Knowing Your Priorities – When the line between professional and private life gets blurred
By Heather Chetwynd, president of Voice to Word Consulting Inc., a Toronto-based company which offers customized training and seminars to support the needs of clients who are not native English speakers.
Lately, I’ve been studying, thinking and writing a lot about habits, goals and commitment – not only because I want to make sure I stay healthy and have a creative outlet, but also because so many of my clients are chronically overworked and more so these days, unaccustomed to working from home and needing to manage the interference between the two realms. The result is that many of them struggle to prioritize – immediate work demands overrule their ongoing need for physical and mental healthcare and skills development.
Dispersed focus, increased stress and exhaustion
COVID has thrown our work lives and personal lives into the same pot in a very unmediated manner. Suddenly, our children’s daytime needs and our work responsibilities must be dealt with at the same time. We get distracted at lunchtime when we enter the kitchen, walk by a TV or see our spouse. We no longer have the travel time to cool off and relax, separating work tensions from family life. Even those of us who previously spent a lot of time working in home offices have spent endless hours adjusting to the new reality, the technology, the lack of face-to-face interaction and the distraction of constant news updates, social media posts and friends focusing on the state of the world. The integration of our professional and private lives is taking its toll – dispersed focus, increased stress, exhaustion.
Since COVID took over the world, most of my clients are working much longer hours than previously and experiencing increasing stress. Excessive work hours, issues with technology, distractions with children and concerns about the unknown future – all can seriously diffuse focus and understandably make us question what we felt were our priorities.
Related to my field of training, it is also true that many employees who previously were judged to have adequate communication skills are now experiencing some issues related to clarity and comprehension. As so much of our work involves speaking with technology that distorts and drops often, presenting through masks that muffle the clarity, communicating without the full expression of the face and lacking the in-person backup and reassurance many had previously – some internationally-trained employees are experiencing greater insecurity and weakened performance.
As working from home becomes the new normal in many cases, I see my clients exhausted, stressed and struggling to maintain healthy habits. Where prior to COVID, they would generally make time to practice and exercise, the constant change and overwhelm of the new reality has thrown many off course. I am now beginning to see many clients gradually reprioritize long-term personal and learning needs, but the increased workload, and subsequent exhaustion, is concerning and takes a toll.
In a discussion with a business coach, she mentioned that her load is increasing – “The ongoing stress of the COVID drip campaign,” she calls it. For a while, she decided to start her work early instead of doing her regular morning health routine. After two weeks, she woke up ready to tear anyone apart who spoke to her. The next day, she went back to her routine and after two days she was calm again. This is someone who is used to managing personal and professional responsibilities from a home office and even she succumbed to COVID overwhelm by de-prioritizing her personal needs.
The increasingly blurred line between professional and personal priorities
The question of where work responsibilities end and personal lives begin reminds me of a job I had when I was working in Central America – in Nicaragua – developing educational materials for the agricultural workers’ union. At that time, active membership in the union had changed from primarily male to primarily female due to wartime army conscription. Production was declining because women had to cook, clean and care for children while working full time. Our goal was to get the union, and the women themselves, to realize that these were not “women’s issues” but rather work concerns. Eventually many of the farming cooperatives began to build public cooking and laundry facilities and to open daycares which allowed for and resulted in increased agricultural production.
Applying this situation to Canada, a client of mine recently told me she had been having some health problems and, upon seeing the results of several tests, the doctor told her she had to slow down, take better care of her health and shorten her work hours. Two months later, she was retested and her numbers were within the healthy range. She showed the test results to her manager to explain why she had cut back from her previous workload which often left her working late at the office all week and all day on Saturdays and Sundays at home.
As a coach, I see how issues at home influence work performance. One client whose daughter had not left home for over a year due to emotional issues was stressed out and began to raise his voice a lot at his workplace. The company felt it was a cultural issue – Canadian culture tends to look down on strong emotional expression, especially raised voices in an office environment. But in my opinion, it was primarily due to his stress default behaviour; some of us raise our voices; others go silent. While cultural conditioning can play a role in what we permit ourselves to do or not, as stress increases, whether it comes from work or home, we all have a natural default behavioural direction.
An executive coach I spoke with recently mentioned a client had returned to her for coaching, this time for help with an issue with his child. It was disturbing him so much he was not able to work as he had previously.
The current blending of home and work life – something that has been coming on for a while, exasperated by constant communication via email and cell phone and the effects of working from home – points to something coaches have known and worked with for a long time. Both coaches and employers need to look at the whole person now more than ever, especially with the increased stress, growing workload, adjustments to change, distractions with family, worries about finances, dependence on technology and insecurities about the future.
Prioritizing, forming habits and committing to your own integrity
In my case, I have the annoying habit of, once I start to do a job, wanting to keep going until it’s done. I often start when I get up and go until late, if I think I can get it done. I love completing things and getting them off my to-do list. This behaviour may have some benefits but not everything can be “completed.” This habit of mine means I tend to postpone exercising, practicing an instrument, preparing vegetables – all these things that need to be done consistently forever!
I recently heard two quotes that really rang true for me:
“It takes discipline to have discipline.”
“Discipline is the commitment you have towards your commitments.”
Another thing I have been exploring and coming to realize is my relationship with and value of integrity. I always felt I had integrity – I always kept my promises, never lied, considered what I had done and apologized if I had been wrong, etc. But I began to realize that integrity is deeper than that. Why tell “little white lies” when I could avoid them – so I stopped that. But the bigger one was keeping promises to myself. I had never related that behaviour to integrity. I have now started to be much more careful distinguishing between goals, targets and commitments. Goals and targets focus me on where I want to go and the steps involved. But commitment is a decision and there’s no going back. So now I’ve also put a timeline on my commitments and allow myself to re-evaluate when the time comes, and re-commit if it makes sense.
This topic is important for me and my clients. To improve communication skills, you need to practice them, drill them and apply them to your own world. It takes time and regularity. It takes practice. It takes commitment.
This commitment needs to come from learners as they prioritize and decide how to move forward. But a commitment towards supporting employees in their decisions to maintain and improve their health, their professional development and a balanced life also needs to come from employers. The effects of COVID are not about to end soon. The transition the world and human consciousness is going through is major and we can all help to make this process exceptional.