The Lumberjill

Work-life balance and the physical laborer

By Jen Jackson Quintano
Reader Columnist

I spend a lot of time thinking about work-life balance, or, perhaps more accurately, my lack thereof. This is something we’re all supposed to achieve for reasons of health, sanity and longevity. Stress is bad for us in myriad ways, so if we can carve out some time for recreation, introspection and calm, we’ll be healthier and happier for it.

Ideally, one’s work day is not all consuming. Ideally, there is time in the morning for quiet reflection, an exercise break at lunch and then a restful evening at home with the family, away from the office and its demands. We awaken refreshed after eight hours of sleep and do it all over again. Our bodies are fit and minds happy, our children and spouses adore us, and serenity emanates from every pore. We are winning at life.

My work day feels nothing like this. I’m not sure I am winning.

Jen Jackson Quintano. Courtesy photo.

My husband and I run an arborist business here in Sandpoint, and we’ve spent more than a decade making trees disappear via chainsaws and chippers. The work is not for the faint of heart or feeble of spine. Though, by day’s end, I often feel both faint and feeble. 

I race around from 6:30 to 7:45 a.m., trying to feed animals and child, gathering school and tree gear, formulating work flow for the day while getting so caffeinated. We speed to school and then the jobsite. Cut, haul, chip, cut, haul, chip — all the livelong day, until it’s time to pick up the kiddo. Then bid on jobs, race home, feed animals and child, invoice clients, return missed calls, run payroll, make lunches, tidy the house and fall into bed after reading two pages of a book on work-life balance. 

Wake and repeat — this time with admonishments to be more present for my child, my husband, myself.

Every year, I start the tree season with resolutions to keep Fridays free for equipment maintenance, paperwork, bidding on jobs and self care. Every year, I abandon this plan by Week 2, as our schedule fills and I, the people-pleaser, seek to make room for each client. Every year, I have the intention to carry my meditation or writing practice forward from the quiet winter months into the work season. This is also abandoned in Week 2. In short, for nine months of the year, our business is all consuming.

I love the idea of setting boundaries for self and family care during peak season, but here’s the deal: As manual laborers, our money-making years are very much finite. Will I still be able to do this work at 50? Sheesh. I don’t know. The way my body feels now… maybe not. And that’s only nine years away. I love the idea of training an employee to be a foreman, directing the day-to-day backbreaking labor, but our employees so far seem to be transient, leaving us to be the leaders and standard-bearers.

The problem for those in trades like ours is that, barring a second life in a new career, retirement comes much earlier than the officially granted 67 years. If I can only do this vocation until age 50 or 55, then I better work my tail off during the years I have and save up as much as possible. If I have the choice of an afternoon yoga session today or eating a few meals at age 60, I’ll probably choose saving up for food. Let’s pack another job in this afternoon. My chakras can just hang out in their misaligned norm.

As I mentioned earlier, though, stress takes a toll on the body and mind. I worked harder than ever last year — and our business did well — but it comes at a cost. By November, I am typically a mess. (Word of advice: Always hire an arborist in early spring rather than late fall. We become more expensive and cranky as our bodies wear down.) Thank goodness for a brief off-season to rebalance. It’s just unfortunate that our work gives us balance on an annual basis rather than a daily one.

So what’s a girl to do for her personal and familial health and happiness in this situation? Lift my nose from the grindstone and trust that my daughter will support us in our declining years? That’s not a burden I want to place on her. Plan on a low-wage retail job for the latter half of my life? A discount at Home Depot would be nice. Budget for a retirement that solely includes meals off the 99-cent menu at the drive-up window? Or pull a Virginia Woolf and walk into the lake with pockets full of rocks when I have too little and life asks too much?

I am not the only one contemplating this issue. Recently, The New York Times ran an article titled, “Plight of the ‘Physical Worker’: Worn-out Bodies and Little Savings.” The gist is summed up with this paragraph: “The toll taken on the body by strenuous occupations leaves workers at risk of aging out of a paycheck before they are financially ready to retire — or before they qualify for Social Security and Medicare.” That sounds about right. So, let’s make hay before the sun ages out, shall we?

I suppose the real balance I should be seeking is not between meditation and machines on a daily basis, but in the workload-longevity ratio as seen over time. What level of stress — both mental and physical — can I live with for the greatest number of years?

Also, it occurs to me that there is a second kind of retirement savings to consider: my health. How much will I have left in that reserve when it’s time to step away from the chainsaws? The things I love — being active with my daughter and husband, climbing mountains and running trails, biking and backpacking — all require a sound body. Will it have been worth it to save for a retirement that doesn’t feel much worth enjoying? Which is more important in the end, the bank or the body?

I love my work, stress and all. But I recognize that, as the years go by, I grow ever closer to a reckoning.

Jen Jackson Quintano writes and runs an arborist business with her husband in Sandpoint. Find their website at See more of Quintano’s writing at

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