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Work-Life Balance on Seesaw as Hours at The Office Stretch

The ability to work anytime, anywhere can be a double-edged sword.

Charlise Hyatt loves her work, but the 33-year-old mother of two wishes she didn’t have to wake up at 5 a.m. to exercise.

“My trade offs are mostly personal,” she said, like pre-dawn workouts or burning the midnight oil. “Instead of me being able to do things like watch a TV show, I’m working for an hour after my kids go to bed.”

Although more professionals in competitive fields have the flexibility to work when and where they please, managing long hours and the demands of the job is a constant juggling act. An Allstate/National Journal poll found that more than a third of American workers say their personal lives are encroached on by their work obligations, and more than a quarter have missed important family experiences.

Six months ago, Hyatt landed a high-ranking job in business development in the San Francisco Bay Area. “My hours are not nine to five,” she said. “It’s almost like working for a startup.”

“Instead of me being able to do things like watch a TV show, I’m working for an hour after my kids go to bed.”

Including an hour-long commute, 10-hour days are typical, and some days hit the 15-hour mark, so Hyatt considers herself lucky that she can work from home one or two days a week. She relies on a daycare provider, her parents and her in-laws to help out with the kids if both she and her husband, who works full-time in sales, are having crazy workdays.

The need for flexibility

“The thing is, having some flexibility is huge,” she said. “Having employers who understand that you need flexibility and that you can work from anywhere helps quite a bit.”

The Allstate/National Journal poll found that 36 percent of employees are required to be in “frequent” contact with their jobs even when they’re not on the clock. Two-thirds said they would prefer fewer, more flexible hours over more pay.

A recent study of lawyers yielded similar findings. Those with feelings of autonomy, competence and a connection to others were happiest, as were those who were motivated by internal feelings or beliefs rather than by money or status. Ultimately, low-paid lawyers like public defenders were happier than their high-earning peers.

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“Meaning and enjoyment in the work… is a very strong promoter of well-being,” Lawrence Krieger, a professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia and the study’s author, said via email.

Brian de Haaff said he makes employee autonomy a top priority at Aha!, the startup software company where he is chief executive. The company’s entire workforce is decentralized and works remotely, with no set office hours.

“When you give people clear goals, set out a clear vision and step back… you give them a certain amount of control back,” he said. “That’s empowering.”

The ability to work anytime, anywhere can be a double-edged sword if the idea that a worker could be available at any time shifts to the expectation that they must be available all the time.

While professionals like Hyatt don’t face the constantly fluctuating hours and irregular shifts with which low-wage hourly workers have to contend, the idea that demands can be filled 24-7 in today’s economy means there has to be someone on call to fulfill those demands in the white-collar sector, too.

'You don't really turn off'

“The good part is you’re able to do your work and get more done, but the flip side is you don’t really turn off,” said Jeannie Liakaris, assistant dean of the NYU Wasserman Center for Career Development at New York University’s School of Professional Studies. “Basically, your day never ends.”

As a result, some executives and HR experts today prefer the term “work-life integration” over “work-life balance,” on the grounds that the latter implies a state of equilibrium that doesn’t ever move or tip — an unattainable standard in a world where projects hit roadblocks and kids get fevers.

“There’s really an ebb and a flow, and flexibility can be so helpful in helping an individual employee feeling like they don’t have to choose,” said Lisa Horn, director of the Workplace Flexibility Initiative at the Society for Human Resource Management.

In the lawyer study, Krieger found that long workweeks don’t cause dissatisfaction, as long as other criteria for personal well-being are met. “If a person has high autonomy, stays closely connected to others and her purpose and values, and expresses that in her work, she is going to be fine apparently, even if working 60[-hour] weeks,” he said.

Both work and personal obligations can change from week to week and sometimes day to day, and experts say people thrive when they can choose to address whichever ones are the most pressing at the time. “This is a constant conversation. This isn’t something you write in an employee handbook,” de Haaff said. “This is a complicated, dynamic area.”