Switching off from the office will make you happier and more productive, but this is easier said than done. Katharine Freeland offers some top tips about how to strike a healthy work/life balance
1. Schedule ‘down-time’
Be realistic. Most of us can’t mentally shut up shop at 5pm. Taking time for yourself is as important as meeting client demands, so put it on your daily ‘do-to’ list. Read a book on the train instead of checking emails, go to the gym, or spend time with family. ‘Set boundaries,’ says Stevens & Bolton partner Jenny Robertson. ‘There should be times when you can do the pick-up or see the school play then, if necessary, set aside time to work in the evening.’
Dr Elaine Johnston is a clinical psychologist at Combat Stress, a charity that works with military veterans who have experienced combat exposure. Corporates are now applying lessons from the military experience to support staff. ‘Think of yourself as an athlete,’ she advises. ‘You need physical and mental fitness, stamina and endurance to survive in your industry, so make sure you get enough sleep, exercise regularly and get outdoors, and build “down-time”.’
2. Have faith in your team
‘Handover notes fell out of fashion for a while in favour of using mobiles or laptops to address any issues while on holiday,’ says Robertson. ‘But being permanently on hand means that you don’t get a proper break.’ Be self-disciplined and consider in advance what is likely to arise in your absence – and who can deal with it. Colleagues should be trusted.
3. Manage expectations
Communicate exactly when you are available. If being ‘off-grid’ is too daunting, explain that if you are needed urgently you can be contacted on your mobile. ‘People will be less likely to call you unless it is urgent,’ says Sinead O’Callaghan, corporate and commercial litigator at Cooke, Young & Keidan.
Set the right tone. ‘If you frequently pick up emails late at night or at weekends,’ says Sophie Vanhegan, an employment partner at GQ|Littler, ‘the client will think this is normal and may feel justifiably aggrieved if you stop.’ Prioritise urgent versus non-urgent work, being honest about turnaround time. ‘This takes time to develop,’ says Ross Meadows, HR and employment partner at Oury Clark. ‘It’s certainly easier for me to plan my day now compared to when I was a trainee or newly qualified.’
4. Set an example
If partners are on call 24/7, it sets the bar for junior lawyers. In this scenario mid-ranking associates balancing work with the demands of young families start to consider going in-house, or even leaving the profession.
‘Partners should be positive role models in leading a balanced life,’ says Robertson.
A workplace that offers flexible working helps promote a healthy work-life balance and demonstrates trust in its workforce. The downside is that boundaries can become blurred – as employees must exercise their own judgement about when to put the laptop away.
5. Think of your life in the round
Attitudes have shifted but workplace cultures still vary: ‘City firms still have City values,’ says a former partner of a global firm. ‘When paying those prices clients want lawyers available when they want.’ There is also the transatlantic culture clash: ‘It is US working practice not to take many holidays. When working with US colleagues, ensure the US ethos does not creep into your own mindset.’
If you do find yourself struggling, what should you do? First, accept that no one is indispensable – at work that is. ‘If you get run over by a bus, the firm will carry on,’ says Vanhegan. ‘Don’t think you are so precious that your matters can’t be covered and you can’t take a proper break.’ Speak to someone more senior – informal mentoring could help address individual behaviours that impact on work/life balance. Be honest. ‘If you feel that where you are isn’t a good fit or that changing the culture would be banging your head against a brick wall, sometimes it’s just time to look for something else,’ says Johnston.
When the late, late show means you fluff your lines back at home
With ‘wellbeing’ the word of the moment, criticism of our late-hours culture verges on reflexive. The suspicion is that working late results from any number of things that fall into a bucket marked ‘wrong’.
On a summer evening, you could be walking home by a canal path past jolly-painted barges with herb pots on their roofs. Instead, you stay behind to draft a reply to a vendor on an unreasonable snagging list, or to fix the flaws in a report drafted by a less able colleague. By 9pm, that canal path is less tempting and dinner, not the gym, beckons. You’re in next morning at the usual time and start all over again.
Your muscles feel knotted, even after a night’s sleep, and when your mother visits for Sunday lunch she says you look pale. You’re becoming a slave to the Anglo-American work ethic.
But is working late always such a problem? Destructive stress affects our wellbeing, and uncompleted tasks that hang over us are surely a prime cause. That’s especially true in law, as stresses relate to the concerns of clients who are, in turn, stressed and transmitting that stress. Tasks done, you sleep better. Leaving later, you might score a seat on a train, and the to-do list is more like a game of Tetris that you’re winning. A few late nights might mean a free weekend – maybe a mini-break.
Hours worked is an issue, and long hours every day take a toll. But perhaps the bigger issue is around control – a confidence that you will keep social and family promises because you work with or for people on matters which (while tricky and time-consuming) are under control. Not all stress is destructive. Indeed, some of it, especially in law, comes with an adrenaline buzz. Perhaps we shouldn’t worry about what time it is, but rather whether the end is in sight.
Katharine Freeland is a freelance journalist