Women's Health Matters

Text Size
Jump to body content

Work/Life Balance

In May 2007, our guest expert in Le Club's Ask the Expert was Ann Douglas.

Ann is the author of 28 books, many of which focus on pregnancy and parenting. Her books include The Mother of All Pregnancy Books; The Mother of All Baby Books; and The Mother of All Parenting.

A mother of four, Ann specializes in writing and speaking about parenting and teaching parenting and pregnancy courses and workshops. Her areas of interest include preconception health, conception, fertility, the emotional implications of miscarriage and stillbirth, relationships during pregnancy, modern motherhood,  juggling work and family, work-life balance issues, how to get off the stress treadmill, and other issues of concern to today's generation of parents.

Ann is the "Misconceptions" columnist for Conceive Magazine, the "Compendimom" columnist for Glow and a pregnancy and parenting course leader for WebMD's popular WebMD University course offerings. She contributes to numerous other parenting-related media in both Canada and the US, and has been featured in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the L.A. Times, The National Post, The Globe and Mail, Parenting, Parents, Working Mother, Good Housekeeping, American Baby, Baby Talk, Junior, Today's Parent, Canadian Living, Chatelaine, and numerous other publications. A popular radio, television, and live chat guest, she is frequently invited to talk about the state of motherhood circa 2007 -- what's really going on in the lives of mothers today.

Ann is also an award-winning corporate communicator who specializes in communications targeted at moms. She has worked as a freelance copywriter for Women.com on campaigns for such clients as Toyota, Kraft Foods, Procter and Gamble, and Crayola. She was responsible for writing the online pregnancy course that Netscape offered through its now-defunct Online Learning Center. And she has been involved in copywriting and spokesperson opportunities involving such leading brands as Cheerios, Sunlight, Diaper Genie, and ClubMom. Ann is also the parenting advice columnist for Spree -- the mom-targeted publication produced by Zellers/HBC.

Here are Ann’s answers to your questions about Work/Life Balance:


Q:  I am one of those “magnificent mums" who is struggling with that work/life balance. I feel that there are not enough hours in the day and with an elderly messy mother-in-law and a lazy husband — a couch potato whose allergies act up when he is at home — I'm rarely finding any time for myself.  At times I get the rushed feeling: my heart is racing and I'm rushing around but not accomplishing any thing. I multi-task in the kitchen — cooking at the same time help with homework with the children and answering the telemarketing calls. I cannot tolerate a messy unorganized house and I feel that dealing with this first is my priority when I step in the door. I constantly feel that someone will drop by especially when the house is messy. There must be another way around this. 

A: Wow! Your frustration level really comes through in your letter.

You're constantly rushing, but not accomplishing anything (or at least the things you want to be accomplishing) because you're constantly dealing with what you feel has to be your top priority: dealing with the messy house.

There's so much to do that you've become the ‘Queen of Multi-tasking’ (and, at the same time, you want to ensure that everything you do measures up to the standards you have set for yourself).

You feel like you're the one who has to hold it all together and who will be held accountable by the housekeeping police, who are known to make random house calls at anytime.

It's no wonder your heart is racing, with all that multi-tasking, the pressure to do things right, and the fact that you appear to be functioning as a solo act on the domestic front.

It also sounds like you'd like to make some changes, for the sake of your happiness, your health, and your relationship. It's not fair or reasonable for one person in a family to be carrying the bulk of the responsibilities while the others either contribute to the mess or make themselves invisible whenever the dreaded “h-word” (housework) is mentioned.

I suggest that you make a list of the jobs that need to be done on a week-to-week basis (and on a seasonal basis) to keep your household functioning.

Find out what it would cost to get rid of the labor-intensive seasonal jobs, like washing windows or cleaning your carpets. When you consider how long it would take you to tackle each of those chores, you'll probably find that it's well worth the cost of hiring a company to breeze through those jobs in a couple of hours.

Next, look at what takes up most of your time on a daily and weekly basis. Then start delegating some of those jobs to other family members.

