Achieving work-life balance requires intentional effort
If you have a job and family, you know how hard it can be to juggle your work and your home life. Taking care of things both at home and in the office isn’t easy for anyone, and people with disabilities can often find it even harder to achieve a healthy balance.
Studies show that working is good for you, both mentally and physically, and contributes to an overall better quality of life. But taking good care of yourself is an important factor, and that’s particularly true for people with disabilities.
Erika Hagensen is a public policy consultant for The Arc of North Carolina and the North Carolina Council on Developmental Disabilities. She spoke to Professional WOMAN’s Magazine about how she strikes her own work-life balance while living with a physical disability.
“With The Arc of North Carolina, I monitor federal and state public policy and frame issues so individuals with disabilities and their families have a voice in things that impact their daily lives,” Hagensen says. “Helping people become knowledgeable and feel confident responding to critical, complicated topics is a dream job.”
Balancing Work and Life
Hagensen doesn’t claim to have any magic formula for juggling work and family—it’s an ongoing effort for her, just like the rest of us. She says, “I’m not sure how well I balance work and life—both throw curveballs on a regular basis, and I just try give it my best shot. In our inter-ability household we say, ‘function over form.’ Meaning it doesn’t matter if I use arm crutches, a walker, a wheelchair or if an activity takes twice as long—we decide what we want to do as a family and build a solution backwards.” She’s learned to lend that philosophy to the notion of work/life balance, which she approaches in three ways. “First, instead of focusing on balance, I pay attention to what a balanced life feels like for me and my family, and figure out how to make it happen. For us, it means healthy meals and eating at a small table in the kitchen. We don’t get hung up on whether it’s home cooked, frozen, or takeout from our favorite hole-in-the-wall dumpling shop—we focus on dinner together. Bonus points if the kids help make or plate it. Second, I’m happier when I exercise. I’m not going to lie and say I make it every week, but I try my best to work out at least once for an hour even when I’m sure I don’t have the time. When I do, I think more creatively, play more with my kids, and fall less.” Finally, she says she actively walks away from comparisons. “Other people’s career trajectories, kids’ activities, or social Rolodex aren’t a part of my thinking or daily calculus,” she explains. “In fact, I’m not on social media—a rare move in the public policy space.”
Hagensen has limited time and, she adds, “as a person with a physical disability, limited energy.” That means she has to choose her priorities carefully, which can be difficult when her job isn’t predictable. “It turns out Congress, courts, legislatures and federal departments don’t work in a 9-to-5 framework with weekends off,” she reveals. “And a time-sensitive policy response doesn’t change if my son has a fever, or my daughter’s school shuts down with snow.
Tools can be helpful in the daily juggle of appointments, request and general demands. “Google calendars are a must to mesh work, kids, and family schedules, but I still love the satisfaction of crossing off handwritten lists.” She says she and a group of other parents schedule their kids’ activities and summer camps together so they have trusted backups when life gets complicated. In addition, she appreciates convenience apps that allow her to take care of some of the more mundane tasks, such as shopping for groceries and either picking them up on the way home or having them delivered to her door. “When life is really busy, we get help with the house and organizing,” she says. “It helps keep things moving forward, takes off the pressure, gives us more time at the dinner table.”
Advice for Others
When asked what advice she would give to others trying to find a good work-life balance, Hagensen answers, “Be kind to yourself. Avoid ideas or choices that start with ‘should’—it’s often steeped in comparison or guilt. Spend time with people who make you smile.” Finally, she advises, “Sleep.” A basic need that sometimes slips to the bottom of your list of priorities!
Before becoming a public policy consultant, Hagensen was executive director of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation and Director of Disability Rights, Family and Technology Policy for The Arc of the United States and United Cerebral Palsy’s Disability Policy Collaboration (DPC). She received the OMB Watch (now The Center for Effective Government) “Public Interest Rising Star” award for her pursuit of government accountability, citizen participation, and social justice. She holds a master’s degree in social work from the University of Washington.