The popular term “work-life balance” is starting to rack-up a whole set of new names: work-life fit, work-life integration, work-life interface, and even work-life sway! A lot of the time, work is seen on one side of us, and our lives on the other. But no matter what you decide to call it, or how you decide to perceive it, achieving a work-life balance is challenging for most of us.
Working can either be a part of your life, or working is your life. And if it’s becoming the latter, we need to talk. In this episode, we discuss our own personal experiences with managing work-life balance at various stages of our careers. We talk about the damaging effects of burnout on individuals and organizations, as well as the innovative strategies that organizations are implementing to develop healthier work-life balance environments. Your health and happiness are priorities, and everyone should be supported in their need for this in the workspace. If you’re on the verge of a burnout, want to incorporate work-life balance strategies into the fabric of your organization, or just need some tips for tweaking the scale here or there – this episode is for you!
Key Points From This Episode:
- Discover what work-life balance really means and whether we should be splitting the two.
- Why work-life balance is out of sync in the beginning of many engineers’ careers.
- The importance of finding the amount of work that is productive for you as an individual.
- The different effects on work-life balance when working for a salary and working hourly.
- How to know if you’re experiencing burnout and various ways to address it.
- Various ways organizations are helping employees to achieve better work-life balance.
- Dog days, massage days, or a lunch in the park: Ideas for burnout prevention.
- The benefits employers will see when they start to integrate work-life balance strategies.
- You’re not a code monkey: What to do if you’re in an unhealthy work environment.
- Find out what software engineers need their users to understand about them.
Transcript for Episode 139. Work-Life Balance and How to Find It
[0:00:01.9] MN: Hello and welcome to The Rabbit Hole, the definitive developer’s podcast in fantabulous Chelsea, Manhattan. I’m your host, Michael Nunez. Our producer today —
[0:00:10.2] WJ: William Jeffries.
[0:00:11.2] MN: And today, we’ll be talking about work life balance as a developer. How does one find the balance that they stand on one side being work and one side being life and our experiences trying to figure that out?
[0:00:25.9] WJ: I feel like people have like started to complain about this term work-life balance because it does seem to sort of imply that your work is not part of your life. I think people have started throwing around newer terms for it, I don’t know that I necessarily like them any better, work life fit, I’m just reading form this CNN in article, work life integration, work life interface?
[0:00:46.3] MN: What?
[0:00:48.0] WJ: Work life sway?
[0:00:49.3] MN: No —
[0:00:50.1] WJ: I don’t know. I mean, I don’t like making it in either/or thing where you’re either at work or you’re having a life because you know, I would like for my work to be enjoyable so I don’t mind it and it is part of my life but you do still need to capture that concept in some way that you can spend too much time at work.
[0:01:10.2] DA: I think, you mentioned William that it sounds like it was a new thing, I don’t remember when I first started programming that work life balance is something that I need to look out for or establish when I start working. But I think it might have been like a newer term because people were working and that was their lives. I think that’s a difference between working as a part of your life and working being your life.
[0:01:37.6] WJ: Right, yeah.
[0:01:39.2] MN: And we need to, I guess, like the ideas that as engineers, we need to kind of start being mindful about that. Like how were you when you first started programming, were you working, workaholic, working all the time? I felt like — I remember my first programming gig, I was probably working a salary and still working 45, maybe 50 hours because I’m new, I need to show them how good I am, just came out of college and I had to like prove myself but my life was work because I needed to get better at this programming thing.
[0:02:14.9] WJ: Right.
[0:02:15.9] MN: Did you find yourself the same way when you first started programming?
[0:02:20.8] WJ: Yeah, I think in the beginning, I’ve definitely felt a need to prove myself. I was self-conscious and wanted to do a good job and definitely put in more time than what was healthy and then experience that problem where actually, it can make it worse and you stop getting enough sleep, you start being isolated and being less happy and able to focus and it can actually be worse than – you can get less done in 80 hours than you can in 20 sometimes.
