Stop blaming your boss for your crazy work-life

March 12, 2013: 5:00 AM ET

Several workplace experts say it's time for employees to take their share of responsibility for an overwhelming work-life.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Businesswoman balancing work and family

FORTUNE -- Working all hours? No time for family or hobbies? Stop blaming your employer and take responsibility for your own role in managing your work and life commitments, say a growing number of workplace and management experts -- most prominently Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in her new book Lean In.

After all, with technology and a global economy blurring the lines between the job and home, the corporation is no longer in a position to tell you when to stop working, which tasks to prioritize, or how to set personal boundaries, says Cali Williams Yost, flexible work consultant and author of Tweak It: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day.

"We all have a completely different set of circumstances and goals and priorities," Yost says. "We're reaching at a natural point where companies can't do much more than what they're doing: offering the flexibility and rolling it out well. Now we need to use it."

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To be sure, not every employer has developed a functional approach to flexible work. And plenty of workers are still struggling with out-of-date bosses who categorically oppose workplace flexibility or simply undermine it, despite the documented benefits such as higher productivity, lower turnover, and greater job satisfaction. (Yahoo (YHOO) CEO Marissa Mayer's recent ban on telecommuting may come to mind.)

In that case, you have two choices: work within your current restrictions or change jobs. Don't be like the 75% of people who, according to Yost's research, believe that their boss or employer must provide work-life flexibility in order for it to be possible, citing increased workloads and lack of time as obstacles.

"Whether you have a supportive workplace culture or you don't, at the end of the day the responsibility for making it work comes down to each of us," says Brad Harrington, executive director of the Boston College Center for Work and Family. "You can only blame your employer for so long. Assuming you have marketable skills and that you have the courage of your convictions, at some point you have to say, 'It comes down to me to fix the situation.'"

To begin to restore work-life sanity, assess the demands on your time both personally and professionally, in the context of your aspirations for your career and home life. Make sure to capture a complete picture by combining your personal and work calendars, Yost says.

Each week, she advises setting aside time to put on your calendar every task on your to-do list, whether that's a date night with your spouse, two hours of focused strategic planning, or a specific work project. If you can't find a block of time for certain items, you'll either have to put them off or delegate them to someone else. As you see commitments coming up that will require you to shift your work schedule, communicate with your family and colleagues to make it happen.

Anna Bradshaw, 38, a social work student in Madison, N.J., maintains overlapping Google calendars for her work, family commitments, and her husband's job. "At any time I can agree to staying late at work one night or saying no to something else because I know what's going on with his calendar," says Bradshaw, who has three children aged 8, 5, and 3. "I am constantly managing competing priorities and concerns."

Some of this comes down to what Facebook's (FB) Sandberg calls "leaning in," or seizing opportunities for advancement rather than being held back by fear of what the new responsibilities will mean for family life.

Sandberg's message has been subject to criticism. Workplace experts fear that glossing over the real tensions and difficulties of balancing work and family life lets employers off the hook.

"Part of the answer is people taking ownership, but let's not lower the bar too far," says Jessica DeGroot, founder of ThirdPath, a nonprofit that supports men and women with their career paths. "Without more courageous people standing up, corporate America often asks too much of employees, and it's hurting marriages and families."

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Just look at the price that former Lehman Brothers CFO Erin Callan paid for giving her all to the job: Her marriage ended, and when Lehman collapsed she felt her entire identity was gone. "I didn't start out with the goal of devoting all of myself to my job. It crept in over time," she wrote in a recent New York Times essay. "My boundaries slipped away until work was all that was left."

Others note that the work-life debate often overlooks the challenges of working class families, which have even more limited choices -- if any. "There are millions of women who work just as hard as Sandberg, but who are barely scraping by on wages that amount to less than $15,000 a year," says Linda Meric, national executive director of 9to5, a nonprofit that advocates for low-wage earner women. "For those working full-time at low-wage jobs, 'leaning in' and other personal decisions and choices does not provide a path out of poverty. We need labor standards that provide a stable floor for all workers and families."

Yost says it's up to individuals to make the leap from work-life inspiration to implementation. Sandberg also sees the importance of learning new workplace skills, whether that's negotiation or time management, according to Lean In documents published in the New York Times.

"There is inspiration everywhere. It's not enough," Yost says. "With technology and globalization and demographic shifts, the old boundaries are gone, and something has to take its place. We are going to have to step into that breach. This is about men, women, young people, entrepreneurs, older workers. This is not about parents and not about women. This is about every single one of us."

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About This Author
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Contributor, Fortune

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning Washington D.C.-based journalist specializing in finance, work, and family issues. She has written for publications including the Fiscal Times, Money, MSN, the New York Times, Parade, Slate, USA Today magazines, and the Washington Post Magazine. Previously, she worked as a national correspondent for Newhouse News Service and reported for Bloomberg News in Washington. She began her career in New York at the Bond Buyer, after graduating from Harvard College with an A.B. in physics. She is active in the Asian American Journalists Association and serves as founding co-chair of the AAJA Digital Group.

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