The rapid pace of working with technology is one of the reasons many IT professionals are drawn to their field. But it can also take a toll on other areas of workers' lives, including time with their families.
"In the old days, when you left work you weren't as accessible," says Judy Homer, CEO of JB Homer Associates, an executive search company. "Nowadays, you're constantly on call, online."
Changing business patterns both helps and complicates matters. Salaried employees, for example, are increasingly judged by how much they accomplish rather than how many hours they work. This gives them greater flexibility, but it also makes it harder for them - and their bosses - to know how much work to expect.
"Employees don't feel safe saying, 'What's it going to take for me to appear to be a committed employee?' " says Mary Young, an independent researcher and consultant on workplace issues and trends. "One of the underlying issues is that we as a society have no consensus about how much work is enough."
When most people think of the struggle to balance work and family, employees with young children come to mind. But the issue is broader than that.
"One out of every four households is giving substantial time and assistance to an ageing parent," says Stephanie Coontz, a family historian who teaches at a state college. "This is an issue not just for employees with kids."
Chris Essex, co-director of the Centre for Work and the Family in the US, says the answer is greater flexibility for everyone.
"Employees ideally would like their job responsibilities to shift with their family life cycle," Essex says. "They would like to be able to accelerate and decelerate depending on the ages of their children and the needs of their families."
While consultants study the issue and companies create policies to help employees strike a balance, IT professionals and their managers are finding their own answers.
One common solution for employees with young children is to work part-time.
After her triplets were born several years ago, Jeanne Koch took the summer off and then prepared to go back to her job with the IT department of the Washington Post.
"I was a little apprehensive about being on call, because I'd have my own kids to be on call for," Koch says. Then her boss called with a proposal.
"It ended up being a happy coincidence that they wanted someone to focus on recruitment and training," says Koch, who today is a systems manager specialising in training and recruitment for the Post's systems and engineering department in Washington.
In her current part-time position, Koch goes to the office two days a week.
What works for Koch, though, may not be realistic for everyone.
"You have to remember that if you work part-time, you get paid part-time," Koch says. "A lot of people are not willing to take the cut in pay that goes with the cut in hours."
Then there is the way such arrangements are viewed by other employees.
For example, in a study of salaried workers in two large companies, Young found that, in gen-eral, employees without children thought they worked longer hours than those with children.
But when she counted the hours, she found no significant difference between the two groups. She did find that employees with children were more likely to telecommute or work flexible hours, however. She says not being in the office with everyone else may contribute to the perception that these employees aren't working as hard.
"We don't truly have a difference in the actual number of hours, but we're seeing that those people who are more likely to work less traditional times and places are less likely to be seen by their peers," Young says.
A more radical solution for achieving balance is to change jobs altogether. Olimpia Borys did this after getting burned out working as an IT manager at a financial institution.
"I was working 12-hour days and had very little time to myself," Borys says. "It took me a whole year to recover."
She is now enjoying working as a systems consultant at Entex Information Services.
"For me, the biggest thing has been the improvement in my health," Borys says. "I'm not saying I don't have stress in my life, but it's nowhere near the level it was. I don't break out into a cold sweat when I walk in the door in the morning."
Out on a limb
Some IT professionals who want more control over their schedules don't just move to a different company - they open their own consulting business.
Kieran Major, principal at Major Business Consulting, moved to consulting in order to work from home and spend more time with her children.
Major is currently doing project management and cost analysis for IT systems for a regional health care system. She enjoys working close to her children and being able to control the number of hours she works each week.
"I think it's sometimes misconstrued that if you're working at home, you don't need to have child care, and that's not true," Major says. "You're closer in proximity and can get there faster. It doesn't necessarily mean you can take care of them and work at the same time."
Whether you adjust your current job, find another one, or strike out on your own, IT professionals advise setting clear goals and choosing jobs or work styles that will help achieve them.
"I've made career choices that have made sure that I have time for all the things I need to do at home," says Geoff Hazel, IS director at Pacific Rim Imports. "When I interviewed for this job they asked, 'What do you think of the 40-hour work week?' I said, 'I think it's a great idea,' and they laughed. I think they were trying to find out if I was open to working overtime. The answer is yes, but I don't want to make it a habit."
Sometimes it's clear that the conflicting demands will last only a short time.
John White, manager of enterprise computing at Cluett-Peabody, a clothing manufacturer, spent 18 months juggling work, school, and life with his wife and two young sons until he finished his MBA last December.
White says when he began his graduate program, he took a job in which his boss understood that he planned to do his job - but not much more - while he was in school.
"I wanted it to be a very low-stress job, and for the first nine months I succeeded," White says. "By the time I graduated I wound up with a staff and a promotion, and I didn't go into it expecting that."
White says the hardest part was dealing with the expectations everyone had of him when he finished his degree.
"I'd told so many people, 'I'll deal with this afterwards'," White says. "I had two cars and a house in shambles, everybody needed a vacation, and I had 20 projects at work. The first three or four months coming out of school was the hardest."
Both those who study the workplace and those who work in it say that flexibility is the key to allowing employees to excel both at home and at work.
"Flexibility doesn't mean necessarily changing your whole schedule," says Bonnie Michaels, president of Managing Work & Family, a consulting company. "Generally, people don't like to turn their lives upside down."
Instead, Michaels says, it means daily, ongoing cooperation between workers and managers to handle small problems that arise.
And although corporate policies are important, the attitudes of individual managers are even more so.
"You can have lots of policies on paper, but the real question is if the supervisor understands and implements them in a flexible way," Coontz says.
"Individual managers can be good problem-solvers," Michaels adds.
"These issues don't last forever. They are temporary barriers. Instead of making it difficult, why not work with the employee? Most employees are not trying to get out of work. The problems are so real: sick children, losing day care, etc."
A happy balance
For employees who need to approach their bosses about making their work days more flexible, Major recommends focusing on the company's goals.
"Start with what needs to be achieved first and work backward," Major says.
Finally, Michaels emphasises that striking a balance does involve trade-offs: it may not be possible to have it all at once.
"The individual has to be clear on where they're going and how they want to live their life," Michaels says. "We're living longer. The opportunities are going to be there when you're 40, 50, and 60."
Despite the necessary trade-offs, Michaels says she thinks balance is an achievable goal.
"I think a lot of people laugh at the word 'balance'," Michaels says. "It is possible if you really want it. You really have to design the life that you want."