Depending on their ages and developmental abilities, you might ask your kids to pitch in with such tasks as daily tidy-up; laundry folding; meal preparation (setting the table for dinner or helping to peel or chop vegetables while you work on another part of the meal); dusting and vacuuming; and so on.

If your husband's allergies prevent him from doing any type of housework or yard work that stirs up allergens like dust or pollen, you may want to put him on kitchen duty so you'll have more time to devote to other jobs he can't do for health reasons. If your family budget allows for it, you may want to consider hiring someone to cut your lawn or you may want to go for a more long-term solution to the lawn problem: asking a gardening expert to replace most of your lawn with a low-maintenance perennial garden that won't trigger your husband's allergies.

If your elderly mother-in-law is in good health and is relatively easy-going, you may want to tackle her clutter issue with her directly. If she's not, you may want to come up with a less direct but equally effective solution — e.g., asking the kids to spend a bit of time each evening gathering up Grandma's far-flung belongings and placing them where she can find them in the morning. (You'll probably find it's a bit of a tightrope act: you want her to feel "at home" in your home, but yet you want to contain the clutter. Hopefully, you can find some middle ground that works for everyone.)

If all goes well, implementing some of these solutions will buy back some time in your schedule. Now use that time to nurture yourself by taking time to get together for coffee with friends, read books, and do some of the creative, life-affirming activities you've been putting off indefinitely.

Start writing that novel or taking those mountain-climbing lessons you've been meaning to take forever.

And treat these new commitments to yourself every bit as seriously as you would any other type of "appointment" on the family calendar: the kids' dentist appointments, soccer games, or friends' birthday parties.

In other words, these appointments with yourself don't get trumped by the looming threat of a visit by the housekeeping police. And if the housekeeping police do drop by unannounced? Let them eat store-bought cookies and step over the odd dust bunny. You've got promises to keep to yourself.


Q: I have two teenagers and a 10-year-old.  My husband works long hours and is away on business for up to a week each month so I am responsible for both the morning routine (getting everyone up and to school) and the coming home routine (everyone's dinner and homework).  Up until recently we have had a cleaning lady once a week and this hasn't been enough because with a full-time job I am often overwhelmed with what needs to be done. Recently we decided to get extra cleaning help. This has eased the load somewhat but I still feel that I'm responsible for everything. Not only do I have to manage the kids and my work (I have a busy job), but now I have to manage the cleaning lady, deciding what she should do when she comes and which laundry to wash, etc. etc. This was supposed to help but I still feel overwhelmed. My husband doesn't seem to understand how much work and planning still goes into this. Any suggestions on how to manage this?

A: Sometimes offering an analogy is the best way to help family members to understand what's involved in managing a household. Here's one that generally works well — Mom as Chief Operations Officer (CEO).

As the CEO of the corporation that is your family, you are responsible for handling (or overseeing) all of the functions that keep The Family Corporation running on a day-to-day basis.

That includes purchasing (grocery shopping), accounts receivable (depositing money in the bank), accounts payable (paying bills), physical plant and maintenance (cleaning and/or supervising anyone who is paid to help with cleaning or household maintenance, like repairing broken appliances), inventory (making sure the household is well stocked with essentials, including toilet paper and school supplies), marketing (letting the grandparents and other interested parties know what the grandchildren have been up to lately), human resources and training (everything from parenting to career counseling to homework help), transportation (car pool coordination as well as moms' taxi service to and from extra-curricular activities), housekeeping services and cafeteria (laundry, cooking, housekeeping, and assorted odd jobs), event planning (birthday parties, holidays, etc.), and emergency planning (fire, poison control, childcare backup plans, etc.) I've no doubt neglected other key portfolios. (It's pretty tough to describe everything that moms do.)

Don't be afraid to get more help, if you need it (and your budget can swing it). Maybe the cleaning person who is currently working for your family could assume a few more responsibilities (including more of a household co-ordination role) if you hired her for more hours each week. If not, maybe you need to find a different person—someone who is willing to take on a greater range of responsibilities, including assuming some of the responsibility for keeping the family organized and on track.

