Lean Out and Get a Life

I am a working woman in my 30s who has never read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. I’m a rare bird, but now that you’ve spotted me, you can check me off your list.

Like a lot of women, I had a very basic, visceral reaction to Lean In that made me an instant skeptic. For me, though, the problem was less about the privileged position Sandberg was writing from at the time, and more about the fact that she was using her prominent position to tell us all to work harder–as if Americans weren’t already working themselves to death.

We don’t even take all of the vacation we’re entitled to as part of our overall compensation packages! In 2017, Project: Time Off found that “Americans forfeited 212 million days, which is equivalent to $62.2 billion in lost benefits. That means employees effectively donated an individual average of $561 in work time to their employer in 2017.” In what other scenarios would you actually donate part of your pay back to your employer? None that I can think of. So why are so many Americans willing to stay chained to their desks year after year, even when they’re among the lucky few with paid vacation? A culture that tells you all you have to do is lean in and you too can be rich!

We Can’t All Be CEOs

It’s all a lie, of course. There’s one CEO at every company, and dozens, or hundreds–or even thousands–of employees. And frankly, while none of us would notice if every CEO of every major company disappeared tomorrow, we’d surely notice if every barista, customer service representative, and bartender suddenly went missing.

If you want to be a CEO, that’s OK. I’m not here to talk you out of it. Someone has to climb that corporate ladder. I just want all the people who, like me, find the idea of leaning in–so they can get a promotion, make more money, buy more stuff, get a bigger house, and chase the next promotion–exhausting, they aren’t alone. In fact, we should all take a walk in the woods to talk about it.

This isn’t about avoiding hard work. Quite the opposite really. Few people I know work harder than the freelancers–who have to hustle for every dime, hound clients for the money they’re owed. It’s about taking stock of your priorities, and realizing that it’s OK if it’s more important to you to enjoy your days than it is to get to the very top of that ladder.

Maybe, for you, it’s not about whether you’re in an office every day, but it’s about the kind of work you do. Would you feel more fulfilled if you worked at a job that you felt was making a difference instead of just making money? Are you afraid to make the leap from a well-paid gig at a corporation to one at a non-profit? Or perhaps you’re worried what people might think of you if you decide to get out of the rat race and try to make a difference. Well, I’m here to say, you do you. Don’t be afraid to lean out!

You don’t have to sell everything you own and go all #vanlife to make a change–all you have to do is take stock of what matters and start working toward a future that helps you put those things first.

Rethinking Work

A recent Flex Jobs survey found that 54% of respondents said their work-life balance either needed improvement, was pretty bad, or was terrible. A mere 9% of respondents said their boss’ work habits make work-life balance easy for them. Did you hear that Sheryl Sandberg? Bosses, like you, can help people model more healthy work-life balances!

Joe Robinson writes, “People who feel they have good work-life balance work 21% harder than those who don’t, according to a survey from the Corporate Executive Board, which represents 80% of Fortune 500 companies.” I can attest to the truth of this. I’ve been working from home as a writer and editor for about eight years. Sure, I sometimes get up from the task at hand to go move the laundry from the washer to the dryer. But I’m not watching the clock, ready to run out the door at five because I’m going to have to sit in traffic for an hour on the way home if I’m even a minute late. When I’m having trouble writing a column, or an article that a freelancer turned in is giving me a headache, I get up from my desk, I put the leash on the dog and I go for a walk. Or I pull weeds in the garden or do the dishes…whatever helps me clear my mind. I come back to my desk refreshed and renewed, ready to do better work. And if lightning strikes when I’m vegging out on the couch at night, I have no qualms about grabbing my laptop and finishing that column that wasn’t coming easily at 2 p.m.

CEOs Need Lives Too

Being a CEO–or aspiring to be one, anyway–shouldn’t preclude you from having a decent life outside of the office. We can’t all work from home. We can’t all make the financial sacrifices that often come with choosing quality-of-life over a bigger paycheck. Something needs to change about how we think about work in this country, and it needs to start at the top.

If more CEOs started modeling better work-life balances, employees would feel freer to do the same. Stop putting game rooms and coffee bars in your offices to keep employees from leaving your campus, and start instituting summer Fridays, or work-from-home-Wednesdays. To paraphrase Smokey the Bear, “Only you can prevent office burnout!”

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