University was fun. We met in our final years, both studying languages, both unsure of what to do after graduating and both kind of falling into two very different career paths. Several years later, we were both working crazy hours, struggling to make time for each other and realizing that choosing jobs that kept us in the office for large chunks of our life meant that balancing career and relationship goals was difficult.

Or so goes the story for so many career-chasers who have realized that the fun times are over and serious work lies in front of them to get ahead. A study carried out earlier this year by revealed that workers in the UK (where we are both based) averaged 68 unpaid days of extra work a year, with 60% of the 2,000 people surveyed feeling that they had no balance between work and life whatsoever.

The figures are matched in other developed nations, with an OECD survey ranking the US 29th out of the 36 countries assessed in terms of work-life balance. This mixed in with a tougher job market, stagnating economic growth and expensive living costs piles the pressure on 20 and 30-somethings who are trying to build a foundation for the future.

Obligation vs. Requirement

My partner is an exceptionally hard worker with a knack for impressing employers, becoming a department director for a major international retailer just 3 years after joining their graduate scheme. With working weeks well into 75 hours and a personal record of 93 hours (making the European Union working time directive of 48 hours look a bit silly), it’s fair to say our time together was severely limited as she worked tirelessly to reach the top.

On the other hand, I joined a boutique recruitment agency, got tired of 60 hour weeks for often minimum wage and moved to a generalist market leader, working 60 hour weeks for just over minimum wage plus commission. After a while, I began to go a bit mad with the pressure and lack of variation and became a freelance writer, using the precious hours on an evening to build my portfolio and client list, with the view of going it alone eventually. I too regularly did 70 and 80 hour weeks to both further my career and sometimes make ends meet.

The takeaway from the length of these working weeks is that extra hours aren’t demanded by employers, but they are certainly a requirement. In the retail world, workers must often take several responsibilities at once, leaving not enough hours in the day to complete tasks, especially when covering colleagues or tied up with crisis management. You can go home at 5pm if you like, but there’ll be one hell of a mess when you get back.

The world of recruitment however is a lot different. Time quite literally equals money, with more phone calls equalling more cash 9 times out of 10. Some sales floors become contests; who can arrive earliest, who can stay longest, who can make the most money in a day. The level of competition is furious and heading home on your contracted end time is met with derision from all levels of the business.

With so much time spent working, we were struggling to find both the energy and time to do anything worthwhile on a week night. Granted, weekends were fun and we got closer, but this was all destroyed again when the Sunday evening blues kicked in or I skulked off to my computer to complete a massive list of client briefs. Trying to feel connected became difficult, especially for my partner.

Making the change and getting the balance between career and relationship right

Getting out of this routine will definitely be difficult for some. Although only 13% of workers from 142 countries feel engaged according to a Gallup poll, the ones that are engaged can find it difficult to reduce the time spent doing what they love. It’s no secret that work can damage relationships beyond repair, as stress begins to take its toll and work starts to come before home life.

We got a break when my partner’s work hours started to calm down as she spent more time in the office. A mixture of more time at a desk and a diary dictated by a PA meant more efficiency and appearances at home before 7pm became a regularity. I started leaving at 6pm on the nose without seeing any drop in income or productivity, brushing off comments from both colleagues and management. My work hours reduced even further when I became better at managing my freelance writing work and finding more time to do things on an evening.

Before we collectively found more time midweek, the pressure used to be on to live our lives to the max. Go for a meal here, see the latest movie, see our friends or have a romantic meal, all of which got shelved as soon as a late night at the office or writing job came around. Now ,with more free time overall, basic things like a short walk, watching a single episode of TV together or simply eating a meal with each other that isn’t cooked in a microwave at 10.30pm before collapsing into bed are simple pleasures which make us feel like a normal couple.

The wake up call

After a particularly long week, I spoke to my Dad about finding time to exercise. I had put on extra weight thanks to a desk job and about 3 hours of free time a week, mostly spent staring at the ceiling and being grateful that I didn’t have to write anything or talk to anyone. The following words really put things into perspective:

“Your current manager won’t be at your funeral”

The penny dropped. Even though I spent more time with my colleagues than with my partner every week, they were a small, if not insignificant part of life. Although many people make life friends at their place of work and even meet their partners there, it’s unlikely that their other colleagues will be there to pick them off the floor when life sucks, help them to bring up a child, put up with their bad habits or even care for them into old age. It soon became obvious to both of us that work will always be there and we really needed to balance our careers and relationship.

Maintaining the balance

Keeping this new found way of life was and is still difficult. Deadlines can still dictate dinner time and curve-balls from employees, colleagues and customers still require the laptop to be fired up on a Saturday afternoon from time to time. But the fundamental principals are hopefully still there, with the firm belief that work isn’t really that important and is just something to stop us from getting bored or to give us something to be passionate about. And pay the bills. And provide an escape route for when we eventually spend too much time together…