Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time

She worked a stressful, deadline-driven job as a Washington Post journalist, while struggling to keep up with her two children’s schedules of soccer practices, field trips, dance lessons and doctor’s appointments. Her husband, NPR reporter Tom Bowman, was frequently on assignments that took him to Iraq or Afghanistan for months at a time. Schulte was underslept, perpetually behind, and living every day in a state of what she calls “the overwhelm.”

“I felt as though I couldn’t even breathe,” she says. “I never slept enough. I never worked enough. I was never a good enough mom. The house was never clean enough.”

She felt she was never able to focus on just one task. She conducted interviews for stories sitting on the floor outside her kid’s dentist office and on the sidelines of their soccer games. Along on a school field trip with her daughter, Schulte grabbed guilty glances at her BlackBerry and had to make up for that missed time by working until 4 a.m. after putting her daughter to bed.

“Even more than the physical busyness, it was the psychological demand that really weighed heavily on me all the time,” she says. “There was resentment toward my husband. I was doing all of the kid stuff and the house stuff. I felt really distant from my husband. It’s really hard.”

So when the newspaper assigned her to a working group to study how to get more women to read the newspaper, she began studying the ways women like herself spent their time. Her research led her to a University of Maryland expert who studies time use, who encouraged her to begin using a time journal herself. She spent a year documenting days packed with what she calls time confetti”—little snatches of time jumbled together in a multitasking mess.

Looking at her life in black-and-white in the Moleskine journals she used for a time journal made her decide to take this topic beyond just internal working group research. That University of Maryland expert insisted that she and other similar working mothers average 30 hours a week of leisure time, a claim she set out to disprove in an article she wrote for Washington Post Magazine.

She was so bowled over by the reader response that she decided to write the 2014 book Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. She is now on staff at the think tank New America, serving as director of its Breadwinning & Caregiving Program and the Good Life Initiative. She now spends her days studying the topic of work-life balance and advocating for policies that encourage the kind of balance that she found so elusive.

“It’s not an individual issue. It’s not like one family who can’t figure it out. It isn’t one person who is overwhelmed,” Schulte says. “This is a systemic issue … all of our workplace policies, our government policies, our social policies and a large part of our cultural expectations and attitudes are still very stuck in a nostalgic time that didn’t really exist for a lot of people in the 1950s.”

Questioning the ideal

Schulte calls it the myth of the "ideal worker" — a standard for employees that values a willingness to work 24/7 if that’s what it takes to get the job done. It’s a standard rooted in a time when a majority of women stayed home to take care of the family and a majority of men were the breadwinners. In 1955, just over 35 percent of women 16 and older participated in the labor force. Today, 57 percent of women participate in the workforce overall, and among women with children under the age of 18 that number is 70 percent. Meanwhile, men are demonstrating a growing desire to be just as involved in their families as women are.

[Some] are thinking that mothers working is a temporary anomaly, that things will just go back to the way it was … there’s so much ambivalence,” says Schulte. It’s time for us to see that the world is changing. There are benefits to having a more fluid and flexible workplace for men and women. … We are so focused on work-life conflict, but there are real benefits to this.”

But demographics—and the resistance among some employers to accept them—is just one of factors driving the struggle that so many men and women experience today in balancing work and life. Schulte and others point to the fact that so few companies recognize the problem or offer such solutions as parental paid leave and workplace flexibility policies that sync with what their employees need. Unlike most other industrialized nations, the United States does not mandate paid parental leave or paid vacation time. The globalization of the economy has heightened expectations that employees be available to their employers after work hours, on weekends and on vacations. And technology has made that 24/7 accessibility possible.

As a result, research by the think tank Center for American Progress found that 90 percent of American mothers and 95 percent of American fathers report experiencing conflict between work and life.

