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The Law: The Myth & The Self – A Discussion on Work-Life Balance

Special to the News Columns

a column from the Bar's Wm. Reece Smith, Jr., Leadership Academy Class IX:

Leadership Academy logoWe are all in the pursuit of “work-life balance” – or at least the idea of it. Lawyers of course strive for a complete balance of work and personal life. And while people (regardless of profession) tend to compare their life with others, work-life balance is a very personal pursuit. Comparison with others doesn’t change the balance in any quantifiable way. And while most of us might lean toward the belief that the more we work, the better we are, a healthy work-life balance more often than not drives engagement, productivity, and employee retention. Note, however, that work-life balance simply means you’re equally fulfilled by the duality of your personal life and your professional life. This will not look the same for everyone, and will not happen overnight (or even over several weeks).

How do we identify the need for and actually start creating work-life balance? A great approach to determine the best balance for you is to check in with your inner self. But avoid overwhelming yourself – so, start small.

Ways to Determine a Need for Work-Life Balance:

  • You can’t stop thinking about work when you’re not at work. Those who find it difficult to draw boundaries between work and life are at higher risk for burnout.
  • You may be easily irritated with coworkers and distant with loved ones based on the stress or thought of work.
  • You may rarely have energy or find it difficult to focus on work-related matters. You have consistent headaches and unexplainable body pain.
  • You battle to take time off when you’re sick, mentally strained, or when you need to take care of personal tasks.
  • When you’re not at work, everything seems uninteresting or unimportant. You don’t feel like doing anything unless you have to. You often turn down invitations, further isolating yourself from your friends.
  • You can’t imagine doing what you do for the rest of your life. Even if you work in a field or a company you once loved.

Ways to Improve Your Work-Life Balance: 

  • Prioritize your mental health needs. Seek a therapist or talk to a trusted friend or family if needed. Also use mindfulness practices. When you practice mindfulness techniques, like meditation or breath awareness, you become more intune with your emotions and physical sensations.
  • Prioritize time with hobbies that are fulfilling.
  • Prioritize time with family and friends.
  • Provide boundaries at work. This includes determining a manageable workload, having open conversations with your employer on workload and setting a time to work for the day.
  • Take time off.
  • Take time away from technology (i.e. phone, social media).
  • Plan ahead to combine work activities with leisure, social, or fitness activities. If you find yourself with several virtual meetings back-to-back, consider taking them while you go for a walk. You could also take a call outside (if ambient noise allows!) or invite a friend over to co-work with you.
  • Set blocks of time for different tasks. Have a time where you check (and respond to) messages, a time when you take meetings, and time to do mentally intensive work. It helps to anchor these tasks around the times that you are personally more productive.

Check out for more information.

The Florida Bar Leadership Academy, Class IX, implores all of you to seek work-life balance. Fellows from Class IX provide their perspectives on how they maintain a work-life balance against the challenges of their own personal and work-related commitments below.

Colleen Mullen

Colleen Mullen

From the perspective of Colleen Mullen, director of Pro Bono and Volunteer Engagement for Legal Services of North Florida and involved in numerous leadership activities: “Self-care is a buzzword that seems to be made fun of a lot, however, it is extremely important to everyone in the legal system. Our jobs are very stressful and that can cause underlying health issues. I like to say that ‘I run to burn off the crazy.’ To achieve this, I run of course! but I also enjoy kickboxing, yoga, wrestling, biking, swimming, and obstacle course races. Exercise helps free my mind and release daily frustrations. That’s not to say I’m good at any of it! I’ve never won a race, but I know that going out for a run can help me work through the issues that I’ve been working on all day. It helps keep me level-headed and able to think through the difficult questions that can arise. 

“I know that running is not for everyone though. If you’re trying to start a workout routine so you too can have endorphins, I recommend you start small by trying what you think will make you happy and go from there. I would also point out that no one is going to be Usain Bolt from the start. Let yourself build up to where your exercise is something that you crave. Maybe start by taking a walk at lunchtime with coworkers – one of the biggest added benefits of running is my dose of Vitamin D, which can help treat and prevent depression. I know I struggle with my mental health and for me, the best way to stay healthy is consistently workout.” 

Danielle Spradley

Danielle Spradley

From the perspective of Danielle Spradley, managing attorney, wife, and mother: I find it hard to create a work life balance. In addition to managing work and my family, I also hold several voluntary positions which bring me joy. With three competing interests, I look for ways where I can feel accomplished because I know I gave my best.   

