balance

In my first few months at post I felt like I needed to work a lot. It wasn’t necessarily that there was an excessive amount to be done, or that my supervisor demanded I work a lot. Keep in mind that my position was a new one, so anything I did was pretty much bonus compared with before.

Sure, I had much learn, a great deal of catching up to do, but my working a lot wasn’t about that either; it was more about me wanting to show that I’m the sort of person who’s willing to work a lot. I’m willing to get to work almost an hour early, to work through lunch, to stay – well, not as late as some people, but to not skip out the minute I officially could. And when I wasn’t at work, I checked my Blackberry.

In State Department culture, working a lot is expected. I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s rewarded, but it’s noticed. And not working a lot, I’ve deduced, is noticed even more.

I was catching up on back issues of the Foreign Service Journal recently, and I stumbled across one article that cited all these studies showing just how great everyone thinks the State Department is. How it’s where all the college graduates want to work. How so many people are turned away in the application process. How those who make it through are so thankful to have this cool job. How very few people leave the Department after joining. How job satisfaction is sky high. There were only two categories in which the Department didn’t get rave reviews in any of the studies: family friendliness and work-life balance.

And now we circle back to the expectation of working a lot.

To be sure, this expectation varies from post to post, from job to job, from boss to boss. We actually don’t have it bad at all here; it’s the larger State Department culture I’m more worried about.

There are, however, crusaders for a more manageable work-life balance within the State Department. I’m inspired by the example of one particular ambassador, who in that same issue of the Foreign Service Journal wrote about his efforts to improve things at a particularly low-morale previous post. One action he took was let everyone know that he would be leaving the office every day at 3 p.m. to finish up with a few hours of non-classified work from home. He hoped that not being in the office at the end of the day would keep people from feeling like they needed to stick around late for show. It worked, and he noticed an uptick in morale almost immediately.

But the fact that he had to institute such a change shows how pervasive the mindset in State Department culture – exactly why in the beginning I felt like I needed to be willing to work a lot.

On Skype one day I was venting to my mom about how tired I was, about how I hadn’t even explored much of Cotonou yet, about how I didn’t get to see Flynn nearly enough.

“Work less,” she said.

“No, you don’t understand,” I countered. “I already work less than a lot of people.”

“So. You’ll still do your work well, right?”

“Of course.”

“So what’s the worst that could happen?”

“I don’t know. People wouldn’t respect me, I guess.”

She paused for a moment before wisely concluding, “You never know where respect comes from.”

That sentence has been swirling around in my mind since I first heard it, because it’s totally true. You never do know where respect comes from.

I thought about the State Department colleagues who I respect most. Does the number of hours they work have anything to do with it? Absolutely not. I respect them because they do solid work. Because they make smart decisions. Because they treat people kindly and fairly. In fact, being able to do all of that efficiently is necessary to earn my respect.

I also couldn’t help but think of a young female coworker who’s commented several times that she can’t believe I’m able to work fulltime with a new baby at home. You can see the wheels churning in her mind, wondering how she’ll juggle things when her time comes. I bet for her at least, respect would come from witnessing me carving out adequate time for my family, all the while still doing a good job at work.

But the person who’s respect I’m most concerned with is my own, and so last week I made a decision: I’m no longer going to just work for the sake of working. I can’t be concerned with what others think. I need to do what’s best for me, because ultimately that will make be a better employee too. As a first step, I resolved to no longer eat lunch at my desk. Instead, I decided to have a daily lunchtime play date with my son.

During the five-minute drive home on Monday, I set some ground rules. I’m going to stay home for the full hour I’m allowed. I’m not going to check my Blackberry. I’m not going to feel guilty about being gone. A full one-hour lunch is a scheduled part of our workday, after all.

Pleeeeeeeeease come home and play with me during lunchtime, Mom.

And so last Monday I fed Flynn his baby oatmeal, which he’s still learning to eat. He discovered how to blow bubbles with it, and I was there to see. I was there to see how he interacts with his nanny. I was there to see him play and sit and even scream. I was there. And when I returned to work, I was more there because of my break.

Of course there will be times when it will be necessary for me to stay at the office through lunch. And to come in very early. And to stay very late. Being willing to do that is part of being a responsible employee. But so too, I think, is realizing that it’s okay to not always do that. I’ll respect myself more that way. And as for everyone else — well, you never know where respect comes from anyway.

(Unfortunately the rest of the week didn’t go as well as Monday. I did come home Tuesday, but not for a full hour. Every other day I had stuff going on and had to eat from my desk. Well, it’s a start. Maybe this week will be better…)

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6 Responses to balance

  1. Sadie says:

    good for you Alex, and even better for realizing it so soon. I am like your coworker who cannot imagine what FS work/life will be like with a family and fully respect you for trying to get home every day. our jobs are demanding and will take every minute we’re willing to give (and then some), but, in the end, work is just work. and it’ll still be there in an hour.

  2. Daniela says:

    Yes, you need to do what you need to do to stay sane and stay a good mommy and a good employee. Working longer is not the only or the best way to achieve that. It’s a tough balancing act. So, if going home for lunch recharges you and makes you happy – more power to you!!!

  3. Digger says:

    My goal coming into this position was to be the boss I wish I had during my first tour. I am lucky here in that our Ambassador tends to leave around five. By 5:30, I make my way around my section, ask people if they are working on anything that can’t wait, and if they aren’t, I tell them to go home. Because there are plenty of times when we have to work late, go to evening events, or work weekends. We lose our reserves if we don’t take the time when we don’t have to be there to recharge.

    Plus, work can’t be your whole life. At the end of your career, you will have your memories and your family, but you will only have the latter if you took time for them during your career. So I believe in work-life balance, and I try to practice what I preach.

    Oh, and the whole thing about how few people leave: not exactly true. Not included in the number of people who quit the FS are those who leave to take jobs in other federal agencies. When you count those, the numbers are MUCH higher. Still not high compared with other workplaces, but a lot higher than they report.

  4. CC says:

    Thank you for this post! I am wondering how I will balance my work and my family life when I get to my first post. I agree that it’s important to put a priority on quality of life and a good balance. Which means that at times we work long, crazy hours, and at other times, we make sure we spend time with the people and things that keep us balanced.

  5. Al Caniglia says:

    Never work late just to work late. If you work efficiently, do you work and do it well, then go home when you can. In my old job as a prosecutor, 10 hour days were the norm. 12, 14, and even 16 hour days were not unusual. But, I noticed that the people who worked late were the ones who went around talking after court. They stayed until 10 because they didn’t do any work between 3-6.

    If you are just keeping yourself busy, or making yourself look busy, you will not impress your bosses by staying late. You will impress them by asking for more work. Tell them you are caught up on your work are there any projects you can work on. If they don’t have anything for you, then go home!

  6. Bfiles says:

    Great post and something I worry about. In my current job, hours are great since I’m in NIV and we almost always finish on time. But I know my time will come to bump up against this expectation. Good luck making it work for you.
    And Digger- you are awesome. I hope to be that kind of boss someday too.

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