[0:02:48.5] MN: Right. I think that’s where the balance comes in where you have to find the amount of work that is productive for an individual where too much may cause some issues and too little, you’re just not getting enough. Do you think that it affects people when they’re salary versus hourly?
[0:03:09.2] WJ: You know; I think it must – I haven’t really felt a big difference between when I’m salaried and when I am hourly.
[0:03:16.4] MN: Right, I felt like for me, working salary for some time and now working hourly. I got a couple of extra hours in, I could do it — but now, definitely with the baby, I now take some very heavy considerations of the work life balance that is now - I have to balance.
[0:03:34.1] WJ: Right, yeah. I think for me, I work more hours when I feel like it’s necessary, whether I’m salaried or hourly but when I’m hourly, I mind the overtime less. Because it’s like, okay, at least – okay, I would rather be out with my friends but at least, you know, I’m being fairly compensated for this.
[0:03:53.7] MN: Right, right. Yeah, I think that when you do, without being mindful of the balance, you may just experience burn out a lot faster and like, it’s even worse when you don’t even see it, right? Suddenly, you’re just like dreading to go to work, right? You mentioned before, the concept of having work-life balance as the concept is strange because you want to be enjoying your work as a part of your life. Well that happens when you’re like burnt out, right?
Like that becomes a problem as well. Solving that as a whole other issue. Then we can probably like dive into it. Have you ever felt like burned out from working too much?
[0:04:35.7] WJ: Yeah, absolutely. It’s like I’m in – I think it’s a great way to ruin a good job. I used to really like working here —
[0:04:45.7] MN: Now suddenly, I hate waking up in the morning.
[0:04:47.9] WJ: I’m miserable, I hate all of my coworkers —
[0:04:52.1] MN: Yeah, and it’s like it’s really hard to get out of that, I imagine. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced burnout to that degree, no pun intended. I think the idea of work life balance exist because when you talk about it, you know that burnout is a possible problem when you don’t balance it out. I guess is the concern that people have or like —
[0:05:15.4] WJ: I mean, I think this is more top of mind for you at the moment because you know you have a child now.
[0:04:21.1] MN: Baby boy. And if you would have asked me two years ago, I would have told you, yeah, I’m getting paid hourly, 80 hours, let’s go. Getting paid double, doing the overtime and not minding. But now, I find that like I want to be home with my son because my son’s awesome.
[0:05:41.0] WJ: Right, he’s only going to be that age for a very brief period —
[0:05:44.8] MN: — of time.
[0:05:45.5] WJ: If you're not there, you’re going to miss it and then that’s gone.
[0:05:48.5] MN: And then that’s gone. And then he’s going to be two years old and then I’m going to want to do over time because he’s got to be in his terrible two’s. But the idea that like I get a chance to have that balance and like negotiate with like the clients to say, “Hey, I cannot afford like the overtime because I have a child that is not going to be this age for much longer.”
[0:06:10.1] WJ: Right, and I think at this period, it’s particularly bad because you could miss his first word, you could miss his first steps. He’s got a whole bunch of first’s coming up.
[0:06:18.1] MN: Yeah, exactly, he could probably – his first time he yells out, “Yo Bobby!” I won’t be there, I just won’t be there but that will be horrible. That would not be cool at all and that balance exists because of the current experience that I’m having and software engineering is a place that at least allows us to have conversations like this. I’m thinking about like doctors who have rigorous hours who may not have the luxury of being able to work from home one day a week and stuff like that.
I think, well —what are some work life balance things that you’ve seen organizations do? Because the first one that came into mind is like working from home, right? You don’t have to worry about the commute once a week or even if you work in an organization that’s remote all the time, that’s like a way of balancing life with work. Have you seen other strategies?
[0:07:14.7] WJ: Yeah, I’ve seen some companies allow people to take a salary reduction and exchange for fewer hours total. You get 20% less money but you work 20% fewer hours. You get one extra day a week.
[0:07:28.8] MN: Okay, yeah. And like, you know, that’ sin agreement that the employee is taking that the engineer is takin because they want that extra day. The company is more than happy to facilitate that.
