What My Preemies Taught Me About Work-Life Integration

Originally published on Arianna Huffington's Thrive Global. 

I love to work.

I have always loved to work. My mom has these pictures of me “playing office” when I was four years old. The days I remember anticipating most were the ones that gave me a crisp new workbook to complete. Of course, I knew my clients were limited, so I spent my childhood angling to help relatives with projects.

As I grew up the concept of work grew up with me. Work had always meant I got to learn something, solve something, help someone. Now it also meant something else: long hours, winning, being hardcore, identity — especially identity.

I knew there were easier ways of learning and making a living, but I did not care. I chose intense environments for myself. The front of a high school classroom. Stanford for graduate school. McKinsey after graduate school. Working hard was a part of who I was! Need me to travel half way around the world with a few days’ notice? Sure. Eighteen hour days every day for weeks on end? Absolutely.

Then I became pregnant with twins. On the one hand, it was odd with a boss calling me super emotional because I flew home early after having major complication 12 weeks into my pregnancy. I promptly left that job and took an amazing VP of Strategy role for one of the best bosses I have ever had. As my belly grew larger, I felt more and more pressure to perform. There were other pregnant women, as well as moms, on my team. I did not want people thinking less of us. If someone asked me to travel, I said yes until my doctor said I could not. When the CEO asked for board documents and wanted to Skype late at night, I did. I was getting more and more tired but I wanted to prove I could do it.

So, there I was, eating my 100g of protein, making sure I was drinking eight glasses of water per day and attending more doctors’ appointments than I had in my life. Everything was analyzed. Everything I did to my body was optimized to ensure that the twins were growing.

Well, not everything. I spent virtually no time thinking about the effect that work had on my health. Yes, it was 40 percent of my time and most of my energy but it felt like there should be an exception, somehow. It felt like it should not count. Months later, I would read that 30 percent of respondents to a Stanford survey reported work stress so severe it adversely impacted their health, but at the time, I would have been the first to deny it. I wanted so badly to believe that it was not true.

I am still not sure why.

 

Then, on Friday the 13th in December 2013, I went into labor seven weeks early. Everything happened so fast that day. I had been on the phone with work when I had just started to feel off. I debated going to the hospital but initially decided against it — it never even crossed my mind the babies would be born in 2013. But two hours later we left for the hospital, and before we could even get checked in, my boys were born. My boys were born and they were having trouble breathing. They were whisked to the NICU, and my husband went with them. And then I was all alone.

My phone batteries were dead. I was no longer pregnant and I had no idea what had just happened. And then no matter how deeply I did not want it to count — this is who I am — I knew: context matters. Environment matters. Managers and leaders in the workplace directly impact an individual’s health and stress, their emotions and their mind and their body. No matter who you were, the long and demanding hours, the lack of social support, and the constant need to choose between work and family would take a toll.

For three hours, I sat in that hospital room with the nurse until they let me go see my four pound little boys. When I finally got to see them, I promised myself that if they made it out of the hospital, I would do something to fix this seemingly unavoidable reality of the work world.

 

And then, 21 and 26 days later, they were out of the hospital, and they were healthy. I met with a physical therapist and I listened to everything I needed to do to make sure the boys were on track. I read about neurodevelopment, and how important it was for babies — especially preemies — to have a stress-free home environment, to be attached to primary caregivers, to not be exposed to colds and germs. And I felt trapped again.

How could I go back to a 2–4-hour daily commute from Seattle to the Bay Area? How could I travel, especially given my husband worked East Coast market hours? The babies seemed to scheme and alternate waking up at night, and I was exhausted. I tried to get a three-hour block of sleep each night like productivity experts advised, but sometimes that was impossible. Should I be driving while so sleep deprived? Making decisions? I craved the comforting challenge and community of work. My brain wanted to solve problems and I read all sorts of academic journals as I rocked my babies.

The Pew Foundation noted that in over 60 percent of households with kids under 18, both parents are working and that percentage has been increasing for at least 40 years. And it is likely that is the reality my kids will face someday. Could my husband and I model how we made that work?

Given my tendencies toward hard work, I knew I had to be extremely thoughtful about the work environment that I chose. I knew the longer I was out of the labor market, the harder it would be to get back in. And I had seen the data — mommy-tracking was more common than I could comfortable admit to realizing. I would find out soon how ironic it was the corporate workforce decided mothers could not get as much stuff done. I had read that the St. Louis Federal Reserve found that over the course of their careers, parents are more productive than non-parents — but now I was knee-deep in experiencing it. I had these amazing, funny, little people at home waiting for me. So if was going to leave them, I wanted to make sure it was for something that was going to be accomplished.

My days of sitting in committee review meetings with people I knew were not about to decide anything at all were gone. Leaders who liked to talk the talk but fundamentally would not be courageous enough to decide to act no longer motivated me. Projects that would make my boss look good but would never get funded were not things I wanted to be involved in.

Mid-week redeyes for the sole purpose of in-person schmoozing and managing optics just were not worth it.

My kids made me more focused on results, more likely to say no and stop doing the things that did not matter. The opportunity cost to inefficiency felt so much higher.

Simply put: before I took on a second job as a parent, I was more likely to tolerate much of the leadership BS. Post-kids, I am not likely to do so.

