I'm a working mother and have been struggling with the whole work/life balance issue. The company I work for proclaims they value work/life balance and even describe their commitment in both new employee orientation and in our handbook. However in reality, this is farthest from the truth. I'm now giving up my weekends and nights due to work-related issues, while being bombarded on my blackberry, cell phone and pager. I've also recently went to lunch with another co-worker, who happens to be male, and he admitted he was also recently feeling pressure to miss out on his son's baseball games and other events, due to demanding work issues. We both have the feeling our employer is reacting this way due to two reasons: one, as employees in this economy, we have limited power to go elsewhere and two, with our recent layoffs the work still needs to be completed with less people-power. Financially I need this job, however I don't want my family to sacrifice any longer. My children look at me with those sad eyes, each night after dinner, as I then trott my way upstairs to the den to answer e-mails.
Through the years working for various employers, I've noticed that some organizations who actually walk the talk, rarely advertise it. Other employers like you mentioned "proclaim" they subscribe to work/life, yet demonstrate the opposite behavior. What I find most ironic is how the work/life balance dilemma affects everyone: married, unmarried, children, no children, baby boomers, X and Y etc. It appears no individual group has yet mastered the pressures of working as an employee and living a normal lifestyle.
Having said this, what I have learned is that no organization will set work/life boundaries for you, that ownership is yours. It is up to you to set the limits on what personal time you are willing to give up and when. I attended a workshop recently where the speaker shared his analogy of bank deposits and withdrawls in the workplace. If you make enough deposits with your leader, your team, or your overall organization, your constituency should allow you to make a withdrawl every once in a while. If your employer values you and what you do, you should be in the clear. However if you are out of balance, and make withdrawls too frequently, you run the risk of unwanted politics. I've also witnessed the 'direct boss' effect, where your boss's lifestyle may quickly become your lifestyle. If the leader above you fails to balance work and life, he/she may expect you to do the same. I know of a former colleague that attempted to learn as much personal information as possible about a potential new boss before ever accepting a job. That might be tough to manage in today's job market.
I'm also wondering what time management system your organization utilizes? Is it MS Outlook or Lotus Notes by chance? These systems do allow individuals to block time out in their schedule, so that others cannot book appointments or meetings before or after hours. I know of a senior director in a large retail organization that blocks off every day until 9am, so that he can get into his office, grab his cup of coffee and ease into the start of his day. Now, obviously some days this may just not be possible, however these days should be the exception and not the rule. Others I know have one calendar, which lists all of their responsibilities, both at home and work. This calendar is then shared with their spouse so that everyone remains on the same page.
Have you shared your work/life frustrations directly with your leader? What was their response? The rule of thumb is that an exempt salaried employee should put in enough work hours until 'the job is done'. In most mid-large size organizations, this time allotment is on average, 45-50 hours. Have you tracked your actual work hours, week by week? You also mentioned that you feel at mercy with your tools, such as the blackberry, cell phone and pager. My first question would be, why use all three? Limit it to one source and use this source regularly. One other thought might be to involve others in your department to create 'department work/life boundaries', meaning that the team agrees to only scheduling meetings and other activities on certain days/times, to further balance work/life.
You should also be keenly aware of your personal productive hours. Productive hours are where you perform your best work. This might mean 6-8am each morning for morning people, while 3-5pm for others. You should ensure this time is reserved for work needs and only work activities, so that you can make those deposits.
All in all, you will need to dictate what time is your 'personal' time and not feel guilty about utilizing it. If you are an effective employee/leader and your employer values your contributions, they should be understanding when you need to take time off to take care of personal responsibiities. If possible, utilize your lunch hour for those errands that need addressing or even to get in that important exercise. If the employer steps back and analyzes this work/life issue more carefully, they should recognize a more balanced employee is a more productive employee, and should allow you to take those withdrawls without consequence.