Student Affairs professionals like to talk about work-life balance. It seems elusive to so many. We present on it to packed rooms at conferences, in the office we set goals around it, we have Twitter chats exploring the topic, and many of us might say that we are constantly in search of the ever elusive magical balance or forever balancing on a tightrope. Is it possible, though, to change how you perceive the balance of your life in order to stop searching and plant both feet solidly on the ground? Perhaps your life is in balance, it just doesn’t look like the balance you thought it might when you started in the profession. Maybe it doesn’t look like the balance your colleague demonstrates. Perchance, it is uncool to claim that your life is in balance when it seems everyone else is saying theirs is not.
Once, I was in a workshop where we were asked to draw slices of our lives inside a pie circle. As I drew my life, it occurred to me that I was not drawing even pie slices. I didn’t even want to draw balanced slices of my life on my worksheet pie. There are aspects of my life that take up more time and energy than others, which is exactly how I want it to be. Truthfully, I’m even okay with work taking up a larger slice of pie than some of my non-work slices. Work is where I have the opportunity to put my StrengthsQuest strengths to work in a way I am not currently afforded elsewhere. I enjoy my colleagues, my university, and the work we do. At work I have the opportunity to build relationships, to take advantage of professional development opportunities, and even to take care of my fitness needs. I also noticed that I put all aspects of my job-life into one pie slice, but everything outside of work was divided into more detailed slices which might contribute to life feeling like, or life looking out of balance for some. I wondered if I reassigned labels or grouped areas differently how my pie might slice. When we shared our pie pictures with the group, my pie was in balance for me, but it didn’t resemble the pies of those around me. This was a good reminder for me that balance for one doesn’t equal balance for all.
Although I’m fine with work taking up a larger pie slice, this does not mean that I abandon my non-work slices. I am committed to my volunteer work, my social life, my hobbies, and the base level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It ebbs and flows in a rhythm that fits for my life. It doesn’t look at all like the rhythm of my colleagues who may come in on the weekends or take work home or be working on a doctorate. But because it fits my life, it is balance for me. I think that sometimes we can get caught up in wanting others to demonstrate the kind of balance in their lives that we live out in our own. Because I wouldn’t come in to the office on the weekend, I’m confused by and a little judgmental of someone who would (if not required). But if it fits within the balance of their life, who am I to tell them their life is out of balance? I believe we are better served as a profession in supporting our colleagues in how they decide to slice their pie, rather than forcing them to slice it differently.
If you are going through the job search process right now, I encourage you to be mindful of how you prefer to slice your pie compared to any expectations your new supervisor may have for your time. It is better to have these conversations in the interview process rather than after your first day. A few questions you may want to ask are:
– What are expectations for checking email/texts/voicemails while out of the office?
– Does the university support mental health or comp days?
– What professional development opportunities are available to me here?
– How flexible are my work hours?
What other questions should job searchers ask in order to be prepared to meet the expectations of their supervisor and institution around work-life balance?
I believe we can move past judging others when their balance looks differently than ours which, in turn, will provide our colleagues the freedom to do balance as it best fits for their lives. As a Student Affairs professional, how can you encourage and support other professionals to claim the balance of their life, even if it doesn’t look like anyone else’s pie? What does your pie look like? I’d love to hear other people claim balance in their lives!
Karen Gibson is an associate director of residence life at St. Edward’s University, Austin, Texas.