Christie’s Asia President Rebecca Wei never used to care about securing private time off work – until she became so overworked that she ended up in hospital for two weeks during her early thirties.
It was back when Wei had just started her decade-long career at McKinsey & Company, where she would go on to become the first female partner elected at their Greater China Office. Having worked for six months without weekends or vacations, she developed a pain during a Christmas party and went to see a doctor for what she thought would be a quick visit. Instead, she ended up in a hospital bed.
The incident completely altered her attitude towards the work-life balance.
“That’s the moment I learned that you had to listen to your physical needs. I became more disciplined,” Wei says. “Your health is like a bank, and you have to deposit. Wellness is super important throughout your life.”
Fast forward about 16 years, and Wei has become one of the leading figures in Hong Kong’s art auction scene. She’s responsible for overseeing Christie’s auctions, private sales and e-commerce across the region, as well as developing the company’s education programmes and international real estate in Asia.
Yet despite her hefty workload and frequent overseas travel, she manages to squeeze in about seven hours of sleep every day, quality time at home with her 10-year-old daughter, and monthly alone time reading or at a spa.
The secret to the balancing act? Discipline. It’s about prioritising what is important in life, setting achievable goals, speaking out about one’s needs and finding solutions, Wei says.
At the start of every year, Wei sits down in front of her calendar and blocks out the months she has to prioritise work, and the time she plans to set aside for herself. The bulk of her holidays are spent on overseas vacations with family, specifically her daughter. Even when Wei has to fly for work, she makes sure she spends four nights per week with her daughter, with at least half an hour of one-on-one time with her on those occasions.
It’s a meticulous schedule, and takes hard work to execute.
“Ever since she was born, I had this guilty feeling that I’m not spending enough time with her,” Wei says, adding that society puts more pressure on women than men to spend time with family.
“I think that sometimes women have unreasonable expectations on themselves on what they need to deliver to their family. But if you want to be a successful career woman, you have to sacrifice on the personal side. The priority is always your career.”
One of Wei’s best memories is of a summer she spent with her family in New York when her daughter was about four years old. It was the longest time she had spent uninterrupted with her, and she treasured the opportunity to get to know her more and observe the way she interacts with the world around her.
Such moments are hard to come by. For women in the corporate world, private time is something that needs to be actively pursued and fought for. Wei says that there’s always pressure on women to appear just as dedicated as their colleagues, while juggling familial obligations. The key is for women to define their balance between professional and private time, and live by those standards, she says.
“Communicate your needs and give a solution. Don’t just complain,” she says.
Wei says women need to ensure their families are supportive of their definition of work-life balance. “You need to put a supporting infrastructure around you. You cannot take for granted that other people in your life can make sacrifices for you.”
Luckily, support services like a nanny or driver are affordable in the region. It’s much harder to build an infrastructure in places like the United States or Europe, where such services are more expensive, Wei says.
When Wei is not spending time with her daughter, she likes to meet up with friends, go shopping or out for a meal.
At least once a month, she’ll allocate alone time for hobbies like reading, or just sit in silence and reflect. Moments like these help her keep track of whether she’s living her life the way she wants – and plan her next steps.
“As a senior leader, sometimes you need private moments. It’s a habit I’ve built up through the years. You think through things, and you also ask yourself: have you done enough for yourself as a human being? You need to enjoy life, you’re not a working machine,” Wei says.
“At the end of the day, you have to think about 15 or 20 years down the road, if I retire, what’s there for me? You need to prepare for those days.”