Work/Life balance

Rosie, my new mentee, has entered my company through an acquisition in the healthcare sector. Once per month we arrange a mentoring phonecall. We discuss topics such as “how to find your way within IBM?”, “what professional career path fits best?”, “what professional networks to join?” etcetera…

During our last call she suddenly said : “Can I ask you a question about work/life balance? How do you deal with it?” I did not see that one coming, so I thought about it for a few seconds and answered “I actually found it easier to demarcate my office time when my children were still young. My colleagues knew that I first had to take them to school before arriving at work. They accepted the fact that I could not be physically present before 9:30. And when they were older they knew and accepted that I had to leave before 2PM on Fridays to take them to their orchestra. It is more difficult to say no to inconvenient hours now that they have grown-up.” And then I asked her if that was the answer that she expected. 

She told me that the amount of work is piling up, that this situation has lasted for six months already, that she has asked for the team to be extended with an extra resource but she has no idea if and when that request will be fullfilled. I asked her if she is the only one in the team who is feeling overloaded and if they can get together and talk about the problems with their management. I told her that it is in nobody’s interest if she or her team mates end up at home with a burn-out and that she has to take measures before that happens.

I warned her that there are many cultural differences between The Netherlands and the USA when it comes to work/life balance, overwork and terms and conditions in general. What works in The Netherlands does not necessarily work in the USA. I shared an anecdote with her from my very first project. I was working as a developer on the OS/2 Query Manager team. This project was led out of Austin Texas and we flew to Austin to work with the US based team and hand-over of the software. I was working closely together with Amy, a US colleague and she had invited me to visit her parents over the weekend in Dallas. 

On Friday morning the manager of the US team announced that we were expected to stay in Austin for the weekend to finish the work. Being very inexperienced and culturally unaware, I told this US manager that I was not planning to follow-up on that order because we had made plans to visit Amy’s family. The manager escalated this to my manager and I had to come to his office and explain why I was being so disobedient. I told my manager about the trip that we had planned and added that I probably would not have that opportunity at any time in the near future. As my manager saw the humor of the situation he let me off the hook and we visited Amy’s folks. 

I have never regretted that trip. Amy and I have stayed in touch ever since. We have met at my place when she visited Europe and at her place when we visited the USA. This friendship is more valuable to me than the good impression I could have made by dropping all my appointments and working that weekend and I am grateful to my first manager for the support he gave me back in 1987! 

Don’t understand me wrong – I’m not suggesting that you should always refuse to work weekends. I have spent quite some weekends and evenings running performance tests and implementing optimizations! My only advise is to set clear limits and to clearly communicate what they are so that there is no doubt what you will and will not do. 

Note : The names in this story are fictitional. 

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