[0:07:40.8] WJ: I think maternity and paternity leave, that’s a common one.
[0:07:43.5] MN: Oh yeah, That was clutch I’m telling you.
[0:07:45.7] WJ: Vacation. I think sabbaticals are an interesting program, if you work in a cyclical business where most of the capacities really needed only at certain times. You know, you can get some benefit by allowing people to take extended periods of leave like much more than normal vacation by providing like you know, a reduced salary option.
Let’s say you work in retail and there’s a dead period, you know? Like after Christmas, nobody’s shopping or you know, whatever your cyclical business is, or whatever cycle you have, there’s like this down time and you can tell people like okay, we’re going to pay you only half of your salary but you don’t have to come to work at all.
[0:08:27.9] MN: Yeah.
[0:08:29.3] WJ: You just go travel the world or go I don’t know —
[0:08:32.4] MN: Do what you want to do.
[0:08:33.1] WJ: Make babies, whatever you –
[0:08:34.7] MN: Whatever you want to do. One of the things I’ve seen working at a bank is almost like forced vacation. I don’t know if you’ve seen this before but a lot of the times, in finance, they will – every employee is required to take the two weeks at least two weeks off. And at the time, when you do take that leave, they take away your passwords and like every year your account is like frozen so you can’t do anything about work.
[0:09:03.7] WJ: Right, I think that’s a compliance thing.
[0:09:05.9] MN: Yeah.
[0:09:06.6] WJ: They’re not just trying to be nice.
[0:09:08.0] MN: Yeah, exactly. But the idea that you have to is like, I think that rolls into the idea that I guess people who work in finance have burned out like severely and I think finance is one of those industries where you tend to do that and one of the ways to alleviate that is –
[0:09:26.4] WJ: Mandatory minimum vacation, yeah.
[0:09:29.2] MN: Not the greatest because as you mentioned before, I think there’s more compliant than like banks being nice — but that is a way that I’ve seen unfortunately the way to balance your work and life.
[0:09:39.2] WJ: Yeah, I think especially if you have an unlimited vacation policy. The only way to make that work is to have some kind of mandatory minimum because people on average take less vacation at companies with unlimited vacation policies because it’s not really unlimited, you know?
[0:09:56.0] MN: Yeah, I don’t know how that works because it’s like unlimited but is it truly unlimited?
[0:10:01.2] WJ: No.
[0:10:00.8] MN: I don’t think I’ve worked at a place that had unlimited vacations and I never took it.
[0:10:05.7] WJ: If somebody just like when on vacation and don’t come back. How long would it take that company to stop paying them?
[0:10:12.7] MN: Yeah, I remember when I worked at a place that was like that I didn’t take a lot of vacations. I’m just going to work — I know that I haven’t there but I never took it ever. I think that’s a good thing, a good policy, if you have unlimited vacations and ensure that you have a minimum where people are going to take it because often, people won’t. People just won’t.
[0:10:32.9] WJ: Like maybe we should just all acknowledge this and there’s no such thing as unlimited vacation, you can’t take a one-year vacation.
[0:10:37.9] MN: Yeah, no.
[0:10:38.9] WJ: Every year.
[0:10:40.2] MN: I don’t know.
[0:10:42.1] WJ: I think it’s better to just have a range.
[0:10:44.3] MN: Yeah.
[0:10:44.9] WJ: We require you take at least two weeks of vacation because don’t be a crazy person and then you know, the cap is you know, a month and a half.
[0:10:53.5] MN: Hey, if the company can afford it, cool but yeah, I mean, it’s only up to the organization but that’s a way to balance the strenuous of work that can sometimes be really stressful and alleviate some of that vacation policy. Stride does the ability to use hours to train, that’s a really big one in tech where you’re not actually doing work but you’re learning, you’re picking up a new skill that you want to do as part of your life and your hobby. You can do some [inaudible] programming, we know no one’s stopping you which is like pretty dope. I’m sure a lot of places do that too.
