Stella Smith: Know where the line lies between work and personal time

The distinction between the two has blurred too much in recent years, says our columnist

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

Friday used to be the best day of the week: the promise of the weekend, time to relax and see friends, a full two days without work. Now, however, with emails and working from home the distinction between our own time and work time has faded. Weekends seem to be more about finishing off last week’s work or preparing for next week’s. The line between our working lives and personal lives has become blurred and it’s not healthy for people or organisations.

Maintaining boundaries between personal and work life has always been a challenge for charity staff. Our culture is well known for its informality, for a more down-to-earth, practical style than the established norms of a more traditional workplace. Sector staff think nothing of going to work in jeans and are often similarly relaxed about internal deadlines, processes and keeping the office kitchen clean. Rather than focus on the organisation’s structures, their priorities lie with the charity cause and loyalty to their colleagues.

No doubt there are many great charities that wouldn’t have survived if devoted staff hadn’t stayed up all night to finish a funding application or to review accounts. Sometimes it needs to be done. But allowing work and personal lives to become too intertwined comes at a price. When staff feel so personally passionate about the cause and have given so much of themselves to the job, it usually comes with an unspoken expectation that the favour will be returned, that the organisation will demonstrate similar loyalty when the going gets tough. Too often there is massive disappointment and resentment when it doesn’t.

It is well acknowledged that the sector needs to change. We are regularly being urged to collaborate more, to use social media more effectively, to be more agile and to strengthen our governance. But we struggle to implement change and, when you consider how much of themselves charity staff put into their work, you can understand why. When managers know how hard their staff have worked, how can they tell them their project is no longer needed? When managers haven’t commented on staff performance for years, how can they suddenly tell them their work needs to improve or they need to retrain? Many change programmes are derailed because managers simply don’t know how to have that difficult conversation with staff they regard as friends.

It’s great to get on with your colleagues and to love what you do, and I’m not proposing we all clockwatch and disappear in a cloud of dust at 5.30pm. Of course, managers should appreciate the extra effort from their staff, but we do need to have an honest conversation about the line between ourselves and our jobs. For many of us our work is personal, but the changes our organisations need to respond to are not. We need boundaries to protect ourselves from stress and burnout. We also need them out of loyalty to our charities, so that when our organisation has to change, we are not so personally immersed in our work that we prevent necessary change from happening. If we are going to ride out the storms, we need to work hard, ensure our skills are always updated and know the line where the job finishes and our home lives start. Have a great weekend!

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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