This blog was posted on The Enterprisers Project’s website here.

Work-life balance – at least as media and corporate culture typically view it – is a myth: A perfect alignment of the two is just about impossible. Just ask any working parent. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have both a prosperous career and a thriving family life. Let’s start by discussing the importance of prioritizing.

Early in my career — before I formed a hard stance on what work-life balance is and isn’t — I joined the local chapter of the Advanced Women Leaders (AWL) and asked my peers to weigh in on this topic. From this discussion, I learned two important things:

  • Business leaders, and our workforce in general, need to foster a workplace culture that empowers employees to prioritize what’s personally important to them throughout the day. It is imperative to accept that we can only give our best to whatever is happening at that moment, and that every day will be different.
  • Working parents should strive to prioritize each workday based on what goals are most important to them. If your child has a soccer game at 3:30 p.m., for example, try to prioritize the workday in a way that supports your family and meets your work obligations. Be agile and remember that prioritizing tasks, meetings, appointments, and childcare is a daily, sometimes even hourly, requirement.

When I took maternity leave as a high-level leader in my organization, I worked to make the transition smooth and easy for my colleagues and my family by identifying the goals that were most important to me. This approach enabled me to plan more effectively and return to work ready to hit the ground running.

This didn’t come easily. It took years of practice and the experience drawn from three previous maternity leaves. When company leaders offer empathy and support for employees who take leaves of absence — to care for a new baby or an ailing parent, or simply to recharge — the workplace becomes a more desirable and welcoming environment when those employees return.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned that help me juggle my work and home life every day, plus related tips for leaders.

Plan ahead, and ask for the support you need

By the time my fourth child arrived, I had accumulated years of experience to guide my maternity leave plan. After my first and second children were born, for example, I threw myself full-speed-ahead into work and quickly suffered burnout.

To avoid this the third time, I implemented touchpoints with my colleagues and my team to get important updates on business and customer performance. As part of the management team, I met regularly with the CEO during my leave in order to establish action items she would need from me when I returned.

Another strategy that proved indispensable: My team regularly updated a spreadsheet detailing client proposals, current projects, and a future pipeline I’d need to monitor when I returned full-time. This spreadsheet enabled me to return to work one step at a time instead of jumping in at a full speed, which in turn reduced stress levels and increased efficiency and productivity for the entire team.

Support at work is vital, and it is a key component for working parents.

Leadership tip: Prior to an employee’s leave of absence, establish a plan that sets guidelines for how you will keep the employee up to date. Consider setting a return date that falls in the middle or toward the end of the week so the employee can ease back into the workday routine.

Lose the guilt

Today, 50 million Americans are working parents. In a survey by the Pew Research Center, 65 percent of parents responded that juggling child-rearing and a career is “somewhat difficult” or “very difficult.”

When we feel that we aren’t giving 110 percent, we feel guilty. This guilt can feel endless and exacting, and it can penetrate the daily lives of first-time and seasoned parents alike.

Setting the bar to give 110 percent to everything, all the time, is unrealistic. Be realistic about what you can reasonably complete and prioritize accordingly. If your child is sick, stay home. If there is a parent-teacher conference, go. It might mean going to work earlier or staying after hours to compensate, but you should not feel guilty for prioritizing family matters and maintaining a reasonable schedule that lets you do that.

Leadership tip: Implement wellness initiatives that help employees identify with each other. Set up a book club for working parents or develop small discussion groups that meet regularly to encourage open discussion about working parenthood. Focus professional development programs on reasonable goal-setting and productivity tools and tips.

Take a break – use your PTO

Most employees in the U.S. do not use all of their paid time off (PTO) before the end of each year. In 2017, Americans used only 54 percent of available PTO, leaving an estimated $62.2 billion of lost benefits on the table.

Much research has been done about the health and productivity benefits of taking vacation time,  and those benefits apply to new and seasoned parents alike. Employees are more creative and productive when they take time off to step away from the everyday stresses of work and recharge.

Taking regular breaks during the workday is equally important. In fact, research suggests that the most productive workers take 17-minute breaks every 52 minutes.  Researchers also found employees learn and retain information more effectively when they take frequent breaks throughout the day.

Leadership tip: Develop an incentive program that encourages employees to take time away from the office. Offer small financial incentives (if possible) that help workers plan a trip or experience a bucket list item, and reward employees who return and share that experience with colleagues.

Laugh often, and don’t sweat the small stuff

Numerous studies show the mental and physical benefits of laughter, especially in the workplace. Laughter increases oxygen intake, improves circulation, releases endorphins, and relaxes muscles.

Things will inevitably go wrong at work and at home. Granted, this is easier said than done, but practicing flexibility and finding humor when things do not go as planned will significantly reduce employee stress levels and help foster important relationships in the workplace.

These skills are especially critical for working parents. Constantly feeling that “I have a million things to do today,” is exhausting and disempowering, and when we don’t complete tasks during the day, we can feel defeated and enslaved to lists. Prioritize the big tasks and let the rest go –remember that you can complete only so many things in one workday.

Leadership tip: Organize and promote fun events that are specifically intended to leverage humor. Construct recreational areas in the workplace that give “emotional breaks” for employees during the day.

The bottom line on balance

Work-life balance is a fictional narrative: Having a family and a flourishing career is certainly possible, but the two won’t be perfectly balanced. So focus on figuring out what works for you on an ongoing basis, and adjust as needed. If you set clear priorities and goals for your family and your career, you will find it much easier to find success in both.