One afternoon a few years ago, a colleague of mine who wasn't then a parent remarked how I must be counting the minutes until I left work and reunited with my young children. "That must be your favorite part of the day." I gave her a blank stare that may have cast doubt on my humanity. Since then, I’ve been conducting a straw poll, asking fellow parents at pick-up whether this is indeed the most arduous part of the day for them, too. Without exception or hesitation, they always say yes.
That makes sense. Among the 42,000 people we’ve officially surveyed here at The Energy Project, 71% of women and 68% of men agreed with the statement, "I don’t have enough time with my family and loved ones, and when I’m with them, I’m not always really with them." And yet, on a given evening around cocktail hour, my unofficial inquiry tells me that 100% of us would rather be anywhere but here.
Our guilty secret is that the "evening routine"—that intense burst of activity that follows a full day of work—is often draining and not very joyful, despite the fact that the people involved are our dearest beloveds.
Here's one thing to stop doing right now, and another to start without delay, in order to feel less drained by dinnertime and start tomorrow off on the right foot.
When all goes well, work—its blend of absorbed focus, problem solving, doing something that matters in concert with others—feels good. Women in our sample were less likely than men (52% versus 60%) to say they spend too little time at work doing what they do best and enjoy most. They were less likely than men (40% versus 43%) to say that they don’t feel passionately committed to what they do. And they were less likely than men (53% versus 57%) to say they don’t invest enough time and energy in making a positive difference to others and the world.
That deep, personal investment matters—and it can be a great source of energy that many of us are simply letting leak away. How many of us guiltlessly bring the sense of value and purpose we experience at work home with us, and share it with our partners and children?
To be sure, there are parts of your job that drain your energy, but what about the parts that do the opposite? Often without realizing it, we're taking the most invigorating aspects of our professional lives—the parts that are good for us (and potentially our children, too)—and converting that into something toxic that drains and depletes us.
When you get home, whenever that may be, be sure to share the adventure that kept you away. You're entitled to it! Day in and day out, you are a hero on a journey, however quotidian it sometimes seems. The inevitable pratfalls of your workday don’t keep you from fulfilling your quest and returning to share the gift of it with those you love the most. So sure, ask your kids or partner how their days went, but make sure you talk about your own. You'll all be thankful you did.
At Mercer’s recent When Women Thrive conference, veteran political correspondent Candy Crowley relayed the "three Bs" framework she used with her children: "Is it burning? Bleeding? Broken? No? I’ll see you at eight. I’m on a deadline."
Kids used to intrude on work. Now work intrudes on kids, and also on us, with burning emails, bleeding projects, and broken people.
Take my friend—I'll call her Rina. She's in arguably a better position than many. Rina has gathered that her company will take whatever she gives, so she's begun to evaluate the costs to her and her family of staying constantly connected to work in the evenings, and question what she invests in once she leaves the office.
Rina says her children "force me to be present," but even so, she has trouble resisting the urge to monitor each email that comes in after hours "to see if it’s on fire or not." Doing so raises her stress level. And if she's like the women in our sample, her baseline level of stress is slightly higher than that of our male respondents.
Today, Rina is on a call while screeching into the day care parking lot at 5:55 p.m., hanging up just before punching in the code on the door and suddenly, jarringly, switching gears. In theory, Rina receives texts from her boss only when something’s "urgent." But the urgent texts come in at all hours. (As is typical at a global firm that spans time zones, she has participated in conference calls at midnight.)
Such demand takes a toll on well-being and performance. We push ourselves for what sometimes amounts to very little reward. (According to a recent survey from Mercer, women make up only 20% of the executive ranks and won’t achieve pay equity for 118 years.) Managing our energy won’t solve systemic problems, but it will buy us greater capacity to address them. The boundaries we can maintain are increasingly important.
So on the intuition that the way she was working was unhealthy and unsustainable, Rina recently stopped responding as quickly to her colleagues’ near-constant outreach in the evenings. In the process, she's begun to train herself and them to expect a more reasonable response time from her while she's with her family.
In testing the assumption that to be responsible is to be "on call" 24-7, Rina has reinstated some boundaries that she’d lost. More often now, when she is working, she's really working, and when she is with her family, she’s really with them. That 90-minute period between pick-up and the children’s bedtime hasn't gotten longer, but the quality of their time together has improved. What's more, Rina's performance at work benefits from any way she manages to renew her energy in this so-called "downtime."
When we ask our children about their day, we aren't asking them to withhold their joys from us or censor their accomplishments. So we ought not to model that behavior for them.
Or think of it this way: When we limit screen time for our children, they're less grumpy and demanding. Our next frontier is to do something similar for ourselves.
After all, we all benefit when we take care of ourselves as much as we take care of others. That starts with intentionally sharing and celebrating the parts of our work experiences that enliven us, and rethinking the parts that don't—and you can start learning how to do both on weekday evenings. How will you renew yourself tonight, so you can continue to fulfill yourself and deliver to those who depend on you?
Dana Bilsky Asher is senior vice president of Organizational Transformation at The Energy Project, a leadership development and management consulting firm.