One final thought: every Mother's Day, someone attempts to attaches a price tag to the services provided by a stay-at-home mother, and the price tag usually comes in at around $175,000 Canadian. When you consider what a corporation would pay for all the expertise listed above, that $175,000 sounds like a bargain.

So don't be afraid to continue to tout your own value to family members, especially your husband. Look for ways your teenagers can ease the load at home and delegate tasks that your husband can handle while he's on the road (e.g., emailing teachers about issues/concerns). Corporations require an entire team of people to carry off all the functions you're trying to accomplish single-handedly. Isn't it time you recruited some other people to your team?


Q: As women, I don't feel we have work/life balance issues.  I believe it is an issue when society puts unrealistic demands on women, i.e. women have to work at home, in the workplace, rear children and look after the elderly.

On the one hand, I would love to work and provide for my future retirement needs. And yet if I take time away from work (to rear children), my future is compromised by way of on the job training, future CPP contributions etc. Not to mention my role as a mother...

How can one year off work help in raising children when "the years before five last the rest of their lives?" 

How then can I balance my desire to work, my desire to spend time with my family and all the while provide adequate home keeping? I believe that had this been thought about by our 'government,' work/life balance would not have been an issue NOW!

Why all of a sudden males are asked to take care of children, take care of the home and they can't just spend their time at work and then go watch sports or play golf....? My solution would be to reduce the full-time work-week to school hours?! What a concept! I can raise my children until they are ready to go to school and be on time to drop them off and pick them up instead of shoveling them off to some germ-infested daycare and paying that daycare to provide for my children.

Yes, I can ask for modified work time but with that goes all the reductions to my pay and benefits which I work so hard for. There is no balance between work and life in this country... it's just work.

My question then is:

How can I have a life while I work to earn a living?  How can I choose by going for that career or raising my children? While I work towards that career, my children suffer; while I spend time with my kids, I have no career. Define balance to a single mother of two? Define balance to a woman who may have a chronic illness and has to work to make ends meet?

A: There are no easy answers to your questions. They are questions that policy-makers and work-life consultants across the country grapple with every day. I feel like we're still in a period of transition between the "one parent at home" model of days gone by and the "two parents in the workplace" reality of today.

As the Vanier Institute of the Family http://www.vifamily.ca/ and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives have demonstrated repeatedly, most households require more than one full-time to make ends meet. And, contrary to a myth that is often perpetuated, that second income isn't being used to pay for luxuries or extras. It's increasingly being used to cover the necessities of life, particularly in urban areas where the cost of housing and other basic budget items have soared sky-high.

There are definitely career costs to being out of the workforce for any period of time. Depending on when you have children, you may miss out on some key career-building and income-earning years (ages 35 to 45) along with the chance to build up RRSP contribution room and contributions.


Q:  How do I make wellness part of my everyday work life so that I do not feel like work overtakes my life?

A: I've learned the hard way over the years that you have to set both time and space boundaries on work. It's kind of like clutter: if left to its own devices, it will take over your entire life over time. Here are a few tips based on what I've learned from my own life and from conferring from others who've strayed on to Burnout Boulevard.

  • REFUSE TO BE ON CALL 24/7 — UNLESS YOU HAVE TO BE. Doctors and other people who have to be reachable by pager in the middle of the night are exempt from this advice, of course, but others need to question just how essential it is to respond to client emails at midnight and again at 6am. That constitutes an 18-hour day — one of the key ingredients in the recipe for burnout.
  • TRAIN COLLEAGUES TO RESPECT YOUR DOWNTIME. A weekend is a weekend is a weekend, unless you're being paid to be on call. No one should be calling you on your cell phone every five minutes during a romantic weekend with your beloved. Otherwise, there's a very good chance that your beloved will get fed up with being your beloved pretty fast.
  • ASK YOURSELF IF YOU HAVE AN UNHEALTHY RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR BRIEFCASE. If you have workaholic tendencies, ask yourself if your briefcase has become your security blanket. Do you bring work home because you feel nervous if you're not working? Is the project you're plugging away at late at night really that urgent or are you avoiding other issues in your life? (These are tough questions, I know. It's up to you if you want to answer them or not. I'm just tossing them out because putting in long hours or not establishing clear enough work-life boundaries can be a symptom of other issues. Or it can mean your boss is a workaholic who expects everyone else to work as hard as he does. In other words, you'd love to leave your briefcase at work, but your boss has other plans for you. Only you have an accurate take on what's really going on.)


