Keeping the Work/Life Balance at Christmas

Guess what? Christmas falls on December 25th this year.

This isn’t my line, but Martin Lewis’s – he of “Money Saving Expert” fame. His point in a nutshell is that although we all know on the 1st of January each year exactly when Christmas will fall, we tend to make little or no financial preparation for it, with the result that many of us binge spend and then have to pay for Christmas at least until the following Easter.

What holds true for our finances can also be true of our working and private lives at Christmas. Somehow, as that immovable deadline of 25 December looms ever larger, there just seems to be more to do at work and at home. And worse still, it all must be done by Christmas Eve.

There are the visits to the relatives you haven’t seen all year, and your child’s school play, and your partner’s office party as well as your own. Meanwhile at work, there is the case that simply has got to be issued, and the dispute that absolutely must be settled and the clients who must move into their new house – and it all has to happen before the office closes on Christmas Eve. So it’s small wonder that this is the hardest time of the year to keep your work and home life balanced, and the period when you have to make the toughest “work vs. life” choices in the shortest available time.

The typical clash of commitments will be something like an urgent and unexpected need for you to type up a 20-page document on the same evening as the school Christmas play. It’s an extremely pressurised situation, often made worse by the fact that your boss is being harried herself by someone further up the management chain. That pressure can rebound onto you. Without meaning to (or sometimes quite deliberately!) a boss can make you feel disloyal and guilty about choosing the school play over the witness statement – or even hesitating about it.

In the heat of the moment, it’s fatally easy to agree instantly that the deadline for the witness statement is the most important factor – after all, just look at your exhausted, nerve-shattered boss! – and that the school play will have to be sacrificed. You don’t want to be seen as letting your boss down, especially in an emergency. All this may be true, and you may indeed have to work overtime, but at least don’t be guilt-tripped into it. Take five minutes and think over your options.

How you deal with this situation depends on three things: (1) the size of your firm, (2) the culture of your firm, and (3) your ability to present your dilemma well to your boss.

If you are in a bigger firm, there are obviously a lot more secretaries around, and presumably a secretarial manager to allocate overtime to those who want it. Usually, it’s not vital that the overtime should be completed by you and no-one but you (although clearly with highly confidential matters that can happen). In smaller firms, though, there are fewer secretaries available to pick up work, and where the available resources are scarce, office managers can be markedly less sympathetic to your difficulty. On the other hand, all secretarial managers and office managers should know that maintaining a work-life balance is the key to good productivity (although they may need a gentle reminder during the season of goodwill!), and they should understand that you should not be expected to sacrifice important moments of family life, particularly at Christmas, unless there really is no other option.

If your dilemma is falling on unsympathetic ears, could you compromise by doing the work out of the office? If what’s wanted is copy or audio typing and you have broadband at home, you can either use your own laptop or borrow one of the firm’s and do the work when you get back home after your family commitment. You can offer to come in early the following morning if the work must be signed off by your boss first thing. It’s not ideal and won’t do much for your overall stress levels, but it does mean that you are not letting anyone down.

How a suggestion like this is received depends a great deal on the culture within your firm. Lawyers with a more old-fashioned working style tend to want you to be at your desk where they can see you, and they simply may not have the technical ability to make it happen. For example, your boss simply may not know how to email you his audio dictation files or may prefer to write out documents and pass them to you by hand in instalments. Even here, though, there are generally ways around the problem that you can negotiate. What’s paramount is that if your commitment outside of work is important to you, then you should express that to your boss in a calm and clear way and look for a solution that does not mean that you are automatically expected to give your commitment up without further discussion.

Reassure yourself that whatever your boss may say or imply, your family commitments are not trivial. Research from multiple sources has shown that if you regularly prioritise your work commitments over your family and social commitments, your morale and energy will go down, and you will work less efficiently. Family life and social life are important, and Christmas commitments are more important than most. Communicate this in as measured and clear a way as possible; as always, good communication is more than half the battle. Even if bad timing means that there is no way that you can avoid cancelling your family commitment on this occasion, you will at the very least have made the point that you have sacrificed something valuable in order to help your boss out, and that s/he should not expect those sacrifices as a matter of course.