[0:11:30.9] WJ: Yeah. Money for conferences, continued education budget for books or online classes or whatever.
[0:11:38.8] MN: Yeah, you know, being fresh on your tech without the pressures of work forcing you to do that I think is a great way to balance life. I think yeah — I think I mentioned before the number one thing for me right now is the ability to work from home, at least one day a week is pretty cool.
I was actually not good at it and I still think I’m not —
[0:11:59.6] WJ: Yeah, it’s really hard I think to work from home, it’s like not a good work environment.
[0:12:00.0] WJ: Yeah, I’d say it’s really hard I think to work from home. It is not a good work environment.
[0:12:03.6] MN: Yeah, it is pretty difficult because before I am like at home and I am like, “Oh man video games,” — playing video games and then I like to be like, “Hey sorry, I didn’t work today so don’t worry about it. It is on me, it’s okay.”
[0:12:17.6] WJ: Don’t pay me for today. I didn’t do anything.
[0:12:20.6] MN: Yeah, exactly I mean that works out when you work hourly because you can just be upfront like that, but —
[0:12:25.7] WJ: Maybe if you have an actual home office with a door that you can close.
[0:12:30.4] MN: Yes and the computer doesn’t have video games in it.
[0:12:33.0] WJ: Right, separate machine.
[0:12:35.5] MN: Because that is important —
[0:12:36.3] WJ: Or a co-working space in your house if you live far away.
[0:12:39.5] MN: That’s true. Yeah, if you like I don’t know, some people use a WeWork, find a place that has a WiFi for you to step away and coffee shops are really big for that but the balance is important because like — burnout is real and a lot of people have experienced that and just figuring out ways to alleviate some of that burnout by making life a little easier and toning down the work a little bit because I could definitely see myself not that it is happening right now at the second place.
Please — don’t worry about me I am okay but being burnt out because I have a newborn and the stress of work could definitely burn anyone out. So I really have to be mindful of that and I am glad that this term is being used more often and organizations are aware of it. Do you find that you work more hours now than you did before in time or you kind of –
[0:13:34.3] WJ: No, I definitely work less.
[0:13:35.5] MN: You work less?
[0:13:36.3] WJ: Yeah, I mean I think generally as people get more – well I don’t know, I don’t want to speak for everybody here. I have noticed that as people get more senior they tend to chill out. I don’t know if it is because they get older and they’ve got families and they want more free time for that or if it is that if they feel more stable, more comfortable like they are less worried about being fired. They know that they’re needed or adding a lot of value. I mean I do think sometimes you get people who become “the guy,” you know?
[0:14:04.7] MN: Yeah, “the guy” or “the gal” that can hold it down.
[0:14:07.2] WJ: Yes and it is like they need that person there and so they end working too many hours because the company is totally dependent on them.
[0:14:14.9] MN: Yeah that’s hard.
[0:14:16.0] WJ: And then you can have the opposite effect where actually as you get more senior, you end up working more hours.
[0:14:21.7] MN: Right because then it’s like a bus factor thing too like that person probably knows the code base in and out, which then they like the businesses dependent on that person. That is pretty scary even as a – in both ends I think, right? Because as a business, if that person unfortunately get hits by a bus then what happens, right? The business is going to find out the hard way but it sucks for the engineer who is spending a lot of time and will inevitably burnout.
Because it is silly to think that you can have that lifestyle of working many hours and not think that you are going to burnout. So you got to take care of yourself. Oh I mean another thing, I know there is a certain organization that have like massage day like every other Wednesday, they have a masseuse come in and they get a massage. That is pretty cool.
[0:15:13.6] WJ: Like let you bring your dog to work.
[0:15:15.4] MN: Yeah that’s pretty dope too.
[0:15:16.4] WJ: That is a popular perk.
[0:15:17.0] MN: That is a popular perk everyone is doing that. I am sure Dave would love that. He has a dog and –
[0:15:23.1] WJ: Yeah, I mean it is a really good perk so long as your dog is well behaved. You don’t want to end up with a dog fight in the office. It is not a park.