Q:  How do you stop thinking about the day's past events, ruminating over what happened at work, what needs to be done tomorrow?  Sometimes after a stressful day, thinking about work never stops and I have trouble falling asleep.

A: This happens to me a lot when I'm working on a book. It's like my writing to do list – and the chapter I'm working on – get tattooed on my brain! Sometimes I dream about what I'm writing, too. (That's really frustrating because when I wake up, I haven't gotten anything accomplished. Arghh.)

Here are some strategies that work well when, like me, you've got a brain that's all revved up and ready to go anywhere but bed.

  • Empty your brain on to your to do list. It's difficult to fall asleep when you keep thinking of "one more thing" you have to do tomorrow. Keep a pad of paper and a pen on your night-table in case any other worries pop into your head after you've crawled into bed. That way, you won't have to leave the bedroom to search for your to-do list.
  • Wash your worries away. Have a relaxing bath about an hour and a half before you want to go to sleep. When you get out of the tub, your temperature will drop, setting a series of biochemical reactions that will cause you to become sleepy in about an hour and a half's time.
  • Don't work in the bedroom. The last thing you want to do is to train your brain to associate your bed with stressful emails from your boss.
  • Watch your daytime intake of caffeine. Some people are so sensitive to caffeine that they find that they can't sleep at night if they consume any caffeine after 12:00 pm. Others find that they can consume caffeine until mid-afternoon. While you're figuring out how your caffeine clock works, also remember to keep tabs on your total caffeine intake. You can't expect to down a dozen cups of coffee in a day and to enjoy a blissful night's sleep, after all.
  • Don't use alcohol to combat your caffeine buzz. Alcohol may make you feel drowsy, but it interferes with the quality of your sleep, so you'll wake up feeling less rested than if you skipped that pre-bedtime nightcap.
  • Don't overdo it with your bedtime snack. A light snack that contains carbohydrates will make you drowsy, but a late-night feast will cause you to sleep poorly because your body will be busy digesting all that food.
  • Get some exercise during the day. Exercise helps to reduce your overall stress level; and research has shown that people who exercise regularly sleep better.


Q: What kinds of scheduled activities do you suggest for a 30-something single woman (who seems to do nothing but work and workout) to get involved with?

A: Short answer? Do what you love! Let your heart be your guide here. Think about the type of activities and the people in your life that you find fun and inspiring. What were you doing the last time you had so much fun that you completely lost track of time? Who were you with? What types of activities and people do you find completely inspiring? (Of course, if it's solitude you're craving, all you've got to figure out is what you want to do and where you want to do it. You've already got the people part of the puzzle in place.)

Challenge yourself to come up with creative ways of getting together with the people you want to spend more time with. Would a weekend workshop be the best way to reconnect with your college roommate? Would an early-morning fitness class allow you to spend more time with that former co-worker you almost never see? Would going after-work photography walks be the best way to strike up a friendship with that camera buff at work you'd really like to get to know?

Once you've got an idea or two, pick up the phone right now and take the first step toward making those plans happen. Something ventured, everything gained.


Q:  I am an elementary teacher who has some chronic health problems.

I have reduced my work schedule from five days, to four days to three days, and finally to two days per week. The junior kindergarten program in my city is two full days per week, so that's what I teach.

I spend a great deal of time in bed on my days off, recovering from teaching my young students.

I love teaching and I want to continue.  I feel very strongly that if I were to stop working altogether, I would become depressed and lonely.  However, the pain and extreme fatigue are having a large effect on my life.

Any suggestions?

