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What I Wish I’d Known: When Work/Life Integration Doesn’t Mean What You Thought

Contributor: Liz Stiverson

What I Wish I’d Known is a series in which MBAs offer lessons learned about integrating work and life in their first jobs.

In my first week at my first job out of college, I worked from 8 am until 4 am every single day. I was working for one of the Big Three consulting firms and trying to get assigned to a competitive project – I wanted to hit the ground running, and I decided I was willing to do whatever it took. By the end of that week, I wasn’t sure I understood what I had gotten into. I asked a colleague who had started a year before me whether what I was experiencing was normal, and she was a little evasive about it – she didn’t seem to want to give me bad news. Another friend told me I should try to see my job – which I agreed was very intellectually engaging – as a sort of hobby, since I probably wouldn’t have time for any others. My hours did eventually get more reasonable – I got that first project, and it was grueling, but I also got some projects later that let me work a more normal 45-hour week. Over time, I figured out that when professional services firms talk about ‘sustainable lifestyles,’ they might mean sustainable year over year – not week to week.”

-Elizabeth, 26, MBA candidate

In an era when firms know that in order to attract Millennials, they must claim commitment to work-life integration and care for their employees, Elizabeth’s experience isn’t extraordinary. Her story and many others like it highlight two lessons for recent graduates:

Don’t be surprised by your work-life integration reality.

Candid conversations about realistic work-life integration expectations in your new organization will save you a lot of heartache. Talk to someone currently in the role you’re taking, or recently out of that role; your firm’s recruiting team may be able to recommend someone, or if you attend a university with related graduate programs, see whether any alumni of your company are on campus. Specific questions about day-to-day details often paint the most honest picture – “What time do you sign off email or turn off your phone most nights?” or “What activities that you were involved in during college are you still involved in now?” Answers like “After midnight” or “I don’t have much time for hobbies now” don’t mean the job isn’t a fit, as Elizabeth’s example shows; they just help you know what to expect.

See “integration” in a broader sense.

Many of us hope – and much of the public discussion on the issue encourages us to believe – that “work-life integration” will mean that at each point in our careers, we’ll be able to devote balanced amounts of time to our jobs, families, communities and selves – the latter including sleep. For many people, however, starting a career with a job that doesn’t permit that kind of balance right away is a strategic choice. The prevalence of entry-level jobs in investment banking and consulting alone suggests that many young people make this trade-off. Elizabeth is among them, and plans to return to the firm she talked about above after finishing her MBA. Your first job is a springboard, and long hours can be an upfront investment that pays work-life balance dividends later. Examples of those longer-term benefits might include fast access to more senior jobs with flexibility to define your own hours, or savings which enable you to take time off to travel, start a business, or have a family. This is one reason why “integration” is a better word than “balance” for the relationship between work and life. As Stew Friedman, Director of the Wharton Work-Life Integration Project, has said all the way back in 2004, “balance is bunk.” Few people truly “balance” the time they spend on work and life because we seldom prioritize them equally, and our priorities for each change over the course of our lives.

The first few years of your career may be a time when you don’t make it to the gym most nights and you trade off seeing friends on the weekend for getting sufficient rest. The key to making these choices truly short-term sacrifices and not the start of unhealthy habits is connecting your first job to your long-term plan, including a timeline. Laura Huang, Assistant Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship at Wharton, gives a great example of this kind of planning: “I took a job as an investment banker, and told myself it was for two years only, to save money and pay back loans – after that, I would go back to school or pursue something entrepreneurial. To commit myself to that deadline, the first appointment I put in my work calendar was ‘Hand in resignation’ two weeks before my two year anniversary, and I wrote my resignation letter in my first week.” It makes for a challenging first job, but integrating work and life over the course of years rather than days or weeks can enable the best long-term outcome. Just check in with your plan and your priorities regularly to make sure the job keeps moving you in the direction of your goals.

For more from What I Wish I’d Known, read last month’s article about getting credit for what you already do. Visit the Forum next month for the first installment of a What I Wish I’d Known series on relationships in the workplace, beginning with a perspective on navigating the change when work friends become real friends.

About the Author

Liz StiversonLiz Stiverson is a 2014 MBA candidate at The Wharton School.

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