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Kowalewski: Lessons on work-life balance from the Grand Canyon

By Brenda Marsteller Kowalewski - | Sep 20, 2023

Photo supplied, Weber State University

Brenda Marsteller Kowalewski

Prior to hiking the Grand Canyon over Memorial Day weekend, my body’s metaphorical “check engine” light was totally on, but rather than heed the warning signs, I continually looked away, threw my gear shift into drive and hit the gas.

Family, friends and colleagues had been offering loving nudges for years, encouraging me to step back and reassess my fast track to burnout. I kept driving forward at a faster and more intense pace, taking on more than I had the year before, never making my well-being a priority.

I knew better. I mean, I’m a sociologist who focuses on understanding the intersection of gender, work and family. I’ve taught courses that explore the impact of the competing demands placed on people (especially women) who are negotiating work and family responsibilities. If anyone is equipped to successfully navigate work-life balance, it should be me, right?

Apparently not.

I needed the largest, longest, deepest canyon in the United States to scream at me “YOUR CHECK ENGINE LIGHT IS ON!” before I decided to do something about it.

The descent into the canyon was a 7-mile hike and I felt great. We set up camp at the bottom of the canyon, marveled at the beauty surrounding us, ate dinner and headed to bed.

Everyone was peacefully sleeping, except me. I couldn’t shut my brain down at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, where rest is a necessity in order to climb back out. I was processing unfinished work issues and worrying, for various reasons, about the health and well-being of my hiking companions: my two adult children, their partners and my spouse.

Despite the fact I wasn’t sleeping for the third night in a row, my health and well-being wasn’t top of mind until 3:30 a.m. when I couldn’t decide if I was nauseous or hungry, hot or cold. I crawled out of the tent, wrapped myself in a blanket and ate a few granola bars.

I’m not sure if it was the nourishment of the food or the stunning view of the Milky Way in the unpolluted night sky, framed by the towering walls of the canyon, but my stomach felt more settled by 4:30 a.m. So, I crawled back in the tent and attempted to sleep again only to find myself tossing and turning.

A few hours later, my body rejected breakfast almost immediately. To make a long story short, the park ranger allowed us to stay at the campsite all day hoping my body would stop rejecting salty food and liquid. It didn’t. I ended up being flown to the rim of the Grand Canyon in a helicopter rather than hiking out of my own accord.

Going to the clinic for a saline drip was the most immediate “servicing” I needed. But really, a full overhaul of mind, body and spirit was in order.

This Grand Canyon experience has left me actively pursuing greater work-life balance. I’m a work in progress, but I’m proud of the small changes I’ve made over the course of the summer: a sleep routine, reading for pleasure 30 minutes daily and practicing Pilates with a group of accountability partners over Skype before my workday begins.

I’m trying to model the work-life balance I wish for the faculty and staff I’m charged to lead by conducting business in a way that honors and respects work-life boundaries and responsibilities. For example, I’ve included the following statement as part of my email tagline: If I am emailing outside of typical working hours, it is so I can work flexibly for my well-being. Please prioritize your well-being and reply as your own schedule permits.

As summer ends and a new school year begins, I have resolved not to let the busy rhythm of life drown out the echoes of the lesson the Grand Canyon has taught me.

Perhaps you, too, will engage in a few strategies that help you achieve greater work-life balance BEFORE your “check engine” light comes on. After all, we aren’t cars that get replaced once we wear out. High-quality maintenance strategies are the only way to keep our motor running.

Brenda Marsteller Kowalewski is a sociologist and vice provost for High Impact Educational Experiences, Faculty Excellence, International and Graduate Programs at Weber State University.


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