A: I wonder if there's another type of teaching work that you could do that would allow you to work half-days rather than full-days. It's a possibility that's worth exploring with a career counselor — ideally one who is really tuned into the type of opportunities that are available through your school board as well as other employers in your community.

The career counselor should also be able to suggest other careers that draw upon the same types of skills that you have developed during your career as a teacher of young children, but that might not be as physically demanding. She might suggest applying your teaching skills to a group of children or adults who don't require quite as much hands-on assistance as kindergarten-aged students or, if you really enjoy the younger age group, moving from classroom teaching to curriculum development or some other related area.

I wish you all the best as you begin to map out the next steps in your career path.


I am a busy professional person in a full time job.  I have two children, one with a sensory integration problem and the other with a speech and fine motor delay.  My husband works continental shift and is, thus inconsistent with his availability. 

I know I have lost the balance in my life and have a focus entirely on my job and my kids, but am sometimes just too busy or too tired to care or do much about it.  Sometimes I am finishing cleaning up the dishes at 9:30 at night once the kids are down, the homework is done and the baths are finished. I know my situation is not unique to working people with young families, but do you have any suggestions on where to start rebuilding a balance, social life and a personal identity again?

A: My advice is to make one small, realistic, achievable goal for yourself in each of these three areas: life balance, social life and self. It can be so discouraging to know that you want to make progress in these areas, but to feel that you're getting nowhere fast or, worse, to start feeling like that there's no point in even trying to make your situation better because there's always a family-related curveball coming your way.

LIFE BALANCE: Start out by spending an hour of uninterrupted time (take yourself to a coffee shop with a notebook and a pen) and make a list of all the responsibilities you are carrying in your work and personal life. You can then check to see if there are any responsibilities on this list that you can either:

  • eliminate entirely (a chore that's been languishing on your "to do" list for the past five years and that clearly isn't going to get done anytime soon);
  • postpone until a time in your life when you're a little less overwhelmed (non-urgent home renovations); or
  • download to someone else (a colleague at work, a student you hire to give you some extra help on the weekend, a fellow volunteer on that committee you agreed to serve on).

SOCIAL LIFE: Make a list of the people who matter most to you on the Planet. Then think about simple ways you could make these people part of your life on a more regular basis. Obviously geography is always a challenge — particularly to us Canadians—but don't let that determine who makes the list. So what if your best friend lives three provinces or a couple of continents away? You can commit to phoning her or emailing her as often as your schedule or budget will afford. Figure out which friends you should be inviting over for dinner, for coffee and conversation, for walks around the block (with or without a kid in tow) — whatever is realistic, given your current life circumstances. Start by rekindling one or two key relationships and let the momentum — and your soaring spirits —carry you forward.

SCHEDULE SOME SOLO TIME. Rediscover who you are and what you find enjoyable and fulfilling at this stage in your life. Spend some time thinking about what you would find inspiring, creative, nurturing, and soul-replenishing. You may end up picking up an activity you've always enjoyed, but haven't done for some time (running, writing, painting). Or you may decide to try something totally new. After all, you're not the same person you were before you signed up for this adventure called motherhood. Why should your passions and interests be totally the same?


Q: I am feeling pressured to work longer hours by a new co-worker who is a workaholic, and male. I am feeling that I must look bad by not putting in longer hours, so occasionally stay a bit longer. When I stay longer at work, then my kids (11 and 14) are upset that I am not home at my usual time. How does one get past all of these guilty feelings - work/home?

A: I don't know who decided to start all this craziness with the Workaholic Olympics, but I really wish they'd get with the work-life balance program, and fast. Twenty years ago, I worked at a company that valued ‘face time’ over productivity or performance. All that mattered was how many hours you clocked over the course of a week. One of the guys at the company clued into that fact rather quickly and became famous (or infamous) for being first to arrive, last to leave, and doing little in between. And yet the bosses loved him. (It was a pretty messed up company.)

To get back to your situation, do you have a feel for how your organization feels about face time (hours clocked) versus performance (how your overall performance compares to that of your coworkers and whether you're perceived to be someone who's doing her fair share of the work). It could be that everyone in your workplace sees you as someone who works flat out throughout her working day, and who has nothing to feel guilty about when she switches to mom mode at 5pm.

