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Mastering the work-life integration: lessons from an in-house lawyer

Today's in-house counsel know better than almost anyone that work can follow you home. Despite our best efforts we find ourselves sitting on the couch after a long day, often with a glass of wine in hand, scrolling through emails or, god forbid, responding to Slack and Teams messages. Tired but the brain still buzzing, unable to flick our internal setting to off. While working after hours can at times be necessary, it should never be our automatic default.

Alex Petrie, InView Champion, Senior Legal Counsel and Company Secretary at James Hardie, is one of the lucky few who is adept at separating his work and home life. He attributes this to his ability to compartmentalize and his efforts to remain truly present.

“I’m pretty good at being able to just switch off," he says. "Part of that is when I’m at work I’m really focused on work, and I don’t let myself get distracted. I’m not on BBC News, I don’t even use the internet if I don’t have to. When I finish work for the day, I feel I've delivered, that I’ve done a good day’s work. I can walk out of the office knowing I’ve done my bit for today, that work has had my pound of flesh."

While being present allows Petrie to compartmentalize his life more effectively, it doesn’t mean that despite his best efforts one element may not adversely impact the other.

“Sometimes I finish work and I’m exhausted. It’s not necessarily the hours, it’s the intensity. Working in-house is like sprinting, you’re burning a lot of energy and by the time you’re finished, you’re ready to fall over. So, when I say I don’t take it home with me, I definitely still feel its impact.

“It’s important to acknowledge when you need down time, It’s exercising self-awareness. You need to recognize when you are tired and when you need to take a break. Professional athletes are surrounded by people devoted to telling them when to rest. You need to be able to recognize that yourself.”

Petrie balances his post-work fatigue with a mix of spending time with his loved ones and out of office hobbies. These help keep his mind off things, force him to be present, and give him time to relax and recharge.

“If you’re focused on something else, it takes your mind off it. Playing football is great for me. I can’t think about work when I’m playing football because people are demanding so much from me. It’s really important to have other stuff to do.

“You have to recognize when you’re at full bandwidth and work out how to find a balance. Creating a kind of artificial structure works for me. I do segment my spare time, it’s either boxed or ranked. Either I’m going to devote an amount of time to something or I’m going to rank it and prioritize it and I'll do as much as I can.”

In a sense, the best way to not bring work home is to structure a life outside work which enables you to effectively keep work at bay. This may require you to structure your work time accordingly and have clear cutoff points or load your evenings with activities to keep you away from your desk. It’s as author Maryrose Wood says: busy hands and idle minds have knitted many a sweater; busy minds and idle hands have knitted many a brow.

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