According to Fidelity Investments' Evaluate a Job Offer Study, millennials are willing to take on average a $7,600 pay cut for improved work/life quality. Prioritizing the quality of your work and life over money is admirable but it doesn't have to be either or. With proactive and thoughtful career planning, you can manage your career so it meets both your work/life quality and compensation requirements. If you're in a job that's less than ideal, do not assume you have to leave and take a pay cut to find a better situation. Here are six steps to improve your work/life quality without having to take a pay cut:
1. Determine your quality metrics
The Fidelity survey mentions several very different criteria for measuring work/life quality—career development, purpose, company culture, work/life balance. Drill down on what work/life quality means to you and define how you will measure success. For example, if you define career development as continual learning, you might keep track of courses taken, certifications received, and conferences attended. If purpose means your employer contributes to society, then you might look for a strong matching gifts program, clean environmental record, or a business mission that in and of itself contributes (for example, I knew a publishing executive who saw her company's product as purpose-driven in spreading knowledge and information).
Remember that at different points in your work and life, you will likely prioritize different criteria. Early in your career, professional development may take first position as you look to build credibility and upward mobility. If you start a family, work/life balance may take priority. As you hit the career and family milestones, perhaps you find that purpose becomes the engine that drives your career decisions. Regardless of what the typical person might do, you need to be self-aware enough to decide your own priorities.
2. Take a holistic approach to managing your time
Work/life quality is not just an office construct. You never spend 24/7 in the workplace (even when it feels like you do). If you take a holistic approach to managing your time, you plan both your working and non-working hours so both the professional and personal areas of your life contribute to work/life quality. I have coached many professionals who find enough opportunities for career development, purpose, and balance outside their day-to-day work. Use your evenings, weekends, and morning routines for classes and conferences, family time, and pursuit of your passions.
This does not mean that your workplace is off the hook in supporting your needs. However, you can help yourself immensely by getting your whole life in order and not relying on your job for your fulfillment. Even if your number one priority is company culture (which by definition is not something you control after work!) your personal life still contributes, if you show up refreshed and more resilient.
3. Take full advantage of existing company options
Your company may already have support systems in place to improve your work/life quality. Many companies offer in-house training or reimbursement for classes or other professional development. If your company doesn't have an official policy in place, ask your manager if she or he will cover the conference or professional association you're considering. Or initiate a Lunch & Learn series to jumpstart skills and expertise building, if one doesn't already exist. One company I worked with posted a range of free and discounted cultural and entertainment offerings on its intranet to support its employees' free time.
On the purpose front, look for company volunteer programs. If they're not run in-house, your company might partner with an outside organization to help coordinate opportunities. One company I worked with offered an extra vacation day if you spent it volunteering. For work/life balance, your company may offer EAPs (Employee Assistance Programs) which might provide resources and referrals to support elder care, childcare, medical issues, and other life events that could otherwise overwhelm your day-to-day bandwidth. On the culture front, look for opportunities to bond with your employees. One company I worked with brought in outside teachers and offered deeply discounted classes in diverse offerings from guitar to Spanish to yoga. It was a great way to meet people you would normally not work with.
4. Check your assumptions
From your personal time to work-sponsored activities, you have a lot more control over your work/life quality than you think. Are you taking advantage of what is already around you? I have seen too many professionals who assume tuition reimbursement or EAPs don't exist at their company, and then they do a little research and actually they do. Check for yourself before you assume that your company wouldn't be generous enough to offer such perks (even if current management is toxic, there may be some nice legacy programs that are still running!). Be honest about your own discipline with your personal time before assuming you don’t have any.
5. Set stronger boundaries
But what if your immediate manager doesn't support a saner work/life quality? Perhaps she or he never takes lunch or changes assignments last-minute, creating unnecessary panic or micro-manages so you can't work at your best. Set stronger boundaries on how you react—you may be burning off more energy in your reaction than in the situation. I once coached a professional at a chaotic workplace with the last-minute, fire drill mentality. I'm not condoning that style of management. However, this professional didn't help herself by hanging around after the fire was out to vent with her colleagues on what just happened. Sometimes these pity parties added two hours to the end of a long day. And she complained that she didn't have any free time to manage more holistically (see point 2). She did have time; what she needed to develop was the discipline and boundaries to protect her time.
Even the face time or not-taking-lunch issue could be your own perception. I once consulted to a company where nobody seemed to take lunch. But there were privacy spaces everywhere, and when I probed the IT person who I found sitting in the accounting lounge (and there were others clearly milling about these privacy spaces), I found a significant number of people who stole away at regular intervals to get some alone time. Sometimes it was to focus on work uninterrupted, and sometimes it was to take a break. So while the traditional lunch wasn't a part of the culture, it didn't mean that people didn't take a break. I reminded one of my overwhelmed colleagues about the privacy spaces and even shared examples of who was using them (these were high performers at all levels of seniority). She acknowledged the possibility but confessed she just felt guilty breaking away. That's her boundary issue, not the company's.
6. Always expand your possibilities
However, sometimes you will run into a company where no one takes a lunch or people who put in face time are clearly favored or a key value of yours (e.g., diversity and inclusion) turns out not to be shared by your employer. In these cases, you still have choices beyond leaving and taking a pay cut because you so desperately want out:
- You can focus on improving the workplace where you are—starting affinity groups, taking lunch and modeling that behavior for others, negotiating for flex time to compensate for the otherwise long days;
- You can see if other departments or subsidiaries (if it's a larger company) are more aligned with your work/life quality needs;
- You can focus your job search on roles that pay the same or better at companies which will be a better fit. Don't just assume it's either pay or balance!
I'm not saying that there is never a situation where you should take a pay cut to improve your work/life quality. Shifting from a high-paying industry to a lower-paying industry is one example. If you started in computer engineering and move into social work, as one career changer I know did, then you’re going to take a cut (and she did). However, your cash position is important, and it doesn't make you greedy to recognize that. If you build a solid financial foundation, you can take more risks, negotiate harder (knowing you have the means to walk away), and you can always give away the excess you don't need.