Your career needs to support a good life explains Shelagh Donnelly

Why do we put “work” before “life”?

We can debate whether balance between personal and business lives is an outdated and improbable ideal, a reality, or something that’s achieved in spurts. I find it telling, though, that people typically refer to this aspirational state as “work-life” balance. Why not the other way around? Why not prioritise our personal lives before our work lives?

Perhaps the status quo simply reflects the realities of how some societies function. Canada is one example. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) has found that 58% of Canadians report overload associated with all that we do – our jobs, home, family, friends, physical health and community and volunteer service.

The country’s national broadcaster has cited Canadians’ burnout from work as a health issue – one that has potential to impact not only individuals’ wellbeing, but also the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Some sources estimate that roughly 25% of Canadian workers are highly stressed. When you consider that an employer is likely to encounter reduced productivity and increased absenteeism when employees are stressed and burned out, it makes economic sense for both employees and their employers to manage expectations.

Our federal government has committed to modernising the nation’s labour laws. It recently appointed an independent Expert Panel on Modern Federal Labour Standards to “study the more complex workplace issues facing Canadian employers and workers”. The Panel has been charged with developing recommendations to government on five specific aspects of labour standards. Notable among them is the “right to disconnect” outside work hours.

It’s not only Canadians who can feel both overworked and overly connected to their work. While readers in some countries enjoy better balance and prioritization of personal lives over work, an entire industry focused on self-care and wellness has emerged – and it’s already valued in terms of billions of dollars.

Are you overly connected?

Assistants make careers in supporting other peoples’ successes, sometimes to their own detriment. They often work extended hours in the office, at home, or during their commutes. I know this for a fact, and not only through my Weekend Polls and the Real Careers interviews I conduct with high-performing assistants. I know because I’ve lived this experience.

Do you disconnect outside work hours? Or do you routinely check email, texts and other business communications outside business hours, even when you’re on vacation or under the weather? Our smartphones enable us to be productive, but they can also generate stress as they can intrude upon our personal lives if we allow it.

Certain roles and specific circumstances will require that you be accessible outside office hours, but we can sometimes be our own worst enemies. Being accessible needn’t imply checking one’s phone for emails and other messages throughout an evening or weekend, or first thing when you wake – and yet many assistants do just that.

Manage yourself, and manage expectations

Does that same commitment to being “on” also lead you to overextend yourself on the job even though your principal (executive) doesn’t expect or even know about all those extra hours you put in? Consider whether inordinately long hours translate to peak performance, or to a tired, stressed-out and less effective assistant.

While there are certainly roles that couldn’t be accomplished without inordinate hours, assistants sometimes place unreasonable expectations on their own shoulders. That can adversely impact your resilience, which in turn impacts job performance. Whether or not you consider life-work balance a realistic goal, you can increase your resilience with a mindful approach.

It may be challenging to change patterns, but it can be done. Start with baby steps. If you’re in the habit of checking and acting on email correspondence on your personal time, consider a conversation with your principal. You may both benefit from the establishment of some new norms. I’ve interviewed more than a couple of EAs who detach themselves from their smartphones when the work day is done. They and their respective principals have established means – often a phone call or text – by which a principal can reach his or her assistant if needed.

I can hear some of you now, remarking on how you’re better organised for having kept on top of emails overnight and in the early morning hours. If non-stop availability is the norm in your office, and your principal routinely emails or messages you during your personal time, that sets a tone people are likely to follow. I’m here to encourage you, though, to give unplugging a try.

You don’t want to simply go off radar without communicating this information to your colleagues, so have a conversation with your principal. Imagine how much more refreshed you’ll then be when you arrive in the office the next morning, not having responded Pavlovian-style to alerts throughout the evening and early morning hours.

Engage in self-care

I admire people, whatever their career, who make their physical wellbeing a priority. It may mean rising at 5:30 to hit the gym or lace up the runners for a pre-work run or walk. Some fit a swim or other exercise in around competing priorities As I write this, I’m looking forward to a mid-day walk in the sunshine.

Anyone who’s made a commitment to incorporating exercise in their routines will tell you that a day can be thrown off kilter if you miss even a single workout. That doesn’t mean everyone enjoys the early morning start or every minute of every workout, but it does speak to the benefits of building good habits into our routines.

Take a break

As an assistant, you’re “on” for other people all day. Do you make time during the day for yourself? I know assistants who bypass breaks to which they’re entitled. Many people reading this will, unless prohibited by astute employers, eat lunch at their desks and work away between bites. Again, I know this because I’ve been one of those people. How healthy, though, is such an approach?

Many assistants make a point of working through their breaks because of workload. The rationale is that, if you don’t do so, you’ll have to stay later or arrive early the next day in order to stay on top of work commitments. There will be special circumstances when this is appropriate, but why not make a norm of stepping away from the screen and your desk or office on a regular basis each day? Not only will you feel physically better for even a brief stretch and walk; you’re likely to be more productive as a result.

Alone time

Assistants expend much of their thinking and energy taking care of other peoples’ needs … and that’s solely at the office! Being so effective at organisation, it should be a breeze for assistants to schedule some time for themselves each day. It should be a breeze, but we all know that’s not necessarily the case. Add caring for a child or two, or a senior loved one, into the mix and you may find that time to yourself is a rarity.

I love to be around people. I also cherish time alone and find no shortage of ways to enjoy it. Walking, reading or writing, listening to music, heading outdoors with my camera, and spending time in the garden or at the beach are some examples. Depending on your stage in life, even one of these activities – solo or otherwise – may seem like a luxury! If so, that makes taking your breaks during the work day even more critical.


Sleep is important for our wellbeing. Not everyone, however, is well rested and this can adversely impact your resilience and performance. For four consecutive years now, I’ve presented Weekend Polls in which I ask readers about their sleep patterns.

Each year, I ask readers if they typically get sufficient sleep. This year, a whopping 74% (an increase of 11% from the previous year) said they don’t. I realise that there are stages and challenges that will preclude a good night’s sleep, but there are also strategies and routines we can incorporate to support this component of good health.

Nurture your resilience

Some will suggest that life-work balance isn’t achievable in today’s business climate. Instead, they posit, we should strive to integrate life and work. Does that resonate with you? If you’re truly content, well rested and feel you have balance in your life, does it matter to you whether you maintain or blur those boundaries?

A little self-awareness goes a long way. If you find your resilience slipping, that may be an indicator you need to nurture it by at least tipping the scales toward a better sense of balance in your life. It may be time to manage yourself by establishing or reinforcing boundaries between your personal and business lives. You’ll be all the more resilient for it, and that’s good for both you and your employer.

If you need an extra nudge of encouragement, pause and assess how professionals you admire protect and preserve their own time. Above all, remember that, no matter how rewarding or critical it may be, this is your career we’re talking about. Your career should support a good life, rather than the other way around.

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A compelling speaker, trainer and thought leader, Shelagh (think “Sheila”) Donnelly lives in Vancouver, Canada. She walked your walk for almost three decades, and is the founder and publisher of Exceptional EA. Shelagh brings her authentic, positive and ... (Read More)

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