As another year comes to a close, it seems like a good time to revisit the concept that we hear about so much, work-life balance. Many of you were likely drawn to your position in education because of the promise of or perceived notion that working in education would provide the work-life balance you could not find in clinical practice. I suspect by now you realize that is not entirely true. What we do have in academia that we didn’t have in clinical practice is more flexibility to leave in the middle of the day to attend a child’s event at school or take care of a sick parent or spouse. However, this work-life balance search has left many empty, depleted, and exhausted.
I have never liked this phrase because it suggests we just have to find the right job that will give us a work-life balance. But it is not the job that provides it. Instead, we need to create it.
I recently read an article by a family physician and hospitalist that rephrased this concept in a way that articulated what rang true for me about work-life balance. He said the word balance suggests that we must pit work against life as if life only happens outside work (Hass, 2022). As a result of this perspective, work commonly gets a bad rap. It becomes something that is interfering with our lives. This thought can lead to frustration, despair, anger, and burnout.
The truth is life is all of it, work included. For me, teaching is my life's work. It is my soul's passion. I knew it was my life's path since elementary school, so I don't define it as work. Being a teacher is who I am in my life. But I am also a PA, a writer, a business owner, a spouse, a friend, etc. These are all aspects of my life. So, my 'work' is an integral and essential part of my life. Making a difference and impacting the next generation of PA faculty and PAs is deeply meaningful to me. If I weren't doing this work, there would be a gaping hole in my life.
Dr. Leif Hass (2022) suggests the term work-life integration. And I would go one step further and drop the term 'work' and simply say life-integration. It is about integrating all the aspects of our lives that matter to us in a way that supports, inspires, and rejuvenates us instead of depleting and exhausting us. If what you are doing for 'work' isn't feeding your soul and isn't something that matters and is important to you, perhaps you need to rethink what you are doing. Work and life choices should not feel like an either-or. It is about finding a way to integrate what you must do and what you want to do (Hass, 2022).
As we all get ready for a bit of a break over the winter holiday season, hopefully, you will be able to find the time to reflect and adjust toward the view of life integration as you get ready for the start of the new year. Here are a few suggestions that may help.
Self-awareness and setting healthy boundaries
Service-focused professionals, including healthcare workers and teachers, tend to put everyone else first before taking care of themselves, thus leading to higher rates of burnout among these individuals (Gooblar,2018). Any change starts with self-awareness, a willingness to notice and observe oneself. In this case, where do you need better integration (balance) in your life?
Setting healthy boundaries is an integral part of burnout prevention. It requires saying no, shutting off the computer, not responding to e-mails as soon as they come in, and not giving students your cell phone number. It means intentionally blocking time to do things that matter to you, like time with your loved ones, working out, reading, and visiting friends. To do this, you need to determine your priorities. The key to time management is not prioritizing your schedule but scheduling your priorities. This means taking the time to create a schedule and starting with the most important things each week, then filling in the other things around them so that you can do what you love and what you must. Author Martha Beck encourages us to do something we love every day, even if only for five or ten minutes.
Take breaks, define working blocks, and delegate
Increase your productivity by taking breaks, defining working blocks, and delegating. Neurobiology has provided solid evidence that we work much more effectively and efficiently when we give our brain breaks (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014). If you need to get a test written, close your office door, put a sign on the door that you are unavailable until x time and then set a timer and work for 30 to 50 minutes, then take a 10-15 minute break before working for another 30-50 minutes. In my experience, and I am guilty of this too, as PAs and PA educators, we don’t delegate well. We tend to do things ourselves instead of asking for help or delegating tasks. At one program where I worked, I literally didn’t know how to work with an administrative assistant assigned to help me as the Director of Didactic Education because I was so used to doing it all myself.
Give yourself some slack
We tend to be our own worst enemies. Stuff happens. Our best-laid plans go awry. Things may not be exactly as we want them, but there is no perfect. Breathe and adjust. Look at what your priorities are now and make a plan.
Take a few moments at the end of the day to acknowledge what you did accomplish, no matter how small. There will likely always be items on your list you did not get to. However, I am sure there are items you did work on. Even if you didn’t complete them, give yourself some acknowledgment because you worked on them for an hour today.
Life integration is an individual and life-long journey because things change all the time. For example, your life significantly changed when you became a PA educator. Given your new job roles and responsibilities, I would venture to guess you had to make quite a few adjustments and changes to find balance in your life. So, as a new year approaches, I hope you take to heart the importance of life integration and seek ways to incorporate work as a vital part of your life and not something separate.
Gooblar, D. (2018, April 3). 4 ideas for avoiding faculty burnout. The Chronical of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/4-Ideas-for-Avoiding-Faculty/243010
Hass, L. (2022). Ten tips to keep work from taking over your life. Greater Good Magazine. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/ten_tips_to_keep_work_from_taking_ over_your_life
Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2014). Making classrooms better: 50 practical applications of mind, brain and education science. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.