I still love to work — partnering with great leaders, building effective teams and really impacting corporate strategy and cultures. When I first saw the Federal Reserve research, I wondered if I could build a company focused on harnessing the fine-tuned skills of those who wanted — or needed, in the case of parents — flexibility to their high-performing careers. I have seen that great companies are built by great leaders empowering their employees to thrive. Could we prove that treating people well is good for business? Patagonia seems to have done it. Could we put data behind that, and use it as a competitive advantage? Patagonia’s success speaks to the fact that it could be done — but could it be done in a notoriously high-burn environment like management consulting?

It was not just about parents anymore. I realized it was also about people caring for aging parents and family, sick spouses, and those who were on some base level realizing you had to care for yourself. My current team is brilliant and incredibly driven. They do not think I am crazy when I start a sentence with “I love to work,” but most of them have stories about burning out — about getting depressed or sick because they did not want to believe that work can affect your health. And those are all only the direst examples. Millennials will be 50 percent of the workforce by 2020 and they are demanding meaningful hard work that allows them the flexibility to exercise, eat well, travel and be with friends and family.

Everybody talks about the gig economy and all of the freelance consulting platforms popping up, but for the majority of people, freelancing is stressful and fairly isolating— I fundamentally believe teams produce better and more creative work than individuals. The intensity that I loved from my previous work environments is still there. I still love working with a small group of smart people focused on changing something. But the intensity comes from the sense of urgency and a passion for building great companies. It comes from four straight days of building out a strategic framework for a product pivot, not four straight days of stubbornly trying to work later than my colleagues.

If we could remove the waste of ineffective teams and hollow “productivity,” more people would get to experience what I am — maximum flow, focus, and influence without sacrificing family or whatever the love outside of work.

 

And let’s be honest, as well. Were my 2 a.m. decks ever really that good? A bit of flexibility allows us to recharge and come back to the work energized and inspired. I might work fewer hours than I used to, but the problems I am trying to solve simmer in the back of my mind. Sometimes my breakthrough idea comes when I am at a park, pushing my kids in the swings and looking out at the gorgeous Puget Sound or sitting in a good hiding spot, waiting for the kids to find me during a game of sardines. My best ideas come when I am out in the world.

As a former economics teacher, I can tell you exactly the reason I find myself still drawn to consulting: the multiplier effect. If we could systematically impact companies, empowering them to emphasize outcomes over input and to build creative and collaborative teams, then we would have better products, healthier workplaces, and stronger families. If we could give employees the chance to prioritize their careers for certain blocks of time and their families in others, how many brilliant people would still be at your company?

I am on the decision-making side of the table now, running a start-up in client services. We like to solve hard problems and serve our clients. For us, the key to not burning out has been closely monitoring physical and mental health, both as individuals and as an organization.

We are also working with leaders who care about the same thing. After all, what would it look like if we could:

(1) Get executive and senior leadership buy-in to the ambitious, inspiring goal of designing a human sustainable workplace

Most managers are aware that the workplace could be less stressful, and many are convinced of the importance of improving the workplace. But they tend to believe that improving the workplace is not achievable in the near term, especially given the time and especially the political effort that it would require.

And let’s be honest: even building my own company, I was skeptical. This is consulting we are talking about! I used to work at McKinsey! Part of it was still ingrained in me: the better consultant you were, the longer the hours you worked and the more you traveled. I understand that realistically I am paying people well. Could I say 45–55 hours per week is what I expect? We do a company shut down the last week of the year so that the whole team can truly unplug. We let clients know in advance and set up our out-of-office so that they can text if something urgent comes up (and we will not bill them either). The clients do not mind and my team comes back from break refreshed, recharged and more creative. Their productivity is up and we had some breakthrough ideas hit during that break.

(2) Collect, analyze, and present detailed, manager-specific data on workplace health

Collecting and analyzing pertinent data is vital — this includes existing data on health and original survey data from every leader and employee. Look at the cost of turnover and goals the organization has fallen short of. If the data points toward an unsustainable work environment, try to pinpoint what that may be costing your organization in profits. Use quantitative and qualitative data to determine causes and viable solutions.

You will want to set gap-closure goals that stakeholders will be willing to work toward. Some solutions will require time, analytical capacity, and technical expertise that the organization may not have available.

(3) Ensure that the bar is raised and the individuals + the organization continuously improves and thrives

How much better would our products, services, companies, nonprofits, communities and families be if we were contiguously improving everyone’s physical and mental health while avoiding burnout? That is my vision for what the workplace could be.

Every day I am so grateful I can thrive as a start-up CEO, a mom and a wife. This gets to be my life. I hold myself accountable for not burning out. Yes, I do love still love working hard and serving clients. But it does not do anybody any good if I am so exhausted I cannot make decisions or speak in coherent sentences. I know I am a better mom when I am able to engage in the creative problem solving I love. I know I am energized by working with a team to solve complex problems and I love that I got to design my company around that. I aim to do school drop off and pick up most days. I travel intensely — it is amazing how little I mind back-to-back red-eyes when they get me home to my kids faster. I do not have a lot of patience for unnecessary commutes or a lack of data in decision making.

Some people judge me. I have heard comments like “Oh, you decided being home with preemie twins was the right time to start a business?” or “Don’t your kids miss you?” or even, “Why don’t you build a real company, not a consulting business?” I know that there was no other way I could do this type of work and spend as much quality time as I do with my kids. But we should all have the freedom and flexibility to the work we excel at and still have a life. And like I said, I love to work — this just was not a problem I could bring myself to walk away from.