[0:15:30.9] MN: $20 on Sparky, go! No that is a balance right there bro — gambling.
[0:15:39.1] WJ: It is an HR violation.
[0:15:42.2] MN: Exactly. Yeah, don’t violate HR as part of your work-life balance. It’s not cool. That is not cool, don’t do that.
[0:15:48.0] WJ: Lunches is some other popular perk.
[0:15:51.5] MN: Yes, they gave it a step away from the desk.
[0:15:54.0] WJ: Eating lunch in the park is a really nice perk.
[0:15:57.2] MN: Yeah I mean and even better if the company pays for it from time to time that would be cool but like eating outside.
[0:16:04.0] WJ: It is surprising how much of a difference that makes.
[0:16:05.9] MN: Yeah like co-worker, you know with your group of coworkers outside of work that is important but like this balance you find yourself like — when you get more senior like you mentioned before that person may end up working a lot harder like everyone should just be mindful of the fact that this does exist, I am sorry William but the work-life balance exists and —
[0:16:29.3] WJ: What about the work-life sway?
[0:16:31.4] MN: Don’t say that. Stop it.
[0:16:34.5] WJ: The work-life user interface?
[0:16:35.3] MN: No what is this, Java? Work-life balance is –
[0:16:40.3] WJ: Are you statically driving your work life?
[0:16:42.6] MN: That’s a problem, you should go see someone. Go see someone if you are statically typing your work-life balance. Yeah, I think balancing the idea that this term exists is probably because people have been mindful of it, they understand the consequences, burn out as we just discussed and organizations are definitely doing something about it, which is really cool.
[0:17:04.8] WJ: It is really good for recruiting too. I mean if your company has more flexibility that is a perk that means a lot to very talented people.
[0:17:13.0] MN: What are the benefits that the employer would see when they implement some of this work-life balance things that we mentioned earlier?
[0:17:20.1] WJ: I mean lower turnover, higher productivity when people are present, probably an easier time recruiting something that you are highlighting these features and you are encouraging your employees to refer friends and they actually like working for your company. I don’t know, what have you seen?
[0:17:34.5] MN: No, I think that is definitely helpful. People are generally happy to be working at a place that allows them to balance their life with their work in a way that makes them happy at the end of the day. Definitely just referral bonuses that will help both individuals when a new person comes in but that person would be selling their organization at a place that they enjoy working in and then they want their colleagues and former coworkers to work with them.
[0:18:00.8] WJ: On the flip side of that, what would you say to somebody who is currently working in an environment that they would definitely not recommend to a friend where there is a terrible lack of balance?
[0:18:10.1] MN: I mean they would just like you are asking like what should they do?
[0:18:13.8] WJ: What is your advice?
[0:18:14.6] MN: Like to give them, I think go find there is a lot of places there is a lot of I mean you should definitely bring it p and say like definitely talk to someone in the organization, your manager and whoever is willing to listen that it affects your life in a way where you’re not happy and you are not able to produce. That can either go two ways like the organization could be like, “Oh screw off,” but then you realized that if that is where they stand then why work for them, right?
Like that is kind of mean like you want to work at a place where your employers might see or thinks you are a person not just like a code monkey. So you just change your organization right there if that is the case but if they listen then they can figure out if anyone else is feeling this way and maybe figure out a solution to alleviate some of that pressure that they are getting from the employer themselves and then fix it.
[0:19:06.2] WJ: Yeah, I think it is important talk to people about this like get some help. At least have the conversation regularly with someone whether it is a spouse or a friend or a counsellor or someone but be regularly talking about how this is affecting your life because if you just try and quit, you may just fail. I mean quitting jobs is hard.
[0:19:25.8] MN: Oh yeah, definitely. Hit me up on Twitter and I will talk to you don’t worry about it.
[0:19:29.9] WJ: Yeah, I think that if you can start a conversation with someone and then over a period of time come up with a plan whether that is a plan with your manager, or a plan with your husband or wife about how you are going to make up an adjustment to your life so that your stress levels are a little healthier, I think that is a first step to getting out of the trap. I think when people are overwork they tend to shut down and close off.