Brad Harrington, executive director, Boston College Center for Work and Family
“When the term ‘work-life balance’ started to creep into the lexicon 25 or 30 years ago, it was, ‘What time can I get home from work?’” says Brad Harrington, executive director of the Boston College Center for Work and Family. “Now the blurring of boundaries is the bigger issue. Companies have gone to great lengths to say, ‘How can we be more flexible and more accommodating to employees and their needs?’ … But the problem now is the issues around trying to create boundaries that aren’t permeable, where people can focus on one part of their lives or another.”

In fact, research by the American Psychological Association found that nearly a third of men regularly bring work home, work during vacations and allow work to interrupt time with family and friends. The results for women are lower, but not by much; about 20 percent of women work on vacation and let work creep into personal time.

Statistics from the 2015 Workplace Flexibility Study by and CareerArc told an even bleaker story: 65 percent of employees said their managers expected them to be reachable by phone or email outside the office, and about the same proportion of HR managers said they expected that kind of accessibility from their employees. About one in five of the employees surveyed reported working more than 20 hours outside the office, during personal time, each week.

Research by Gallup shows that 25 percent of salaried workers work 50 to 59 hours each week, and another 25 percent work 60 or more hours. 

“When you work 24/7 and create that demanding expectation in the workplace, you are setting yourself up to create an entire organization of burnt-out, disengaged, unhappy people,” says Schulte. “They will be sicker, they won’t be as productive, they will be more likely to leave and will cost you more money."

Indeed, according to the American Institute of Stress, 40 percent of workers say their jobs are very or extremely stressful. Nearly half blame heavy workload for that job stress, while another 20 percent rank juggling work life and personal life as the top cause. And the problem is escalating: the American Psychological Association reports that 42 percent of adults say their stress has increased over the past five years, and 36 percent say their stress increased in the past year.

Susan Cucuzza, certified professional life coach
Susan Cucuzza, a Cleveland-based professional certified life coach, says nearly 100 percent of her clients report struggling with work-life balance. She specializes in serving C-suite executives, many at large corporations and nonprofits nationwide.

“They are very successful, very good at what they do, highly valued by their organization and love what they do,” says Cucuzza of her typical clients. “But they struggle with what work-life balance should look like versus what they really want. … They don’t know where to start balancing.”

Not just a mommy issue

In many organizations, efforts to create a more family-friendly workplace fall under such titles as “women’s initiatives.” These might include opportunities to work from home, extended maternity leaves or pumping rooms.

But a small but growing number of organizations are recognizing the need for fathers to be able to benefit from family-friendly policies too.

In 2010, Harrington’s center began a series of studies titled “The New Dad” to better understand the perceptions of work-life balance among men with children. They asked respondents to look at their role along a continuum of caregiving and breadwinning as their primary role as a father, “And 68 percent said it was equal between the two,” Harrington says. “It was a perfect bell-shaped curve … there was no bias toward breadwinning being more important than caregiving.”

Harrington’s group also found that working fathers ranked flexible work arrangements higher in importance than career advancement opportunities or high income. Nearly 90 percent of fathers believe that it’s important for employers to offer paid paternity leave, with 74 percent of those advocating a length for leave of two to four weeks. Those who take paternity leave are much more likely to be involved in child care and play as their kids get older, leading to a better balance in household responsibilities between spouses.

“You might say they have an even greater sense of conflict inherently … because men are the people who tend to work more, work longer hours or travel on business, and are less likely to have extended periods of time at home with their children because of leave policies,” Harrington says. “If men are feeling drawn toward being a more hands-on, involved parent, it’s harder for them to do that.

Men also still experience a stigma against taking more time with their families or taking advantage of family-friendly leave policies, says Ken Matos, senior director of research at the Families and Work Institute. 

“The men [who are involved at home] get hero status from women, but I don’t think they get hero status from other men,” says Matos. “From other men it’s, ‘Why isn’t your wife taking care of this?’ But men don’t talk about this in the same way women do. … So we’re both stuck.”

Even more pervasive is a perception that the need for work-life balance is only an issue for parents, with an underlying assumption that workers need an excuse—such as having children—to permit them to seek balance between these two parts of their lives. Rather than being a concern just for parents (men or women) Schulte calls work-life balance a “human rights” issue.

