By Nicole Lafond
Single, 22-year-old Michelle Mitchell brings a child home with her from work every single day.
Some have medical issues, some are from broken homes and some have been sexually or physically abused. She doesn’t feed them, she doesn’t clothe them and she doesn’t pay to put them through school, but she does sacrifice one thing by bringing them home with her each day: her personal life.
Mitchell is a senior social work major at Olivet Nazarene University and an intern at the Kankakee County Center Against Sexual Assault. As a social worker in training, she has the opportunity to advocate for children.
“I’m passionate about giving children back the freedom and rights they deserve. I hope I can do that for at least one child throughout my career,” she said.
Mitchell claims it is nearly impossible to emotionally detach herself from the children and situations she encounters while at work; so difficult, in fact, that she often ends up emotionally “bringing” the children she works with home with her.
“It is most difficult to leave work at work when you have a child come into the agency for counseling or treatment. The child doesn’t necessarily say outright that they feel unsafe at home, but you can just tell,” Mitchell said. “But unless the child discloses information directly, there is nothing we can do. Having to send them back home is heartbreaking.
“It’s hard to not feel helpless in those times because I want to take all those children home with me,” she said.
Students training to go into the social work field are taught how to deal with the emotions they will often encounter in their line of work. Some are encouraged to set up self-care plans prior to their internships and jobs, according to Mitchell.
However, social workers are not the only professionals who face difficulties learning to separate their work and personal life. A study conducted by Millennial Branding in 2013 found Generation Y to be the leading age group responsible for blurring the line between a personal and a professional life. As the first generation to grow up with technology, Millennials habitually uses their social media networks and profiles as a direct extension of their professional personality. On average, Millennials are connected to at least 16 co-workers on Facebook, the study concluded.
“For these millennials, work and life are the same thing and they want to stay connected to their colleagues, see their photos and keep in touch with their personal lives long after the work day is over,” authors of the study said.
The digital age offers unique challenges to professionals, young and old, looking to live a balanced life that properly separates work agendas from personal interactions. However, professionals have been wrestling with the concept of leaving work at work for decades, according to a 2012 study conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Although the advent of smartphones and tablets have presented new obstacles in the separation of work and home life for Millennials, Lisa Vander Veer, the director of counseling services at Olivet, believes it is still possible to separate the two if a professional learns how to properly transition from work mode to personal mode.
The importance of transitions
Whether one is transitioning from a classroom setting to a social setting or from a work environment to a home environment, changing one’s mindset is essential in order to properly complete a transition, according to Vander Veer.
“Transitions are important and should be done mindfully. You can drop your books off, change your clothes or get a smoothie. [It’s important] to help your brain shift to something else,” she said.
Transitions can also be physical, Vander Veer said. Setting aside physical space to exclusively do work will help a professional leave a work mindset, especially when they can leave that physical space and focus on his or her personal life, she said.
Depending on the context of one’s professional situation, the idea of transition can be either a simple or difficult process. A professional working from home may find it difficult to keep his or her private life out of their work and vice versa, Vander Veer said.
Forget strict compartmentalization
While learning to transition properly may be an important step in achieving balance in one’s personal and professional life, American sociologist Martha Beck, calls strict compartmentalization of one’s life an impossible practice today.
“These days almost all of us work at home to some extent. Maybe you spend evenings brooding over spreadsheets from the office … Or maybe, like me, you have a job, but no official physical workplace,” she said in the March 2013 issue of The Oprah Magazine. “[We live] in an age when bleed-through is the new normal.”
Like Beck, Vander Veer thinks it is oftentimes too stressful for an individual to actually completely compartmentalize his or her life and calls the practice “not always necessary.”
“There may be positive aspects of work or academics that we want to bring into our personal life. As we build relationships in our work, we may want to share more about ourselves when appropriate,” she said. “Of course, some degree of separation can help us feel more balanced.”
While evidence of overlap between personal and professional life continues to point fingers at the streamlined dangers of the digital age, learning to be cautious and aware of this digital “bleed-through” is essential to the success of any professional, according to Dr. Michael Woodward, an organization psychologist.
“We live in a wired age where boundaries are continuing to be blurred and at times even eliminated,” Woodward said in a 2012 Fox News article. “We are always connected to work whether we realize it or not and thus we need to be mindful of what we say and who is listening.”