You exclude all of your friends and family and coworkers who could potentially be supportive and then you just end up working more overtime or you are trying to get that project done, trying to get that good feedback review.
[0:20:07.9] MN: I did mention Twitter before, I did send out a tweet a couple of days ago where you know, the pressure can also come from the users who want the feature, who are very active at the organization you work in and like the users also need to understand that the engineers has families that they need to go home too and I think that sometime as a user myself of certain products, I can get upset and then I have to stop and be like, “Hey I am one of them.”
I mean meanwhile I’m at home, I think a couple of months ago YouTube TV, I subscribed to YouTube TV and it wasn’t working like when I was home and I’m like, “Oh why isn’t this working?” I went to Twitter and ranted like, “Hey YouTube TV fix your stuff,” and then right before I hit send, I’m like, “Oh I am a jerk,” because that would be me and if I had a product that went down and them I would have felt bad if I see people Tweeting at the organization I worked for to fix it so I think –
[0:21:06.5] WJ: Did they know it was down?
[0:21:07.6] MN: Oh yeah they did and because –
[0:21:08.9] WJ: And they were working on it. So you were just making them feel bad.
[0:21:12.2] MN: No but I realized that I didn’t sent it. I didn’t want to send it because it was like, “Oh wait no, everyone else has already been complaining. I am sure they feel bad about it,” and I think as a user and as users we should also be respectful of the time of engineers when things are down, these things happen and they got to balance that. They have balance work with their life and they’ll have to work from home and pager duty and that kind of stuff.
But if it is very strenuous, you should definitely talk to your organization about ways to alleviate some of that stress like some things I have seen is when there is a production bug at two in the morning and someone has to wake up to fix it, the company is like, “All right, well you are up at two in the morning fixing this bug, don’t worry about coming in today.” That would be fine — like that is really cool. Other places may expect you to come in and be at stand up at 8:30, which is crazy you know? That is really bad but like the balance is there, the organization I mean –
[0:22:07.2] WJ: Yeah especially if you are on the platform team like if you are doing infrastructure.
[0:22:10.2] MN: Ooh yeah, I know you are up all the time.
[0:22:12.0] WJ: Yeah or if your company uses the term IT department.
[0:22:15.8] MN: The IT department.
[0:22:18.2] WJ: You are in operations for the IT department you are not sleeping.
[0:22:21.8] MN: You are not sleeping and then some places will expect you to be there at nine to five and then be on call all the time but other places that I have seen it’s like, “Oh you were – that was a major outage. You were up from two to four, like go to sleep and I will see you the next day not today. Don’t worry about it,” which is like really cool and the company is aware of like you were disturbed in your sleep like try and fix that and we apologize and take the day off kind of thing.
Stuff like that is pretty cool and I think that the fact that organizations see that as like, “Oh we disturbed your life, take the day off don’t worry about work,” is an interesting way to see this balance play out.
[0:23:00.4] WJ: Yeah it’s true.
[0:23:01.5] MN: Yeah, I think if users realize that software engineers have families and the people that support the product have families and the companies also are aware that the product that engineers have also be in support that they have families and we should all as humanity figure out ways where we can make everyone happy and revenue go up but that is a really difficult challenge that I imagine a ton of software engineering companies are trying to deal with.
It’s the idea. It is just balance. Be mindful and talk to somebody. Talk to your employer and hopefully your employer has these benefits for you so you can be chill and enjoy your life and work.
[END OF DISCUSSION]
[0:23:43.8] MN: Follow us now on Twitter @radiofreerabbit so we can keep the conversation going. Like what you hear? Give us a five star review and help developers just like you find their way into The Rabbit Hole and never miss an episode, subscribe right now however you listen to your favorite podcast. On behalf of our producer extraordinaire, William Jeffries and my amazing co-host, Dave Anderson and me, your host, Michael Nunez, thanks for listening to The Rabbit Hole.
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