Defining YOUR Work-Life Balance

Dec. 5, 2017

Everyone is looking for the "holy grail" of work-life balance. Depending on the individual, career stage, and personal life, the perfect balance can be different for everyone. We often find that many careers in science resemble a way of life much more than they resemble a traditional job. Papers need to be read (and written), experiments need to be done and analyzed, client deadlines need to be met, and FDA guidelines need to be followed. It seems as though there is always something more to do.  Being aware of this is the first step in realizing the need to schedule and plan the various aspects of our personal life just as we do our experiments and business meetings.

However, we can't always schedule aspects of our personal life to an exact day, especially if you are a parent and scientist. There are events like conceiving a baby, last-minute meetings at school or taking care of an ailing parent that we cannot always anticipate. However, we can prepare by finding out about our health insurance and what's covered for a pregnancy, or setting up flexible hours within a work schedule.  Although we won't know all of the situations to review or questions to ask, these small steps can minimize our stress and anxiety, help us start to create a plan, and let us have a better balance in our lives.

We summarize some tips from scientists on how to deal with challenges involving work-life balance.  

Change Your Work Schedule to Fit Your Needs

Dr. Sandra J. Saouaf felt very different about her work schedule after having her oldest child.  She realized that she wanted to spend more time with her daughter than she could with a full-time position so she made some work changes. She took a job-share position at a pharmaceutical company where she worked only 3 days per week. After the birth of her second daughter, she took 5 years off from science and then returned to a part-time position in an academic laboratory. Later on, she became her own boss as a consultant and entrepreneur, and now is back working at a pharmaceutical company because her children are all in college.  "On and on it goes as I evolve," Dr. Saouaf said. "Many opportunities exist for accommodating work-life balance if you re-imagine what a successful career is and if your family situation allows for flexibility."

Learn to Unplug from Work

Having a good balance leads to happiness and productivity, while bad balance leads to burnout and lack of motivation. Part of this bad balance can come from our society's pressure to be always plugged in. Dr. Allison Beal, an immunologist at a large pharmaceutical company, commented that "the biggest challenge that I face with juggling my professional and personal life is truly switching off and recharging outside of work. One of the benefits of my job is that I can do a significant part of my job remotely, but this also makes it challenging to completely disconnect." When asked how she handles this challenge, she responded: "I don't know that I have mastered 'handling it,' but I have made significant progress shutting down by allowing myself time to decompress without my phone when I'm at home with my family. Additionally, I have made it a priority to take time for myself and family by scheduling fun activities and vacations on a regular basis. I've learned that being able to shut down actually improves my productivity and gives me more energy, allowing me to better juggle all that I have going on (very important with 3 kids)." We suggest that if you have a family function or an upcoming event, such as a 5K race, schedule it on your work calendar, including any preparatory or planning steps, and communicate it to your supervisor as early as possible to have the best probability to attend the occasion and balance your work and personal life.

Take Advantage of Your Employer Initiatives

Learn about employer initiatives that might help you maintain work-life balance. Dr. Elisabeth Mari, an immunologist working away from the bench at a nonprofit organization, said that her organization "puts an emphasis on work-life balance by providing a generous benefits package to all employees. Employees are provided with generous amounts of personal time off that they can take at their discretion, as well as flexible working hours, if needed. My boss allows me to work remotely or from home when needed, which allows for flexibility in my schedule. We can roll over any unused personal time off, but I wish my employer would put more of an emphasis on taking your personal time when needed, as opposed to rolling it over into the next work year. I am often guilty of not taking all of my allotted personal time, and eventually I will stop accruing this time off." Check with your human resources department or graduate/postdoc office to see what your benefits are and discuss with your supervisor any limitations and how they might be overcome.

Work-life balance is incredibly important for you and for your employer, but remember that it's not one size fits all. Each individual must find the work-life balance(s) that is best for him/her now and be willing to shift that balance when appropriate to account for different interests, values, and priorities at different stages of your career and personal life.

Co-Contributor: Dr. Natalie Chernets is passionate about plasma medicine and is a professional development enthusiast. With multidisciplinary training in physics, electrical engineering and biomedical sciences, she easily speaks the languages of medical doctors, biologists, physicists, and engineers. In her current role of as administrative postdoctoral fellow, under the direction of the Associate Dean of Student and Postdoctoral Affairs, Lisa Kozlowski, Ph.D., Natalie utilizes her traditional postdoctoral experience along with a strong industrial background to motivate trainees from different disciplines to take charge over their career success. She excels in drawing ideas from multiple disciplines and enjoys creating opportunities by connecting different people.

Author: Lisa Kozlowski

Lisa Kozlowski
Lisa Kozlowski is Director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at Thomas Jefferson University.