Why work/life balance in IT depts is often off-kilter

As I write these words, I realize I may not make it home until 6:30 p.m. My eight-month-old son typically goes to bed before 8:00 p.m., which means I’ll be lucky if I have 90 minutes to spend with him. Not great from a work/life balance perspective, not there are plenty of IT managers who have it much, much worse.

This was the theme of today’s Ignite Your Career Webcast, which I co-hosted with Microsoft Canada. We had an interesting panel of speakers – including an infrastructure team lead, an author, a social media guy and a developer. Many of them came from entrepreneurial backgrounds. Only one worked in what I would consider a traditional enterprise environment, but I think all of them have accepted that their most active hours will not necessarily be between nine and five.

Whenever I think of work/life balance I visualize scales, and I think that’s appropriate because I think that’s the reality for most people – often one side weighs down more than the other. The great unanswerable question whenever we delve into this topic is how much control do employees such as IT staff have over work/life balance and how much is based on the employer’s policies?

I was irritated, for example, when we recently ran an article dealing with stress at work and got feedback from a variety of sources which basically suggested if employers don’t have policies that respect personal time or needs, you should convince them otherwise or leave. I haven’t worked in that many companies, but I haven’t known many where that’s a realistic approach. Companies either approve teleworking or they don’t. They either offer flex hours or lieu time, or they don’t. If you don’t like it you don’t have to work there, but especially in times like these, searching for greener pastures isn’t so easy.

I think the one thing we can control is our ability, in certain cases, to say no. There are always tasks we have to do, and deadlines we have to meet, but there are some that could be extended, or delegated, or both. The kind of highly successful overachievers who populate many of the IT departments I’ve met don’t usually say “no” very quickly. They thrive on being useful, so they say yes. It’s only when we get buried and burnt out that the objections come, and usually by that point you cause damage by putting on the breaks.

The same is true at home. When I get home from work, my wife has been spending all day with our baby. She needs a break, and I represent that break. But there are times when I need just a few minutes to decompress and, as guilty as I feel, I’ve learned when to ask for that time.

As I said on today’s Webcast, there’s an old proverb that no man on his deathbed says he wishes he spent more time at the office. Today, he would probably be equally unlikely to say he wished he spent more time on his BlackBerry. Seeking work/life balance can seem selfish, or it can seem like managing expectations. It’s the employee’s job to communicate their needs properly.

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