Workers in 7 Different Fields Rate Their Work-Life Balance

Nursing shortages, forced overtime, and more are impacting these workers' quality of life.

The advent of the pandemic catalyzed a reset in how we think about and shape our lives around work. In November 2021, 4.5 million people quit their jobs, part of a larger trend dubbed "The Great Resignation." While many are pointing toward career dissatisfaction, a closer look reveals that a groundswell of people are thinking critically about labor conditions after two years of experiencing eroding boundaries between their work and personal lives.

Although work-life balance has become a largely corporatized term, used broadly as a nebulous metric in the office workplace, its underlying definition—that workers be afforded the right to live a dignified life, with time for recreation, rest, and personal development, rings true. That being said, work-life balance looks different for different people. For some, it might look like a more flexible schedule, for others, it might look like joining a union. As workers across the country reconsider what they value in work, we asked seven individuals—in different fields and different stages of their careers—to rate their work-life balance.

Kendra, 34, Triage Nurse

Alice Morgan

Working as a triage nurse for over two years, Kendra has been on the frontlines throughout the pandemic. While the pandemic has impacted the daily lives of everyone, it's gone even deeper for many health care workers. Because they're face-to-face with it all day long, "healthcare professionals are super in-tune and more sensitive to the reality of COVID-19," Kendra says—and it doesn't stop when they're off the clock. "It gets very daunting at times because it's almost impossible to escape, [between] social media, the news, friends calling you and asking you for advice," she adds.

From the constant stress of COVID-19 and the loss of her grandmother earlier this year, Kendra says her mental health suffered a steep decline and she was driven to seek out professional help for the first time. While she was lucky to have the support of her current company in doing so, she knows this isn't the norm everywhere. As the pandemic made clear, the mental and physical health of nurses have been largely sacrificed to meet heightened health care demands.

"It's devastating, it's disheartening, and frankly it's atrocious what other nurses have gone through, not even having the basic supplies to protect themselves," says Kendra. This lack of support from employers and the subsequent burnout of workers have accelerated the ongoing nursing shortage, which began in 2012 and is expected to last through 2030.

​​"[The nursing shortage] makes me fearful of the future because we are impacted by it and if we're not supported correctly and we're not paid correctly and we're not backed correctly, then it's going to be devastating on everyone," says Kendra.

As Kendra explains, the nursing shortage is causing workers to be spread far too thin, compromising the quality of care they can provide and putting their jobs in jeopardy. "If we're pressured into a situation and we take on six patients and we can't provide care and one of them dies and we lose our license, that's our whole livelihood," says Kendra.

Even with the health care landscape looking so dire right now, Kendra is optimistic that there's a better road ahead—and she's thanking younger generations for that. "I think that Gen Z is going to, at some point, set the standard for everyone, because essentially we all work our lives away, whether you're a nurse or anyone else," she says. "The stigma is coming off of mental health, and better work-life balance and happiness and quality of life is going to become more forefront than the older standard [of work]."

Elliot, 24, Mail Delivery Driver

Alice Morgan

As a mail delivery driver, Elliot emphasizes the importance of being a part of a union in maintaining a healthy relationship to his work. For him, work-life balance is an issue that extends beyond the individual to the collective. "[Work-life balance] is something that we fight for in our contract negotiations," he says. "Because that's how those things are established, right? Work conditions as a whole. There's only so much you can do on an individual level."

In Elliot's workplace, delivery drivers often have to navigate forced overtime, which not only affects the personal lives of workers, but also creates opportunities for wage theft. A study published by the Employment Policy Institute in 2017 estimates that workers lose more than $15 billion a year to employers withholding wages to which employees are legally entitled. During the pandemic this has most likely only gotten worse, as workers worried about keeping a job are less likely to confront employers about missing wages.

As a union steward, Elliot represents his co-workers on issues that include wage theft and unfair pay practices. "I think a lot of the workers on the job, their stress levels would be much higher [than mine], because management tries to inculcate that into workers in order to maintain control," he says. "But because I have really spent time with my contract and know what is within my rights, I know that I can't get fired for something that is unreasonable, and that makes my life a lot less stressful."

Y-Vonne, 40, CEO

Alice Morgan

Y-Vonne wears many hats. As a CEO, author, and mom, she's found that it's crucial for her to maintain an intentional routine for a healthy work-life balance. "Every morning before work, I usually take a long walk with my dog, do a quick workout, and go through a guided meditation before starting my day," she says. "This is not a plug, but apps like Peloton and Ten Percent Happier have been instrumental to helping me maintain my routine."

For Y-Vonne, who is the author of the forthcoming book, How to Talk to Your Boss About Race: Speaking Up Without Getting Shut Down, it is important to contextualize discussions of work-life balance in terms of privilege. "I'm lucky enough to have a supportive partner and great child care, a privilege that not everyone has," she says. "I don't think we talk about privilege enough in these conversations about work-life balance. As women, we often get fooled into thinking that there are just some women born to be amazing #girlbosses who manage everything flawlessly—and that's such hot garbage. What an unrealistic expectation. Most of the women in leadership I know, myself included, have an army of people supporting them. We should acknowledge that reality and those people more."

