CPA INSIDER

Set better boundaries between your work and home lives

Let your manager know how your plan will benefit them.
By Dawn Wotapka

When his wife was pregnant with twins, Dalton Sweaney, CPA, vowed to be a present partner and parent. "I didn't want to be an absentee father, and I didn't want to be the type of husband that sends the text: 'Sorry, gotta stay late again tonight,'" he said.

So he implemented firm boundaries between his work and personal lives. Sweaney, a partner with Gray, Salt & Associates LLP, in Claremont, Calif., doesn't answer email or other messages between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. or between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. He also avoids anything work-related on Sundays and doesn't check messages while on vacation, though he does monitor his inbox to delete junk and answers his cellphone for work colleagues.

Using this system, he's more focused. "When I'm on, I am fully on and not distracted by personal things," he said. "Conversely, when I'm off, I'm fully off."

This plan has benefited him, his family of six, and his employer as well. Sweaney, who is a 2019 graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy, said it keeps him enthusiastic about his work. "After a decade in the profession, I've never once had a feeling of burnout and have always enjoyed coming into work," he said.

Often, drawing firmer boundaries between your work and home lives can help your career in the long run. "If you're in a healthy work environment, setting boundaries doesn't inhibit your growth or career path," said Amanda Gessner, CPA, an audit manager with Schmitz-Holmstrom LLP in Bismarck, N.D. "It can help you focus on your career and keep it moving in the direction you want it to go."

Sweaney said that his strategies for better work/life balance have contributed to his success, In the past four years, his collections have exceeded his firm's expectations. Appearing "balanced and not stressed out" has helped him bring in more clients, he said.

Approaching your manager with requests for boundaries between work and home, however, can be daunting. You may worry that doing so can make you appear less committed. By demonstrating that more defined boundaries can help both you and your employer, though, you can build a convincing case for greater work/life balance. Here are some tips for doing so:

Define your boundary. It may seem simple, but you need to start by figuring out why you need to draw such a line in the first place, said Joel Garfinkle, an executive coach and author of Getting Ahead: Three Steps to Take Your Career to the Next Level. "You've got to know your own personal values, he said." If you value family time, for example, you might opt to leave the office at 5:30 every day so you'll be home in time for dinner.

Then, think about what will allow you to do your best work while still meeting the expectations for your position. For example, you might choose to say no to working on weekends or yes to a full and uninterrupted lunch break. "Boundaries start by knowing exactly what you want," said Garfinkle, who is located in San Francisco. "You're clear, and you're defined."

Decide on specifics. Think about what areas of your life you want to create boundaries around. Maybe you want to set aside designated time to exercise, to be with your family, or to eat lunch without interruptions. Then, set precise parameters. For example, you might ask that you not be expected to reply to work emails after a given time at night.

Find a focus. It can also help to prioritize certain areas of your work. Gessner, a 2019 AICPA Leadership Academy graduate, chose to step back from some management areas to focus on newer work areas for her, such as forensics. She reduced the number of projects she was juggling, giving her more energy and focus. What's more, the move also gave her "the opportunity to delegate to other teammates to take on new tasks and grow in their career," she said.

Defining a focus area can also help you turn down nonstrategic work and focus on the areas that will help get you to the next level. "CPAs are naturally inclined to say yes to everything," Gessner said. "Having a focus can let you know what to prioritize."

Achieve buy-in. Once you've created a well-thought-out plan, consult colleagues about how to make it work for the team. Consider their suggestions and try to get their buy-in on the idea before approaching your boss. If you are unclear or nervous about how to talk to your manager, practice the message with a co-worker who could provide helpful feedback, Garfinkle suggested.

Then, pitch the proposal to your manager. Start the conversation by pointing out that you do high-quality work while managing your workload well, Garfinkle said. If the other person agrees, explain to them what you need. An example might be: "I really need some downtime at night. I will stop working and answering emails at 7 p.m. each night. I will be back online at 7 a.m.," he said.

Make a case for why the changes you're proposing can help both you and your employer, Garfinkle said. If possible, show how any changes you request have already worked for you. For example, Garfinkle suggested that you could say something like, "Two weeks ago, I was working until 9 or 10 o'clock at night, and by Friday, I was in a fog. I was tired. I wasn't as productive. I noticed that when I stopped my day at 6:30, I felt more energy the next day. My thinking was clear. That is what I need to do to continue producing high-quality work."

Preserve your boundaries if they're challenged. If your plan for greater work/life balance is approved, and then a colleague asks for something during your "off" time, "look for other options that won't encroach on your boundary," Garfinkle said. Try saying something such as, "I really need to end my workday at 6:30 p.m. Can I help you with this tomorrow?" or "I really need some downtime on the weekend. Can I get this back to you Monday?" he suggested. 

Of course, there will be times when you have to bend your rules, Sweaney said. Recently, one of his key clients had an upcoming meeting and needed updated financials that evening. Sweaney opted to stay late and complete the work. "Don't set a boundary and then make it immovable; that's not practical in our profession," Sweaney said.

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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