working and balancing

I read an article in my news feed that talked about the important factors related to finding a job that will make you happy. The article, published in The Atlantic, pointed to having a sense of accomplishment, being part of something that makes the world a better place, and several other factors as being key elements. I agree that these things contribute to a better job experience. When I first started out after college, these were the key things for me. It wasn’t about money but about making a difference. Over time, my focus has shifted a bit but I still value the idea of contributing to making life better for people.

After decades in the workforce, I assess “job fit” by looking at three components: the actual work, the work environment, and the work-life balance. The relative importance of these three things varies depending upon where I am in my life. I think most people put the emphasis on the “actual work” when evaluating a job and their satisfaction. I know I focused on this when I was just starting out. But, I think the other two components are equally important – and at some points in life, may be more important than the actual work.

The actual work. This refers to whether I enjoy the day-to-day tasks that I complete. I am a researcher by training and enjoy digging up information, organizing information (in a variety of ways), conducting analysis and summarizing the findings. I like to write and find ways to make information accessible to people. I’ve applied these skills in many jobs and in many ways and hope to continue doing so for many years to come. In my various jobs over the years, I have been fortunate to be able to do work that I enjoy.

Assessing the actual work also includes the sense of accomplishment and part of the making the world a better place that were mentioned by the article. I have been fortunate to have jobs that made me feel that I was making a valuable contribution to my field, that I was helping others by trying to understand how people live and ways that we can collectively improve people’s daily existence, and that my contribution would potentially reach beyond its initial scope to reach more people. It’s very rewarding to feel that your efforts have value. My happiest work-related experiences all involve being part of something larger than “work”, “job” and “personal achievement”.

The work environment. This refers to my relationship with supervisors and colleagues, the company’s policies and practices, and the ability to grow the job to match my skills. I’ve come to value the work environment more over time. I learned the hard way that working with people who are friendly and reasonable and focused on work rather than drama is very important to me. I learned to appreciate companies that value and respect their employees and supervisors who understand that sometimes life is messy. Flexibility in hours, for example, can be a lifesaver. It’s great to know that my employers and supervisor trust me to do high-quality work even if I need to shift my time a bit to take my mother to the doctor.

Working from home has made the trust issue even more important. I am fortunate to be able to work from home because it means that I can be here for my mother. This also helps keep the drama at bay, while the many meetings via telephone or Zoom keep me linked to other people. Anyway, the ability to feel valued and trusted is important and allows me to focus on the content of my work. The ability to work with others in the company to meet their needs, my needs and our mutual needs gives me a sense of stability that enriches my life, beyond the paycheck I receive.

Work-life balance. This refers to my sense of balance and is not really related to my employer or their work-life balance programming. This is about my ability to feel like I can unplug. I have had jobs where I have been “on” 24/7/365. Checking email at all times of the day and night, working on vacation rather than getting a break, and building up hours of leave time but rarely taking any – I’ve been there. To be clear, I don’t mind putting in “extra” hours from time to time to meet a deadline or lend a hand to colleagues who are stretched – that’s part of the job as a salaried employee and thoughtful colleague. But there comes a point where it is unhealthy.

I had a job that I loved but I worked at least 80 hours per week on a regular basis. Months after I left that job (the organization temporarily closed down to reorganize), friends were telling me how much better I looked and that I had always looked tired and stressed. That really made me think. I loved the actual work and felt like I was contributing to the field, growing as a professional and thought it was what I wanted to do forever. Now I wonder what what I lost besides a job that I loved. I lost time – to read, write, hang out with friends, spend time with family, play a role in the community, and so on.

Looking at these three components, I can say that #3 (balance) is the most important to me at this point. I need time to spend with my mother and to start to find myself again through hobbies and relaxing and thinking. The work-life balance is the key to not only meeting my family’s obligations but also to enjoy life at this point in time. It may be that my priorities shift again, but for now I have a job that gives me the time I need with my mother, my cat and myself, and I am grateful.

The second priority is #1 – the actual work. I think this category will always be first or second on the priority list. I need to get some satisfaction out of the actual work. Fortunately for me, I’ve almost always enjoyed my work (with the exception of a couple of short-term jobs). It is special to look forward to starting work in the morning and to feel like there will be opportunities to add your own thoughts and guide the direction of a project. Most people do not have the chance to have that feeling because they are not in positions that value their input. It’s important to remember that it is a blessing to have the ability to bring some measure of control to your job, even if sometimes you would like to be stretching in a different direction or working on something new and different. I’m thinking of that quote about most people leading lives of quiet desperation (to paraphrase Thoreau) – how thankful I am that I don’t feel that way about my life.

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