The very first conference I ever attended featured an ill-fated workshop on burnout in the nonprofit sector. The facilitator was well-intentioned, but ruffled more than a few feathers with her views on work life balance. I didn’t really get it at the time, but now that I’m a grizzled old-timer in the field I can see what went wrong.
She made the mistake of arguing that there is a “right” way to balance your passion for your cause with other life obligations and, in so doing, to cast judgement over the very difficult choices that individuals had made.
If you work on social issues, you feel compelled to give it everything you’ve got. The work, after all, is never really done. You work nights, because that’s when most community events take place. You work weekends. You end up cramming projects into holidays because “that’s when it’s quiet and I can really hear myself think.”
It happens because you have no control over the timing of most of the issues you face. You can’t ask grant makers to shift their deadlines to accommodate your schedule. You can’t ask a client or member to postpone their life-altering tragedy for a more convenient time. Then years pass, and you’re still putting everything you have in. Your sprint just became a marathon.
The solution isn’t to try to make your work life fit inside a nice, neat 9-5 box. It will never happen. It’s not in the nature of the work we do or the people we serve to be confined in a nice neat schedule.
The solution is to be able to answer this one question: Can I live with myself if I don’t do this? “This” might be putting in a few extra hours so that a project is done well. It might mean calling back that member on a Saturday afternoon because they really need to hear your voice. It may mean taking a day off work to attend a soccer tournament or pausing in a busy time to do nothing at all because your brain needs a rest.
There isn’t a right or wrong way to handle it. Only the opportunity to juggle everything that you choose to juggle for as long as you choose to do it.