“We have to break out of this old, calcified thinking that when you talk about work-life balance, the only ones you’re talking about is middle-class white working mothers. You’re really talking about everybody,” she says. “We have to get away from the thinking that we need a reason [for work-life balance], we need an excuse … Everyone needs to work and live a good life.” 

The other factor often overlooked in the work-life balance debate is the burden of caring for aging parents. The baby boomer population — ages 51 to 69 as defined by the Pew Research Center — now stands at approximately 75 million, with another 29 million in the silent generation, aged 70 to 87. Those 104 million Americans stand in stark contrast to the 66 million Generation Xers (aged 35 to 50), where many of their children land.

According to research by Harrington’s organization, 5 million Americans live an hour or more away from the person they care for, and the typical cost of full-time care in a nursing home ranges from $78,000 to $100,000 per year. 

He finds that most companies his center works with respect employees’ rights to work-life balance regardless of the reasons.

“It’s not about the validity of the reason, it’s about the credibility to embed flexibility into the job. … Why they want flexibility is not our business,” Harrington says. “People don’t refer to it as work-family, it’s work-life. … If we can make it work for the job, then it’s up to you how you spend that time.” 

But many other companies still haven’t reached that level of fairness in their policies.

“Too often, managers don’t take the time to ask, ‘What’s important to you?’” says Cucuzza. “They may say, ‘I’m a musician,’ or ‘I’m a cook,’ or ‘I want to take a class’ or ‘I make wedding cakes on the side.’ … It’s caused good people to leave companies [because] they aren’t being valued, they can’t live a life outside of work, and that’s not being honored.”

USA versus the world

“The U.S. is the only advanced economy without paid parental leave, and the only advanced economy with no paid vacation policy,” says Schulte. “One year of infant care costs more than one year of public university in more than 30 states and the District of Columbia. And you don’t have 18 years to save up for it.”

The shining example of work-life balance that Schulte points to is Denmark, where only 2 percent of adults report working very long hours (defined as 50 or more hours per week), as compared to 11.3 percent in the U.S. The standard work week is 37 hours, and female employment rates for 25- to 54-year-olds stands at 79 percent, one of the highest among the 34 countries measured by the nonprofit Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which studies quality of life in its OECD Better Life Index. Schulte also points to time studies that show Danish men spend nearly as much time on housework and child care as Danish women do.

The fact that leadership positions in U.S. corporations are dominated by men is another demographic factor contributing to the work-life challenge in the U.S., says Harrington. Though they make up half of the nation’s parents, men make up 85 percent of the executive-level leaders in the Fortune 1000 and 95 percent of the CEOs. 

“The more men [in corporate leadership] embrace their role as equal or very important contributors to family life, the more likely it is that this issue will come front-and-center rather than being just an issue for working mothers,” he says. “If you are interested in women’s advancement and not interested in men’s roles in the home, then you are talking out of both sides of your mouth.”

But we aren’t the only country to struggle with issues of work-life balance. Other countries work longer hours, including 40 percent in Turkey, nearly 30 percent in Mexico and 22 percent in Japan, according to the OECD Better Life Index. There’s even a Japanese word for “death by overwork,” karoshi, and “suicide from overwork,” karojisatsu. According to the International Labor Organization, Japan compensated families for 121 cases of karoshi and 66 cases of karojisatsu in 2011.

Changing expectations

Ken Matos, Families and Work Institute
Matos prefers the terms “work-life fit” or “work-life integration” to “work-life balance.” 

“[Work-life balance] makes people think they only have it if everything is equal — 50 percent work, 50 percent home, 50 percent children, 50 percent community … I’m suddenly stretched so thin that there isn’t enough of me to go around,” he says. “Work-life fit is them working seamlessly with each other rather than starting with the idea that they are in opposition with each other. … Your fit may not look like someone else’s fit.”

