The hay bale: What a tough day in the barn taught me about work-life balance

When someone says, “I’m buried in work,” they usually mean it figuratively. However, I’ve had the rare privilege of seeing it happen quite literally.

As teenagers, my younger brother Nicholas and I would work as hired hands for local farmers. We were only making five bucks an hour, and even that was tough to get sometimes. I recall the outrage of one old timer who insisted that when he was our age, he’d be lucky to get a bucket of green apples for a day’s work.

One hot summer day, Nicholas and I were haying — a process that involved a few steps. After the grass in a hayfield was high enough, the farmer would cut it and leave it to dry in the sun. Later, they’d use a baler to bind the hay into rectangular bales that Nicholas and I would stack onto a wagon pulled behind the tractor.

Once the wagon was full, other workers would unload the bales onto an elevator — essentially an inclined conveyor belt leading into the barn’s loft. Inside the barn, we’d be waiting to grab the bales and add them to an organized pile.

Now, when starting in an empty hayloft, the bales would often be dropping off the elevator from a considerable height. And with each of these dense bricks of grass weighing anywhere from 40 to 70 pounds, you didn’t want to be on the receiving end of an incoming hay bale as you stooped to pick another one up.

Our boss knew all about this risk. “Let’s watch out for each other, boys,” he reminded me and Nicholas.

“OK,” we replied shyly. We didn’t say much back then (as our employer would soon discover).

The work started at a manageable pace, but before long we noticed that the bales were dropping off the elevator faster and faster. Clearly whoever was unloading the wagon had consumed way too much caffeine that morning.

Doing his best to keep up, our boss reached down to grab a hay bale, trusting that his five-dollar-an-hour lookouts would alert him to any impending danger. Apparently that was too much to ask.

Sure enough, Nicholas and I watched in inept silence as the next bale dropped from the elevator and slammed into the back of the man’s head, mashing his face into the ground. For a moment, he was quite literally buried in his work.

Staggering to his feet, our concussed boss turned to us and bellowed, “THAT’S WHY WE LOOK OUT FOR EACH OTHER!”

We mumbled a sheepish apology and got back to work. By this point, we’d be lucky to get half a bucket of green apples.

The impacts of imbalance

Life can sometimes feel like that barn: a frantic rush to keep up with an increasingly fast-paced barrage of work and activity. We scramble to do the best we can and fear that if we stop to take a breather, the pile of hay bales will grow out of control. But like the blow to the back of the farmer’s head, there are consequences to working and living that way.

It impacts the quality of our work.

The faster those hay bales came at us, the sloppier our haymow became. Similarly, trying to keep up with a dizzying pace at work is a sure-fire recipe for so-so results. You may be getting a million things done, but it’s a million things done mediocrely. I know for me, I’m more productive and better able to problem solve when I’m not stressed to the max with bales of hay crashing around me.

It impacts our health.

Although you might not be at risk of hay-bale-related injuries, stretching yourself too thin can lead to a slew of other health problems. Poor work-life balance can result in sleep loss, unhealthy eating because you don’t have time to prepare nutritious meals, not enough room in the calendar for exercise, stress-induced heart problems, nervous breakdowns, burnout and more.

It impacts our relationships.

An imbalanced life often means we don’t get to spend much time with our family and friends. And the quality of what little time we do get with them is often diminished, either because we’re so exhausted from our jobs or because our minds are still back at the office. Meanwhile, it’s often the people closest to us that feel the brunt of our pent-up stress and frustration.

It impacts our overall happiness.

Our hobbies and pastimes are also some of the first things we sacrifice when we’re buried in work. Furthermore, when all you’re doing is trying to keep your head above water, it doesn’t leave much space for important things like inner reflection or personal growth.

Take action.

Balance is about living healthier, happier lives in line with the things we value most. Making room for those things is a journey, and no two paths are alike. What works for me may not work for you — or even be possible given your personal situation.

But I do believe that no matter who you are or what your situation, there is something you can do to achieve greater life balance. Maybe that means convincing your boss to recruit some extra help to share the load. Or attending a time management workshop. Or even saying no to a promotion if it would mean less time with your family.

The first step is recognizing the fact that there are simply too many hay bales on your elevator. The next is taking action to address the problem — before you find yourself buried by it.

Josh Martin
Josh Martin is the creative force behind Badge of Awesome. He is the author of "Misadventure Musings: Lessons learned from life's awesome and absurd moments" and "The Overcoming Obstacles Handbook."

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