Unfortunately, that kind of dedication isn't enough for some employers these days. They seem to want to own your mind, body, and soul around the clock; and if you assert your right to have a life (or even your desire to have a life), you're seen as less committed — or even disloyal — as compared to more workaholic coworkers.

If you think your work is being devalued because you (gasp!) leave the building on time, you'll want to make sure that you keep your coworkers and your boss in the loop about any work you do from home in the evening or any extra hours you rack up in other ways (e.g., serving on committees or attending out-of-town conferences a couple of weekends a year). It feels kind of nauseating to have to wage your own in-house PR campaign, so as not to be seen as a slacker, but if you're going to hold your own in a company that places a premium on working over-time, this is how the game is played.

That raises another issue, of course: whether you want to play this game at all. If your organization embraces corporate culture to such a degree, you're always going to feel like the odd man — or odd mom — out while you choose to make your family your priority. You may want to consider looking for another job in a workplace that encourages its employees to have a life as well as a career.


Q: I am a manager and have always been a strong supporter of a work-life balance for myself and staff.  Recently, a new director has been hired that is a workaholic and works an estimated seven days/week 12-14 hour days.  She is a micro manager and very critical of managers on our team.  We feel demoralized and tired.  Work is no longer rewarding.  We have tried talking to her about her expectations and we try to set boundaries to ensure that we leave work at a reasonable time.  How do we manage a supervisor who does not respect a work-life balance?

A: This is a tough situation for sure. Someone who works that hard is likely to be a perfectionist who sets the bar extremely high for herself and those around her. She has proven that she is willing to push herself extremely hard in order to achieve those near-impossible standards. She probably finds it frustrating that other team members aren't willing to match that effort when the going gets tough at work: that they'd rather be home with their families than putting in the overtime required to help the company meet its next target or goal.

So what can you do to manage your director? Realistically speaking, your options may be quite limited if you choose to remain within this company working under this director. You could try organizing a meeting to discuss how untenable the situation has become for everyone in your work group; or asking the company president to intervene, but don't expect miraculous improvements  unless the company provides her with practical help in changing her management style. It can be very difficult for someone with such extreme workaholic tendencies to change such entrenched behaviors on her own.

I wish you all the best in dealing with this stressful situation.


Q:  I have had RA (rheumatoid arthritis) for 25 years and I now work full-time in a job that has low physical stress but a lot of pressure and deadlines. I am tired at the end of the day and I do not have a lot of energy to do anything beyond work. But it means a lot to me to carry on with the job and not let down the staff and my partners.  I think that the balance of my life is "off" but when I do have the chance to stay home for a few days at a time I find myself depressed and feeling worse.

A: As you know, rheumatoid arthritis is a medical condition that can be both physically and psychologically challenging. The fact that you've managed to work full-time in a high-pressure environment for 25 years while coping with RA speaks volumes about your determination not to let your medical condition interfere with your life or affect your work performance, if you can help it.

But the fact remains that you're only human, as we all are. It's a rare individual who can make it through an entire working career without having to call the occasional timeout for some sort of personal, family, or health reason — a childcare arrangement that falls through unexpectedly; a relative who develops a life-threatening illness; a family crisis involving a child or a partner; maternity or parental leave; sick leave or stress leave; or a need to modify the working hours or the nature of the job itself for health reasons.

So rather than worrying about letting down the team, focus on taking care of yourself for the good of the team. Be honest with your healthcare provider about how you're really feeling and ask him or her to help you to set some reasonable expectations for yourself when it comes to work. Your healthcare provider can then provide you with the necessary documentation to help you communicate your changing needs to your employer (e.g., a reduced day and/or less pressure).

Your modified work situation should buy you back some time and/or energy at the end of the day, which you can then invest in caring for yourself. Your healthcare provider can recommend strategies that are likely to reap the greatest dividends, given your current treatment program.


Jump to top page

Connect with us

  • A publication of:
  • Women's College Hospital