The Balance Between Work and Self

At one time or another, most of us have wondered if we ought to be checking our email after 5 pm or whether we should be so passionate about what all our friends remind us is “just a job”. Are we slackers? Are we playing into hustle culture? How do we find what is true for us? 

Everyone deserves choice and respect

Karyn Oates, the consulting director for Ethos and an established nonprofit leader, believes it takes honesty, introspection, and curiosity to find balance in care work. In her own professional life, Karyn strikes a balance between front-facing empathy and care for clients and a logical and analytical approach behind the scenes. 

The crux of her work is in helping employees from marginalized groups “navigate a career with dignity,” which calls for two key elements.

  • Choice: An employee’s ability to choose to bring their authentic self to work and blaze their own path through their career, and
  • Respect: Their right to know they are respected and valued as a worker, both in treatment and compensation.

An academic path to the arts

Karyn’s dedication to equilibrium in work and life started even before her time at Ethos. After relocating from the dense, urban south side of Chicago to a small rural school in Ohio with a reputation for “openness of thought,” the theme of balance resurfaced in her academic pursuits—she took courses in acting alongside Africana studies and sociology. 

Arts administration caught Karyn’s attention early on when she accepted, as one of her many college campus jobs, a copywriter position for the theater department’s publicity office. This set her on a career path through an industry driven by people with dominant identities who often expressed resistance to change. The experience brought with it the challenge of incorporating another balance; one learned from her family: knowing how to delineate the divide “between your work and your personhood.” Often, Karyn explains, “maintaining your humanity means knowing where to draw a line.”

The shortcomings of America’s theater tradition

Karyn saw the inevitable long-held biases at work throughout the first arts organization she joined after graduation. Structures that should have been in place for employees from historically resilient groups before her did not exist.

In many instances, she saw how advocating and fighting for necessary changes—the ones that enable that aforementioned choice and respect—were met with incredulity by executives, leaving employees to explain themselves and cross that vital, hard-won line just to have their voices heard.

Enacting change in organizations

Over time, Karyn watched her arts organization begin to implement changes, building DEIB frameworks that still exist within the company today. She explains that, to get inclusivity initiatives started, organizations need to lead the way by: 

  1. Actually asking their employees what they want from their careers, and
  2. Being transparent about what options the company offers to help employees maintain balance and achieve those goals.

In addition to setting boundaries and finding balance, Karyn encourages all employees to stay inquisitive. Curiosity can take you to interesting places in your career and life, and it can also help you find that line that will let you decide whether you work your 9 to 5 and shut it down or plug away into the wee hours. 

In the end, only you can make that decision, and Karyn stresses that “both answers are absolutely valid.”
Want to know more? Tune in to episode 11 of Care Work, where Karyn Oates joins host Alida Miranda-Wolff to talk about the importance of balance and boundaries at work and how her experiences have shaped that focus in her and led her to advocate for it for others.

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