Separating Work and Real Life

As a grad student, I was always thinking about school. I can remember having deep thoughts about organizational theory while in the shower (my water bills tended to be high as a result). I felt sorry for friends who asked how my dissertation was going because they typically got a 3-hour report in excruciating detail (but I warned them…). It was pretty much impossible to separate school from my “real” life when school was on my mind every waking moment.

One of the occupational hazards for your employees, especially creative workers, is a similar blurring of work life and real life. Many Creatives enter their field because it matches their passion for art, writing, the pursuit of knowledge, whatever. In many ways, they are taking something that was a hobby and turning it into their work, and there are some great advantages to that from a job satisfaction viewpoint. But doing so makes it kind of tough to still have hobbies that are separate from work, when your favorite hobby IS your work.

Peoples’ brains do not turn off when they walk out of the office, and you want employees who are passionate about their work, so the idea that they will always be doing (or at least thinking about) their job can be pretty appealing to the leader who only has to pay them for 9 hours a day. But it is better if your employees can take a break from work. They need time to recharge their batteries, to put things aside so they can come back with a fresh look. Frankly, they need interests beyond the job they do for you, or they are going to get stale and burnt-out. They — and any relationships they have with other people — will be better off if they can draw a line between working for you and having their personal life. And ultimately, a happy employee is better for you, too.

This is especially tough for teleworkers, both those who are regular employees and those free agents you bring in. A good friend of mine who worked remotely had a small apartment with his desktop in the bedroom. As a result, he could not even get away from work by sleeping…it was always right there next to him. He lived on the East Coast and the company was on the West Coast, so by following the office’s schedule he could easily be working until 9 or 10 every night while his local friends were off from work. His sleeping was messed up, his social life suffered, and his work was not any better than if he had worked a normal schedule.

You cannot really dictate to your teleworkers (and even, somewhat, your in-house employees) how they should be working, and it is hard for you to know if they are spending too much time on work. But you can try to create a culture — even remotely — that encourages people to stop and have a personal life. Be clear about your expectations with new employees, and let them know you do not expect them to be continuously focused on work. Have “suggested” working hours in the office (with some flexibility) and for your long-distance remote workers, try to set “windows” every day for things like phone calls and e-mails, so they do not feel like they have to be up at 3am checking their mail.

Remember, all this applies to you, too. No matter how much you enjoy your work, get away from it. A nice philosophy is “work to live, do not live to work.” It is easy to say “I will just do one more thing, then go home” but after a while you need to realize that no matter how long you spend working today, something will still be there tomorrow. You want to do a good job, of course, but you will do it better if you get away from it when you’re supposed to.

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