Rethinking Work-Life Balance

Posted on December 9, 2019

Rae Buckley

Today’s guest blog is brought to you by Rae Buckley, Director of Organizational and Strategic Initiatives, Town of Chapel Hill, NC. 

Like many discussions about work-life balance, the July PM magazine “Making Work-Life Balance a Priority” offers a series of articles about how local government employees can find more balance by being more organized, tapping our networks, and keeping our romantic relationship healthy. As I finally caught up on my July magazines, I got stuck feeling like these and most other articles on this topic focus on what we’re supposed to do outside of work to find balance and don’t help us look inside at our workplace structures and cultural norms that make balance difficult.

I worry about the constraints of a caregiver who can’t leave their desk, who works on a crew or fulfills the allotted quota of officers needed for a shift. These legitimate constraints can’t be solved by finding a “balance” outside of work or by providing tips on keeping a romance healthy. I want to turn the lens inward and look at how our workplace structures and cultural norms really create an advantage for employees that are not primary caregivers and present more challenges to employees who are primary caregivers.

I’m not saying that it is easy! I know firsthand that changing institutional workplace structures can be a huge challenge. There needs to be strong support for that kind of change. So to start out, let’s raise awareness about the stigmas and cultural norms that primary caregivers run into. Here are a couple of examples of implicit cultural norms that I’ve experienced over the years.

  • We all know that people who do extra work outside normal hours get more business done and also sometimes impress others in the organization with how hard they are working. Primary caregivers will not conduct business as many hours outside the traditional work routine, if at all. It doesn’t mean they aren’t hard at work.
  • Along these lines, most leadership training takes significant time away from normal work hours. For caregivers, there are limited options for “catching up” on work we are missing due to training. So training and development opportunities wind up indirectly competing with caregiving. When a caregiver declines or doesn’t volunteer for an opportunity they are not less motivated.
  • Which leads me to my personal pet peeve cultural norm. Travel is not a “perk” for employees who are also primary caregivers. It’s usually an exhausting amount of effort that requires favors from your network and a piling up of responsibilities that need to be addressed when you get back. And talk about a romance killer. So career-building experiences like conferences are not easy to fit in, no matter how much you appreciate the opportunity. And if you have someone who prefers to travel alone and not carpool or tries to bring their family with them, please don’t act like they are trying to exploit a perk!  Everyone makes it work differently.
  • A huge part of caregiving is health care appointments. Some appointments are predictable and some are not. Caregivers may tend to have lower balances of paid time off and may be absent more than people who are not caregivers.

Instead of telling caregivers there are efficiencies they can make to meet the competing demands for their time, let’s raise awareness of how we as employers might unconsciously judge employees against the old-fashioned (and male-centric) ideas about what makes a good employee. Instead, let’s acknowledge and appreciate employees who are doing their job AND doing another full-time job outside of work! And maybe as we raise our consciousness, we can build towards undertaking structural changes in our workplace that support balance. If so, I hope PM Magazine will help us think about new ways we can do that.

Rae Buckley is an experienced project manager and community organizer with a wandering eye for learning and growth opportunities. In her role as Director of Organizational and Strategic Initiatives with the Town of Chapel Hill, Rae manages strategic planning, innovation programming, and the Town’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion project portfolio. Rae earned her BA in philosophy from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and her MPA from the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. Rae is the proud mother of two daughters and has fun outside of work with friends, church, yoga, volunteering and family events. 

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