How to find work-life balance in a high-pressure job

Shonda Rhimes, Mary Barra, and other executives share how they prevent burnout

In order to prevent burnout at work, experts say we must find equilibrium between our professional and personal lives. “Work-life balance” is often deemed a pipedream—something everybody wants but no one can make time for. 

But companies cannot afford for their employees not to have some sense of this balance (and whether you think of it as “work-life balance” or “work-life harmony” is beside the point): Spending too many waking hours on work is counterproductive, as it actually decreases levels of productivity, as well as employee engagement and morale. 

To promote an organizational culture that values work-life balance, executives and those with top-of-the-totem-pole titles have to lead by example for their employees to embrace having a life of their own (which will help them be better employees). 

Even for those with high-pressure jobs and dozens of reports, a version of work-life balance is viable and imperative. Below, top executives share how they make time for their families, passions, and leisure while finding success at work. 

Let go of zero-inbox mentality 

For Arianna Huffington, the founder and CEO of Thrive Global—a media company with a headquarters by WeWork space dedicated to banishing corporate burnout—it’s important to walk the walk when it comes to setting boundaries. Huffington has no problem leaving the office before finishing all of her to-do’s. “I’m a big believer in the benefit of ruthless prioritization and structuring your day so you can take care of what absolutely has to be done, and then declare an end to it and be OK with incompletions for what can wait,” she recently shared with Ideas by We

Tim Brown, co-founder of the popular shoe brand Allbirds, a member at WeWork New Street in Hong Kong, seconds this recommendation. “There’s always going to be too many things on your to-do list,” Brown said in an interview. “Work out which ones you should be doing and give it your best shot throughout the week. When it comes to the end of the day on Friday, park it.”

Get out of your work-life routine

Last December, Dina Berrada, vice president of product at WeWork, took a 10-day vacation to Mexico with her husband and son. While she used the trip as an opportunity to unplug—a crucial part of work-life balance—she discovered an unexpected benefit: making connections with complete strangers. “We had one golden rule to ensure we stayed fully present: Phones were to go on airplane mode all day except for one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening,” she says. 

“Every day we would come up with a 15-minute workout at breakfast and then we would just do it at the beach when the sun died down,” she says. “By the third day other folks joined us and it became a fun daily routine that brought an eclectic group of people together.” 

These impromptu workout classes, at which there were no devices to distract, reminded Berrada how important it is to prioritize human connection over busy work. “Looking back at the year, I realized that I had spent most of my time with family, friends, or colleagues, and had rarely attempted to make new connections,” she says. “[But] I learned so much from seemingly random conversations, some of which led to new friendships, and became a reminder to more frequently disconnect from technology and prioritize human investment,” she says.  

Empower other people to be decision-makers 

Shonda Rhimes—the producer behind Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, and a mother of three—has figured out that she has to make strong hires to be successful in her career and as a mom. “It’s really important to be surrounded by people who know more stuff than you do and are better at it than you are,” she told Fast Company. 

Patagonia CEO Rose Macario also finds balance for herself by putting her trust in others. “The company has gotten a lot bigger in the last five years, so I have to do a better job of letting go of more and letting other people take the reins,” she told Conscious Company Media. “I’m working on that. I’m also working personally on having more balance in my life because it’s hard when you’re a CEO to not get wrapped up in working 24/7. ” 

Set boundaries and stick to them

Because Rhimes knows she has a brilliant support system, she commits to turning off. “Not being the definitive ‘yes’ person also means that I do not answer phone calls or emails after 7 p.m.,” she said. “My email signature says, ‘I do not answer calls or emails after 7 p.m. or on weekends, and if you work for me, may I suggest that you put down your phone.’”

Setting boundaries only works when others know about those boundaries, said Catherine Wood, founder and executive life coach of Unbounded Potential LLC. “I create hard stops around when I work and when I’m not working, and I honor that schedule,” she told Fundera, a financial resource for small businesses. “I block out time for self-care like I would a client. By doing this, I prioritize my relationship with myself above my relationship with anyone else—which allows me to be the best version of me when I am connecting with and helping others through my business. Remember that the better you take care of yourself, the better you will be able to take care of everything else in your life.”

Don’t let meetings spill over into dinner time  

General Motors CEO Mary Barra does not book work dinners. Instead, she’ll do work lunches, which she says allows her (and others) to have a better balance, she explained at an event hosted by the Wall Street Journal. Barra also prioritizes her family obligations in the same way she does her work commitments—and openly. “I’ll say, ‘The meeting starts at 4:30 and this is going to end at 5:30 because I’m making my child’s sporting event,’ she explained. “Everyone then says, ‘OK, let’s be efficient, let’s get this done.'” 

Accept that you’ll have to make compromises 

“I am better at my job for being a mother and vice versa,” Marianne Lake, CEO of the consumer-lending business at J.P. Morgan Chase, told Worth. “I will always need to compromise and make choices—you just have to work hard at making the right choice day by day. When push comes to shove, my children always come first, and I am lucky that I work in an environment that respects that.”

Kate Bratskeir is a writer for WeWork’s Ideas by We, focusing on sustainability and workplace psychology. Previously, she was a senior editor at Mic and HuffPost. Her work has appeared in New York, Health, Travel & Leisure, Women’s Health, and more.

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