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Avoiding Burnout: Making My Work Schedule Work For Me

  Photo credit: WOCTech

Photo credit: WOCTech

Avoiding Burnout: Making My Work Schedule Work For Me

Words: Tosh Patterson

You can make time for self-care and self-discovery by negotiating alternative work schedules. Here's how.


Do you feel so overwhelmed that just making it to work seems like an accomplishment? Is there something you've always wanted to experience, personally or professionally, but getting away from work for an extended period of time feels impossible?

During my professional career I worked at large companies that offered alternative work schedules. For many years I didn't take advantage of it, but when an opportunity presented itself, I decided to ask for what I really, truly wanted. (More details on that later.)

As a Black woman holding leadership positions within organizations, I learned how to both ask for and navigate alternative work schedules. Doing so was part of creating work-life flow for myself.

I know, from personal experience, the rigor required to take full responsibility for regularly replenishing yourself despite the daily grind. But taking care of yourself isn't just something nice to do—it's essential. You have to consider the best way to manage your life and your work; having an alternative schedule could be the solution that opens up the grace and flexibility necessary to get things done or experience life in a way that lowers stress.

You need to rethink your work schedule if you're feeling burned out...

Over the years I’ve supported employees in pursuing alternative schedule agreements and began to notice people of color, especially Black women, passing over a well-earned benefit. Resist the urge to say why this wouldn’t work for you. How it’s NOT possible. It's easy to be sucked into a vortex of push, push, push, go, go, go, more, more, more instead of pressing pause, and asking, Is this good for me? What do I need in this season of my life?

Give yourself permission to explore. Here are a few examples of alternative work schedules that may work for you. (In each example I supervised teams of people. I share that tidbit just so you know it is possible regardless of your position within an organization.)


1. Sabbatical

In 2008 a professional development opportunity emerged. It was something that I always wanted to experience. My boss at the time allowed me to take a sabbatical (aka an unpaid, extended leave of absence) and agreed to hold my mid-level position while I lived on a ship and traveled the world.

During my sabbatical, I had a life-changing, awe-inspiring experience sailing around the world with the Semester at Sea program. I lived on a ship for a few months, sailing from port to port and exploring new tastes, sounds, and sights. Over a four-month period, I touched soil in 12 countries.

  Author Tosh Patterson (top row, far right) on her Semester at Sea sabbatical.

Author Tosh Patterson (top row, far right) on her Semester at Sea sabbatical.

You too could have a sabbatical to take on a personal or professional development opportunity. In my case the leave was unpaid, however, you may have enough vacation time for paid leave or, if not, you could strike an agreement up with your boss. Don’t rule this one out for yourself, especially if you’re so drained that you’d prefer an unpaid extended leave of absence from work.


2. Compressed Work Week

Two years later, I asked for a compressed work schedule. I was working 4x10 days, which meant I completed 40 hours Monday through Thursday with Friday off—hello, long weekends!

I enjoyed it, but at the time the company was not very techy, so there were lots of in-person meetings. Working a compressed work week was sometimes challenging, given my limited availability.


3. Extended Leave Time

In 2013 I used paid vacation to take an extended leave of absence for a four-week yoga teacher training. I intentionally took leave during an off-peak work period for limited impact on myself, my team, and the company.

  Tosh (top row) during her yoga training.

Tosh (top row) during her yoga training.


4.  Flextime

I supported an employee who wanted their day to start and end later. For example, working from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. each day instead of the standard 9-5. The later start time meant less traffic and an easier commute.


5. Work Remotely

This one has been sprinkled throughout my career. I either worked from home on a specific day each week or episodically, depending on specific projects if it was during peak times of the year. Being able to work from home was especially valuable when I had projects that required my full attention.


Asking For Alternative Work Schedules

When is the best time to pursue an alternative schedule request?

NOW, when you need it. Ask for what you want and explore the conversation with your boss.

When you start a new job. You have a fresh perspective on what has to be done. You also aren't sucked in to office politics, so you can negotiate and ask. Take a look at everything on your plate, and propose the idea to your manager.

When more responsibility is added to what you already do. You have an opportunity to restructure your work and present your plan. Offer choices to your supervisor: “Can I have dedicated flextime or can I work remotely during peak periods?”

When you have done an amazing job and everyone is celebrating. That’s a great time to ask for something.


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Making The Pitch

Make your power move. If you are in good standing as an employee, your boss will seriously consider your request. Here are some tips to help you create a successful proposal.

Research: It is your responsibility to come prepared. First, ask Human Resources if an official alternative/flexible work program exists. If so, is your position eligible for it? Who has to sign off on your leave? Also, learn what other companies in your industry offer alternative scheduling options—you can use this information as leverage with your boss or HR. It may help them recognize their approach isn’t as good as a competitor.  

Framing: How will an alternative work schedule help your company, as well as you? Make a list and be creative. (Hint: An alternative schedule may feed into the company’s strategic goal, wellness program, or sustainability initiative.)

Game Plan: Typically the primary conversation happens between supervisor and supervisee. If your company has a program, submit the paperwork; otherwise prepare a one-page proposal with an outline of how you may implement your schedule. Here are some questions to consider:

  • When will the alternative work schedule start and end?

  • What does a possible schedule look like for you? Be as specific as possible.

  • How may you be reached when out of the office and at what times?

  • What tasks/projects can be completed out of the office or in the evening, and by what method? For example, will you be using a remote desktop, web-based application, personal laptop, company laptop, etc.?

  • If a situation emerges, how will you handle it? If you can’t handle it, who will?

  • How will direct service to a client be affected?

  • Who can supervise your team?

  • What projects can be prepped and partially completed in advance before your departure?

Know that this change will affect those you work with and possibly your customers and clients, so try to be open to compromise and consider a trial period.

It's always time to say YES to your sanity. You need to rethink your work schedule if you're feeling burned out, bored with life, or overwhelmed. If you feel like you don't know which way is up and which way is down, you probably need to get away and have some quiet time so you can really get back to what's in alignment with your priorities.

As Americans, we sometimes value busyness more than we value taking care of and building time for ourselves. Establishing an alternative work schedule could be just want you need to intentionally recharge yourself.

Unfortunately, some positions are not eligible for alternative schedules due to company policy. If this is the case for your job, daily self-care practices are necessary to help shake the stress of the daily grind. I’ll share tips on how to do that in a forthcoming article.

What I know to be true is this: You have to give yourself permission not only to be a priority but to make nurturing yourself and your desires a non-negotiable priority. Because, honey, no one is going to come along and do it for you. And, remember, self-care is a form of self-love.


Tosh Patterson is a Maryland-based speaker, author, and coach. She’s known as “The Simplicity Expert” who teaches busy professional women how to simplify life, work less, and travel more. She's an aspiring minimalist with serious wanderlust.