19 Oct Have you achieved “Work:life balance” yet?
I now refuse to deliver “Work:Life balance” seminars as I just can’t buy into it anymore. “Work:Life” balance is a seductive and dangerous myth and I think the term needs to be replaced. It is the Holy Grail of our times and equally as elusive. It is a term that sets us up to fail, makes us feel discontented and stressed and implies a perfect static state that cannot and should not exist in reality. “Work” and “Life” are not unrelated concepts but inextricably linked. Work enables life and the goal of life is not balance. If you are passionate about anything, your life will not be balanced. Choose work or choose life?
I am a mother at work and a company owner and psychologist at home. I am also a partner, daughter and friend. These roles need to blend and integrate, not be juxtaposed against each other in an exhausting daily conflict. Rather than try to force apart two separate domains of work and non-work, I have found it easier to overlay the two and make trade-offs. Work:life integration involves making conscious choices about how I invest my time that reflect daily priorities and core values.
Much of the desire for improved work:life balance stems from feeling guilty about not meeting perceived responsibilities. If you are a parent, you almost inevitably will feel guilty about not spending enough so-called quality time with your children, not turning up for enough school events and being distracted when you are with them with work issues or checking Facebook. If you have elderly parents, you probably feel guilty for not seeing them enough or not looking after them yourself if they need care. If you have friends, I bet you feel bad sometimes for not staying in touch as often as you should. And maybe you feel guilty because you don’t exercise regularly, choose healthy food options on a daily basis and stay up too late watching the whole second series of “Games of Thrones”? These are all our CHOICES. Our lives tend to be the way they are (excluding serious traumatic life events) because that is the way we have constructed them. And we can change that, if we want to.
Expectations and priorities
Feeling guilty is often caused by unrealistic expectations. If we try to be the perfect worker, perfect parent or perfect partner, we are guaranteed one outcome only – failure. There is no perfection and “Work:Life Balance” reeks of it. Everything can’t be a top priority all of the time. Choices flow from priorities and core values. If we invest our time in ways that generally align with these things, we are more likely to feel satisfied and challenged.
Work out what is truly important to you and prioritise accordingly. Then make choices about how you invest your time. Share and explain your priorities to your loved ones and get their buy in. Your partner might need to do more around the house for a while, your kids might need to make their own lunches or go into after school care occasionally, dinner might sometimes be baked beans on toast and the house might be a disaster. But if you are mentally thriving, surely you will be in a better place to engage in your other roles?
When employees respond to HR surveys and consistently request better “Work:Life balance”, I think this means they feel they are investing too much in their work for too little perceived return. The underlying cause of this perception is always multifactorial, complex and individual. More money is rarely the solution to perceived excessive work investment. None of us expect to work 3 days a week for full-time pay and to spend afternoons doing Pilates or baking cookies with the kids on our employer’s time. If you feel your work is demanding too much of you for what you are paid, what can you do about that? Are you prepared to trade-off money for time? Are you prepared to invest in education or take a professional risk in a new role or go part-time or negotiate more flexible work practices or promote yourself more? Are you evaluating your work through a reasonable lens? We all make social comparisons and we tend to select bench-marks that leave us feeling inadequate. Are you prepared to communicate your needs and ask for change?
A meaningful life
Embrace the wonderful chaos of your choices and own them. It is hard to change but I think it is harder to be stressed and unhappy in your life. This is not a women’s issue or a parenting issue, it is a human issue. Work should not suck. In our office kids come in sometimes and hang out while their parents work, staff go to Sports Day or piano recitals and work late some nights to make up time, they work from home when they can and it all comes out in the wash. We can live to work and work to live. It will always be less than perfect, we will stumble and trip at times, but it is the trajectory that matters. Show up for your life. Woody Allen once famously said “showing up is 80% of life”. “Work:Life balance” is not showing up, it is carefully trying to construct a 3-storey mansion out of a deck of cards and then feeling despair when they all come tumbling down.
What is a meaningful life? Chasing your dreams, taking risks, putting in maximum effort, avoiding the seduction of safety and the well-trodden path of everyone else’s definition of success. This is not necessarily an easy life but has a much better chance of being a meaningful one. “Work:Life balance” is a static concept which does not reflect change or energy or trying hard and failing and trying even harder. I don’t think the ultimate goal of a meaningful life is balance. Aiming to integrate the components of our lives that matter most to us, including work, is a far worthier goal. This means accepting that boundaries between our work and personal lives may blur at times and will require shifting the concept of work across time and physical space dimensions. This is not a static process. Evaluate regularly and ask yourself and adjust your trajectory accordingly but don’t just accept balance in your life. You deserve so much more than that.