Seven Ways Admins Can Maintain Work-Life Balance

Seven Ways Admins Can Maintain Work-Life Balance

Many work-life coaches glibly assert that administrative professionals must be responsible for achieving their own balance in the face of ever-increasing demands -- from 9 to 5 and beyond. But given their spot in the org chart, admins often feel compelled to sacrifice too much for their jobs.

“It’s a partnership, but management has the bigger responsibility for admins’ work-life balance, because how work is structured affects the ability of admins to have balance,” says Ellen Kossek, a coauthor of CEO of Me: Creating a Life that Works in the Flexible Job Age and a professor of human resource management and organizational behavior at Michigan State University. Backup arrangements and rules about work schedules are examples of management and HR policies that can constrain an admin’s ability to maintain balance.

With these challenging dynamics in mind, here are seven tips for admins who want to get a life -- or keep the one they’ve got -- while performing to their bosses’ expectations.

1. Establish Limits Early Through Strategic Questions

When’s the best time to set up work-life balance? When you’re new to the job or, even better, weighing a job offer. But do it tactfully. “You’ve got a certain set of things you want to happen in the negotiation, but you can’t say, ‘This is the way it’s going to be,’” says Kevin Wilson, coauthor of Administrative Assistant’s and Secretary’s Handbook. “So ask questions like, ‘When would you expect me to be on call when I’m out of the office?’”

2. Don’t Give Your Boss 24/7 Access Via Technology

When your manager hands you a shiny new laptop or handheld email device, remember it can turn out to be more of a burden than a status symbol.

“I have a Treo, but I’m only accessible that way while I’m at work,” says Marlana Simmen, executive assistant to the CEO of Workplace Options, which provides work-life programs to employers. “There was a clear understanding from the beginning that nights and weekends are usually not work hours.” In a special situation, Simmen’s boss will call her cell phone.

3. Don’t Let Your Inbox Manage You

It’s a natural but potentially destructive habit to immediately act on every message that interrupts you -- whether you’re at your desk or snoozing in a hammock on a Sunday afternoon. So train yourself to think before you check email or voice mail.

“It’s usually not necessary to respond to emails on weekends or at night,” says Jim Bird, CEO of “Just because it’s convenient for the boss to get them out then, it doesn’t mean they expect an immediate response.”

4. Make Priorities Explicit

“List your work priorities for the week with expected dates of completion,” suggests Bird. “On Monday morning, share the list with the people you support, and ask if they need to change any priorities. As they add items through the week, ask if they need to change your priorities.”

5. Be Flexible, Too

There’s no balance without give-and-take. So be flexible when you can, and expect your manager to reciprocate.

“I had some minor back surgery recently,” says Simmen. “The boss was very flexible about me working from home during my recovery. In return, I scheduled the surgery when there weren’t any site visits.”

6. Create a Cheat Sheet for Emergencies

When your personal life calls –- especially if you care for children or aging parents -– you may need to make an abrupt departure from the office. You’ll save yourself a lot of stress just by preparing for this eventuality.

“Make sure your managers know how to do things like book a meeting room,” says Wilson. “Put together a cheat sheet for them in case you have to run out the door.”

7. Prioritize Your Well-Being

Finally, if necessary, tactfully remind your boss you won’t be able to perform to your potential unless you have time for R&R -- in the form of most evenings and weekends off work and vacations free from interruption, or nearly so.

“For their health, admins need time to recover from work,” says Kossek.

For more information and tips to help you advance your administrative career, see all our advice for admin professionals.