It’s not surprising that expectations of work-life fit are rapidly changing. Younger people increasingly want it, and younger companies are offering it more. The most notable recent example was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s choice to take two months of paternal leave. It’s not just because he’s the boss: All parents in the company have access to four months of parental leave. 

Last year, Harrington’s organization released a study of millennials’ perceptions of work and life success titled “How Millennials Navigate Their Careers,” and found that, in general, millennials are ambitious and ready to work hard to help their company be successful and advance in their careers.

“But only 20 percent said they would be willing to pursue these goals at the expense of their families,” Harrington says. “They have a more realistic sense of how you can be successful and live a happy life.”

Of the respondents, says Harrington, 44 percent of these millennials ranked work-life balance as “extremely important” in career success, followed by 43 percent giving this highest ranking to job satisfaction and 35 percent selecting salary and salary growth. 

But there is a limit to how much flexibility employees should demand, advises Cucuzza. New, young employees who make requests for work-at-home or flexible hours right away can make an employer question the new hire or job candidate’s commitment. 

“I wouldn’t do it until I’ve earned it,” says Cucuzza. “Sometimes you have to put in a 70-hour work week now and then. Sometimes you need to get on a conference call at midnight. Sometimes you need to go in early. … You have to demonstrate that you can deliver, and it may be pulling extra hours or sacrificing something now and then.”

Matos’ organization studies the specific workplace policies typically associated with encouraging work-life balance and has found a significant increase in the number of companies offering many such policies. Between 2008 and 2014, the percentage of employers who permit at least some employees to work at home regularly increased 23 percent to 38 percent, while those who permit occasional work-from-home arrangements increased from 50 percent to 67 percent. Those who permit at least some employees to adjust their start times and quitting times rose from 32 percent to 42 percent, and 82 percent allow at least some employees to take time off to handle family or personal needs during work hours without losing pay, up from 73 percent in 2008. 

About three-quarters of employers offer some time off for employees to care for aging parents without jeopardizing their jobs, and the number of companies permitting at least 12 weeks of maternity leave is 93 percent, up from 85 percent in 2008. While no U.S. companies are required to pay for maternity leave, 58 percent of respondents said they offer at least some replacement pay. 

But flexibility isn’t a good thing for everyone. 

“We hear from lots of part-time people who say, ‘I have tons of flexibility, but I just don’t know how much I’ll be working and how much I’ll earn,’” Matos says. “Then flexibility becomes a stress, not a bonus.”

Easing the "overwhelm"

The process of writing the book Overwhelmed led to big changes in Schulte’s life.

“I work really differently,” says Schulte, who calls herself a recovering workaholic. “I learned a lot of bad habits. … That’s something for managers [to consider]: When you work in a certain way and it works for you, you think it should work for everyone else. Not everyone works the same way you do.”

She structures her day in 30- to 90-minute “pulses” then takes a short break. She truly disconnects on vacation, and demands the same of those who work for her: “I don’t want to hear from them when they are on vacation. I don’t want them answering emails.” She uses technology to protect her employees’ personal time as well. Using the Boomerang app, she can write emails when she wishes but  schedule them to be sent during the workday. 

She’s also more thoughtful about what makes it onto her to-do list. “When you have this long to-do list, you always feel guilty and worried, you are always thinking of what you didn’t do,” she says. “It’s recognizing that you will never get to the end of the to-do list. The list itself, the expectations are too high. I pause more, thinking about what’s most important, what do I put on that list.”

The result has been a more productive and less stressful work life, but also positive change in her home life. Schulte and her husband have changed the way they share their children’s needs and commitments: They take turns every other month in arranging doctor’s appointments and carting their kids. She has also adjusted her expectations of what constitutes quality time with them, feeling satisfied with a walk around the block instead of a daylong hike.

“The longest journey was in my head, the way I look at things, my approach to things,” she says. “I keep falling off the wagon, but the difference is I have hope where before I didn’t. I just pick myself up and get back on the wagon.”