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Feeling guilty for not working more?

I recently read a blog post about work-life balance by Chantal Panozzo where she described her experience working in Switzerland, and I was struck by the stark contrast to the culture here. I got admittedly green with envy while reading about a country providing 14 weeks paid maternity leave, and professional-part-time work with benefits.  However the culture we’re talking about in this post is the work culture.  The culture created by our coworkers, how we act, what we expect, what we accept. This is something in which we can affect change without the need for legislation or a major shift in our companies.

If you read Chantal’s post, pay attention to the interactions she describes with her co-workers.  She’s scolded for eating lunch at her desk; Chastised for taking only ten days for a vacation.  The people with whom she worked literally make her feel bad for not taking time for herself.  Not only did they disapprove, they actively called her out about it.  In contrast, when I came back to work from my last vacation I was greeted with :

“hey slacker, I see you finally decided to come back and do some work.”

Here in the U.S., when we request time off, it’s often granted conditionally: “depending on what’s going on with the business”, or “assuming we’ve finished our delivery”.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve left early after coming in early(or staying late the day before), and had someone say “leaving already?!”, then I suddenly feel obligated to provide an explanation defending my behavior.  These little examples seem pretty innocent individually.  However the combination of them over the course of our careers can become stressful to some, almost like a form of microaggressions.


So, what can we do for our co-workers?

How can we be a co-worker that helps enable work-life balance for everyone in the office?  Good question.  First, we need to make sure we aren’t part of the problem. Lets not make our co-workers feel guilty for living their lives.  They’re probably still hearing it from someone, we don’t need to add another straw.  Second, we need to call it out when we see behaviors that perpetuate this guilt-work culture. Show others that it’s okay to talk about and okay to have an opinion about. This is even more so the case if we’re in a leadership role.

Here are some examples of behaviors to avoid and that we should call each other out on.

  • responding to e-mails/writing emails during off hours. Don’t be that person who sends everyone an e-mail at 10 pm or 2 am from their cell-phone.
  • Checking e-mail while on vacation.
  • E-mailing/calling people (unapologetically) while they’re on vacation. Granted there are exceptions, sometimes shit hits the fan. However, the default should be to never expect a response, and the exceptions should be just that: exceptional situations.
  • Requiring “approval” for vacation time. Vacation time is part of our employees compensation and benefits. We would never imagine putting hurdles on other forms of compensation: “Submit your request to use your dental insurance to the team calendar and we’ll see if anyone else plans to use theirs that week, we’ll get back to you if it’s approved.”  We need to prioritize each others vacations and treat them as seriously and importantly as we would their pay-check.


What can we do for ourselves?


Take ownership of our time. Go home. I encourage everyone to watch Pam Selle’s talk from Ignite Philly 9, “Go the fuck home”.  I won’t recap everything here, but a big take away is to know your hourly rate.  Putting a dollar amount on working through lunch, or responding to e-mails over the weekend can really provide a perspective on the value of our time.

To Pam’s point, I would add “Go home mentally as well.  In Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”, she recounted a story of a friend who was advised to “bill like a boy”, adding that even time spent thinking about a work problem in the shower is billable time. There’s value to that mind-set. I wouldn’t go so far as encourage everyone to work in the shower, but I would say spending our time solving problems for work is as bad as spending time at work solving personal problems.

In summary, we can have that culture Chantal learned to love, and we can have it right here at home.  Let’s take ownership of our time and let’s stop letting our co-workers feel guilty for having a life, or using their benefits.  I’m going to encourage my co-workers to use their personal time to recoup, re-energise, and avoid burn-out.  Hopefully we’ll have a few less people feeling guilty for working hard for 40 hours a week, and using their benefits.


p.s. if you like sarcasm, here’s an Onion article about doing what you love

So, what do you think ?