must know everything and then set a decision in stone. That’s not needed! It’s possible to ask, learn, decide, and (most importantly) adapt at any time with any decision.

2. Students are learning how to handle uncertainty. They are seeing adults say, “We don’t know, we’ve never been here before.” They see those adults asking experts for information, and then making the best decisions possible, given what’s known at the time. Then they see leaders evaluate how it’s working and try something new when it’s failing. That process—ask, learn, decide, adapt—is crucial to success.

Navigating Uncertainty

So, what is the best way to handle the constant flux this year? Here are four ways to prepare for managing the uncertainty without feeling constantly unsettled.

1. Use “when” not “if” language. Accept that there will be changes, even if you can’t possibly know what those changes will be. Speak about them in the “when.” For example, “When our big milestone event gets cancelled or shifts to virtual,” or “When they change the school schedule,” or “When you have to quarantine,” and so on. That when gives kids and adults a chance to prepare and plan a bit, and removes some of the shock and anger that accompanies an unexpected change by making it expected. If it turns out you were wrong—and that never happens—no one will think less of you; instead, they’ll just feel like they dodged a bullet!

2. Identify the differences between uncomfortable and unsafe. A lot of what’s hard about change and uncertainty is how uncomfortable it makes us feel. You can help your students (and yourself) with that by:

  • Verbalizing what is uncomfortable, then deciding if someone is actually in danger or simply experiencing things that are hard
  • Having genuine empathy for feelings—your students’ and your own
  • Stepping in to fix anything that is putting someone in actual danger
  • Encouraging students to figure out how to manage their own discomfort instead of trying to fix it for them when no one is in danger

3. Offer structure, even when routines are changing. Routines—the idea that we do the same thing at approximately the same times in the same ways—won’t work well in most situations this year. Lots of students will transition from online learning to in-person learning, back to learning from home, and maybe to distance learning from their community center or family’s home, and back again. One way to help center your students in their time with you is to establish some structure that can be followed wherever they are. Perhaps you encourage them to start each meeting with a check-in. Maybe you end each meeting or gathering with a different tradition, such as a joke share or a demonstration of something cool. Don’t stop! Point out to your students that those anchor moments can bond their group together each time they gather, whether it’s in person or virtually. Those touchpoints will strengthen them and their connection to your time together, and likely will help you as well.

4. Catch the good stuff. There definitely are good moments that wouldn’t have happened in a “normal” year. These can be small—like sleeping in on a weekend when you’d ordinarily have to be at school to supervise a student activity. These can be bigger—like not missing a family event while you’re at a professional obligation. They can be simple—like starting a new hobby or family tradition. Or they can be complicated—like working on an advanced degree!

And the good stuff is happening for kids, too. We often hesitate to point out the things kids are missing and highlight the things they are getting to do instead, but that can be a mistake. An essential happiness skill is knowing that you can feel different (even opposite) feelings simultaneously, like being sad about missing the student council trip to the Capitol even while being excited to interview your state’s senator over Zoom.

When we encourage our kids to find the good stuff—while continuing to have real empathy about the bad—we help them learn the skills they need to face future uncertainty. And we increase our own sense of optimism.

We can’t count the changes this year will bring, but we can be sure we can’t accurately predict much. Instead of feeling every new shift like a punch in the gut, be ready, feel your feelings, and look for choices that make you feel less uncomfortable. Enjoy your work-life spaghetti! —


Deborah Gilboa, MD, works with families, organizations, and students to identify the mindset and strategies to turn stress to an advantage. She is a clinical associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pittsburgh.

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