“Navigating these spaces has caused me to draw boundaries. I am committed to being there for my children whenever they have school and sporting events and in return, I will login and tie up any loose ends from work after they are fed and in bed. However, I rarely work on Saturdays and I choose not to work on Sundays. I believe that when you are at work, you work. When I am working, I give work all of my attention. When I’m at home, I turn my attention to my husband and children. This allows me to be present and focus on what’s in front of me with goals to enjoy life to the fullest.  I have allowed myself to use my ‘out of office’ without feeling guilty when I am on vacation and unavailable. And yes, I use my vacation time. I may not go anywhere but to the couch, but taking time off allows me much needed recharges, so I take at least one day per quarter and two weeks per year, just to be OFF!  

“On weekends, in addition to focusing on being a wife, and mother, I volunteer in activities and I also allow myself me time. I take time to spend with my family and friends so that they know without a doubt that they are important to me. I attend church regularly and volunteer with our youth ministry. I get massages and pedicures monthly.    

“As I have gotten older, I have lost several people in my life who were very important to me. These losses have forced me to re-evaluate what is important. While I take deadlines extremely seriously, I have decided that I would also take my loved ones extremely seriously. While I realize that I am an important player at my job, in my position, I also realize that if I die, my job will mourn me for a short time while they find my replacement. My family and friends can’t replace me. Therefore, I am committed to being present in their lives so that they too can have an understanding that while you give your best at whatever it is that you do to make a living, you must remember to live for the people who live for you. 

“So, take work seriously and be the best at what you do, but take the time to smell the flowers, watch the sun rise, or whatever gives you peace. Just make sure you are taking time to REST.” 

Jalesa Johnson

Jalesa Johnson

From the perspective of Jalesa Johnson, senior associate working remotely: All throughout my career I have struggled with work-life balance hoping that as the years go by it will become easier. This has found itself to be false and the real answer is life and work shifts and you have to shift with it as well. I have altered and modified my techniques throughout the years but there are times I do fall short not even realizing it’s because I’m in so deep into the tasks necessary to get all the to dos on my list done. As a single person, senior associate attorney and current remote worker my work-life balance can pivot to the work side quicker than I notice. From the start of COVID-19 and being forced to stay home my law firm has since been remote. I enjoy working remotely and the idea sounds great to others as well. You quickly realize that waking up, eating, sleeping, entertaining, and working all in the same space can take a toll. I tend to fall off on my boundaries of setting time to take lunch and when to call it a day from the computer. The access to work is so easy working remotely that you tend to find yourself working even when you find yourself with free time. This can cause much burnout and stress that you don’t even notice. From my experience, having boundaries of making sure to take a lunch and mini breaks throughout the day, finish completing work at a certain time, and not do work-related tasks during the weekends has been essential. This has helped tremendously to keep my work-life balance sustainable for my mental health. I also make sure to prioritize taking short vacations here and there where I am fully present and enjoying myself. Taking time for yourself is very important. Always make yourself a priority first.”

Michael RubensteinFrom the perspective of Michael Rubenstein, working parent of a child with autism: “Work-life balance is an extremely complex topic. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to work-life balance, as every person and situation is different. The main two areas of my work-life balance are my job and being a parent. I am the senior fiduciary advisor for the Southeast USA for BMO Harris Wealth Management, and I am the father of two children, Jude (8) and Matias (7). What makes my situation different than others is that my youngest son, Matias, was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (‘ASD’ or ‘the Spectrum’) at the age of 2.

“Having a child changes a person’s life. However, the parent of a typical child knows generally what to expect and how to best raise their child. Having a child on the Spectrum changes a person’s life again, but in a completely different way because the parent does not know what to expect or how to best raise their child. Additionally, a child on the Spectrum behaves, communicates, interacts, and learns in ways that are different from most other people, therefore most other people will not understand your child. The parent must learn how their child behaves, communicates, interacts, and learns to understand their child, and then change the way they do these things to meet the child on their terms and to meet the needs of your child.

“A parent of a child on the Spectrum’s work-life balance must adjust to their circumstances. The awareness, understanding, and resources for ASD is improving, however, not every person will understand how or why their child behaves a certain way, and not every facility or program will have the resources that their child requires. As a parent their role is magnified to make up for this lack of awareness, understanding, and resources. 

“For instance, if I am at work and I get a call about Jude, my typical son, I am confident that the person calling understands my son well enough for me to finish whatever task I am working on before handling the situation. Conversely, if I am at work and I get a call about Matias, my son on the Spectrum, I am out of the door and on my way before I even hang up the phone. Additionally, Matias is verbal and high-functioning, but his speech and vocabulary are still quite limited. While I can understand what he is saying because I know what he means based on years of learning how he communicates, other people would have a hard time deciphering what he is trying to say based on the words available to him and how he puts thoughts together. Therefore, more time, attention, and urgency must be dedicated to a child on the Spectrum due to these reasons, and my work-life balance adjusts accordingly.”

 (Fellows Patrick Brathwaite and Veronique Malebranche edited this column.)

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