Chanel, 23, Retail Salesperson

Alice Morgan

Chanel graduated college in August of 2020, and like many graduates during the pandemic, moved back to her hometown to figure out her next steps. She soon started working retail at a big-box store. "Retail was tough for all the normal non-pandemic related reasons—long hours on your feet, subordination to the worst level of management you could imagine, multitasking, and dealing with intense yet trivial customer complaints," she says. "The pandemic and the extra precautions we had to take for public health added extra confusion, [increased] workloads, and existential questions that your floor manager would never be able to answer such as, 'Why are we even here right now? If we are not considered an essential business with essential workers, why should any of us put our bodies in direct harm for $12 an hour?'"

When mask mandates were put in place, Chanel had to interact with customers who refused to wear their masks during nearly every shift. "These people were violently ready to get on top of their soapbox to defend their maskless state of being with politics, blatant conspiracy theories, ridiculous medical excuses, and just plain rebellion," she says. During these daily confrontations, Chanel says the managers were nowhere to be seen.

Despite the lack of support during high-stress situations, Chanel's managers put immense pressure on her and her co-workers to reach corporate standards. "I got accused many times of not caring about my job because I didn't study training guides during my lunch break or didn't come in with a bunch of notes each morning on how to make the department I was in charge of better," she says. "No matter how much I gave, it wasn't enough." She adds that managers rarely checked in on the employees' emotional well-being, but reprimanded them at any given opportunity. "16- to 60-year-old women getting written up for being a minute late to work or not turning a display fixture the correct direction—it was horrible," she says.

After a year of working at the store and applying for positions elsewhere, Chanel was hired for a new job working sales at a much smaller company. She quit her retail job the very next day and has been so much better off for it. "The job I currently work is so chill I almost get paranoid," she says. "I expect someone to micromanage me or tell me what I am doing wrong but I get so much space and praise for my efforts it is unreal."

Stephen, 52, High School Teacher

Alice Morgan

Over the span of his 20-year career as a teacher, Stephen has found respite in routine, establishing daily rituals that reenergize him for the workday. "I'm Catholic and I go to church to pray every day," he says. "Monday through Friday I go pray for a couple of minutes at the parish around the corner. I also like to get to school very early so that I can envision my day before the day even happens." A new habit he's also found helpful in the past two years is listening to audiobooks on the train when commuting to work. "That's how I get a good sense of mental relief and mental health," he says.

A passionate educator, Stephen spends most days teaching government and economics to high school seniors. In order to create some separation between his work and home lives, he tends to shy away from media popular with the Gen Z set. "I never watch movies or TV shows that have to do with kid culture," he says. "I don't watch any of the superhero movies, I don't pay attention to the Kardashians, so I don't talk to my students about these kinds of media."

For Stephen, a good way to establish work-life balance has been to find activities far removed from school and schooling. "I do a lot of charity work and cooking, all of these things that have nothing to do with the life of the mind," he says. "Anything that relies more on physical work, not like grading papers or coming up with lesson plans, I thrive and do at home."

Sophia, 22, Barista/Student

Alice Morgan

As a student and barista in Brooklyn, Sophia juggles a busy schedule. With early-morning hours at the cafe and a full course load, catching up on sleep remains a top priority and she makes time around her odd hours to take naps. According to a 2018 study, napping between 30 to 90 minutes improves memory and overall brain performance in adults, with half of adults in the United States reporting to nap regularly.

That being said, Sophia admits that work has impacted her sleep schedule. "I sometimes dream about being at the cafe and stuff going wrong, and on nights when I have to work the next morning, I wake up hours before I'm supposed to because I'm scared of missing my alarm," she says. Sleep deprivation remains a common problem for many workers. According to Forbes, over 60 percent of professionals between the ages of 18 and 34 admit to losing sleep due to work-related reasons.

When Sophia does get free time, she makes sure to channel her energy into restorative activities that aren't associated with school or work. "I like to crochet and bake when I have the time, and also go to the gym," she says.

Andy, 46, Maintenance Mechanic

Alice Morgan

For Andy, a maintenance mechanic in an aluminum facility, a typical work day consists of a 7 a.m.- to-3 p.m. shift maintaining and fixing machinery, cranes, and equipment necessary to the facility's operations. As the president of his local union, he also spends time juggling meetings and negotiations, admitting that sometimes his work with the union brings him more stress than his actual job. Ultimately, he says it's worth it. "I work in a 24/7 operation, it runs 365, someone has to be here to keep it going," he says. "So it is tough in an operation like this to make sure both the employees and company's needs are met for work-life balance—we have a lot of overtime. But I think a union contract provides some protection for workers."

As an essential worker, Andy and his co-workers had to continue working in person, even at the height of the pandemic. "It was hard because a lot of people got quarantined, and many people got sick," he says. "We had to work overtime and make up the difference for people who weren't there. We had two employees pass away."

Like many essential workers, Andy saw work-life balance take a back seat in the efforts to keep operations running amidst a global crisis. Also, like other essential workers, Andy and his co-workers had to bear the loss of income for safety measures beyond their control. "People didn't get paid to quarantine," he says. "If you tested positive, you were able to get paid. But if you couldn't come to work because you had been exposed to COVID and you tested negative, you didn't qualify for Sickness and Accident benefits, and you didn't get paid. These people who were mandated to quarantine, they lost out." Across the country, workers have demanded better policies surrounding paid sick leave, pushing for the expansion of the practice to include quarantining as the pandemic continues to press on.

For Andy, work-life balance is tied to stability. "I think people feel like they are being exploited and used," he says of the push across professions for unionization. "They are wanting some consistency in their lives. What really provides that is a union in the long term. Consistency, and working conditions, and wages, and a consistent retirement they can count on."

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