Lifting boxes: An alternative to work-life balance

“Balancing” work and life can feel impossible for working parents. Emily Singer, VMD, writes that instead of trying to balance work with life, flexibility and self-care are better goals.

By Emily Singler


Work-life balance is the phrase we all love to hate but can’t seem to get away from. It’s been rebranded as work balance (to indicate life as a priority), work-life integration, work-life sway, and more.

As part of my research and writing on topics that affect working parents in veterinary medicine, I have tried to come up with a concise, punchy replacement for work-life balance the resonates more with what we all really want, but without any luck.

What’s wrong with work-life balance?

Let’s start with the intended message: When we talk about work-life balance, we generally mean that we don’t want our work to prevent us from having a fulfilling life.

We want to feel like we have time, energy, and sanity for things outside of work, like family, friends, pets, travel, sports, hobbies, rest, and self-care. We want to feel like we don’t just live to work.

The issue with this phrase is the word balance, which calls to mind images of a scale or a seesaw where there are two weights (in this example), both of which must be held up at the same level to prevent one from either going too high or falling too low.

This balance doesn’t magically happen. It requires constant juggling and shifting to keep both weights in the air, which can be exhausting and make you feel like you must pay constant attention to both at the same time. Not only is this tiring and unfulfilling, but it’s not really a sustainable goal.

It’s also easy to fall into the fallacy of thinking that you’re doing something wrong if you don’t feel like your work and life are balanced.

If balance isn’t the answer, what is?

We run more of a risk of burnout when we feel like we need to be giving equal time, attention, and effort to our work and the nonwork parts of our life all the time without neglecting anything, as this is just more than anyone can do long-term.

Instead of trying to keep these hypothetical weights evenly balanced, imagine that you have boxes filled with veterinary supplies and you’re lifting them up onto a shelf up above your head in the clinic. You may find that you are able to lift multiple boxes up at the same time (at least at first), but it will be much harder than if you just lifted one box at a time.

More than balance, most of us need flexibility to devote all (or most) of our time, energy, and other resources to whatever our priority is on that given day, or season of life, as needed.

It can be much easier to devote ourselves more fully to the task at hand when we don’t feel as much pressure to balance five other things at the same time. Returning to the box-lifting analogy, we can feel free to lift one box at a time, carefully and without as much strain, and put it where it needs to go.

If another box needs our attention more urgently, we can put the first box down. This way, we may find that we can get to the important boxes more quickly and put them where they need to be without overloading ourselves.

We may even decide we don’t need all the boxes and leave some of them on the delivery truck or hand them to others to carry.

Lifting boxes for working parents

Working parents (especially moms) are bombarded with messages about doing it all. The damaging effects of this messaging on mental health and fulfilment as a working parent are clear. Instead of trying to do it all, we will often be much happier if we try to do less. How to accomplish this depends on your circumstances and will likely change with different phases of life.

Some examples include:

  • Cutting back on working hours
  • Choosing a position with less requirement for on-call, after hours, or weekend/evening/holiday work
  • Outsourcing tasks such as meal preparation and house cleaning
  • Cultivating a village to help with child care
  • Declining kids’ extracurricular activities with excessive time demands
  • Prioritizing an equitable distribution of household tasks (and mental load) between partners

How veterinary employers can help

The term work-life balance is thrown into practically every job posting in veterinary medicine these days, so much so that it’s lost a lot of its meaning. So, what can veterinary employers strive for (and advertise) instead?

There’s no one buzzword, but employers can help working parents be more fulfilled by offering:

  • Flexible employee schedules
  • Child care benefits (such as stipends, discount programs, or onsite child care)
  • Efficiency aids (such as scribes, dictation software, or templates) that help employees leave work on time
  • Psychological safety in the workplace (e.g., promoting understanding and compassion when a parent needs to miss work or leave early)

Surrendering the urge to do can be a hard pill to swallow, but it pays dividends in increased physical and emotional wellbeing for working parent and, by extension, for their families and veterinary teammates.

Further reading

Veterinary workplace hazards that can affect pregnancy (NEWStat)

Parenting in vet med: Lack of childcare affects us all (NEWStat)

Emily Singler, VMD, is AAHA’s Veterinary Content Specialist and author of Pregnancy and Postpartum Considerations for the Veterinary Team.

Photo credit:© Irina Gutyryak E+ via Getty Images Plus

Disclaimer: The views expressed, and topics discussed, in any NEWStat column or article are intended to inform, educate, or entertain, and do not represent an official position by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) or its Board of Directors.




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