It’s 10am on a Tuesday. You’ve blocked your diary out to focus on a project that’s itching towards critical. You need to get it done.
At 10.06am, you sense somebody next to your desk. It’s Samantha from Marketing, or PR, or Customer…Something. Anyway, she’s at your desk, waiting.
You glance at her and turn back at your screen to finish typing your sentence.
Your reluctant body turns to face her.
She smiles. “Hey there, I sent you an email, have you seen it yet?”
Interrupted in the middle of deep thought, you feel irritated. It turns out the email wasn’t urgent, or important.
It’s the plague of hyper-responsiveness. And it’s spreading.
Samantha wants to know what you think, so she emails you, doesn’t hear back for 10 minutes, so walks over to ask you in person!
Nobody wants to wait.
The expectation of quick responses also affects people’s ability to switch off.
They roll out of bed in the morning and check email. Reply to messages at 11pm on a Saturday. Log in to “stay on top of things” while they’re on vacation.
The freedom to work “anywhere, anytime”, looks an awful lot like working “everywhere, all the time”.
People can’t help themselves.
And work-life balance policies that promote worker autonomy and flexibility? They don’t seem to be helping.
You know you’re not the only one asking, “is there such a thing as work-life balance?”
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What is work-life balance?
Many people talk about as though it is a fixed state. A perfect equilibrium, or a set number of working hours, for example.
Absolutist definitions of work-life balance are unhelpful and unrealistic. They’re a big reason frustrated people declare balance “impossible”.
In reality, good work-life balance exists on a continuum.
There is not one perfect moment when it’s “right”, and every other moment it’s “wrong”. People tend to have an “acceptable range” where they’re happy with their work-life balance.
This range depends on an individual’s values and priorities at the time. It’s subjective, and it’s also dynamic.
How do we solve for work-life balance?
The most common way organisations tackle work-life balance is with policies and programs. For example, offering flexible work practices or time management skills training.
The issue is, these may or may not be effective when it comes to improving work-life balance.
It depends on the individual. And it depends on the environment.
I used to spend 8-10 weeks a year living in hotels.
Sounds amazing, right?
Total luxury, rooms serviced, all meals catered, delicious all-you-can-eat buffets…
It was a global personal development program I managed for a corporate client, and there were 9 of us working on it.
Here’s the thing – if you watch people eat eight weeks of buffet food year for several years, you learn A LOT.
A lot about individual needs, choice, and behaviour…
Some people struggle with the repetition. Some struggle with the calories. Some struggle with the fact that the food is different to their regular diet.
If we were only away for a few days, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But when you’re away 8+ weeks a year, people start to get…”vocal” about their food.
Who am I kidding? Delegates who only came for five days still had feedback on the food! How hard is it to keep 50 people happy about food? Very.
Anyway, I digress.
How does a buffet relate to the work-life balance challenge?
Work-life balance policies can be effective. Or they can have unintended effects. For example, flexible work hours have resulted in some people working more hours and in more places.
When we create work-life balance programs, policies and interventions – what do we want? What are our desired outcomes for people?
Most simply, the desired outcomes are effectiveness and satisfaction both at work and outside of work.
How will people’s effectiveness and satisfaction differ? It depends on their personal values and priorities. These vary between people and change throughout a person’s lifespan.
It’s a useful way to conceptualise work-life balance and how to create it.
If flexible hours deliver the right outcome, great. If not, well, it’s not the right solution for that person.
Think back to a time when you have felt balanced and see if this framework fits.
Work with what you’ve got to improve work-life balance
What is it that leads to effectiveness and satisfaction? And how do they differ depending on the individual and the situation?
Let me take you back to that all-you-can-eat buffet.
- On the one hand, you’ve got all the personal elements an individual is bringing to the dinner table. I’m talking dietary preferences, self-control, flexibility, coping strategies…
- On the other, you’ve got all the external and environmental aspects.
The logistics of feeding large groups, the limited menu and the repetition. Plus you have the exposure to temptations (dessert, alcohol and “unlimited” food).
Changes to either the personal aspects or the environment will make a difference.
For example, Sarah might cope with the dessert temptation by ordering tea after her main meal. Instead of going back to the buffet.
An environmental change might be removing dessert from the menu altogether. Or reducing portion sizes.
As they say, there are many ways to skin a cat.
Work-life balance is similar.
- On one side you have all the personal aspects that affect how satisfied and effective you are at work and in life.
- On the other hand, you have external and environmental elements.
The personal side includes your individual needs, values and priorities. It’s your disposition, skills, your abilities and personal resources. Plus you have your identity, beliefs, coping strategies and behaviours.
The environmental side includes everything external. The actual job, how supportive your supervisor is and of course, organisational culture. What expectations and norms exist around emails, meetings and taking leave? What is the expected level of responsiveness?
What resources are available (staff, technology, financial)? And what demands exist (responsibilities, commitments)? These will affect how satisfied and effective people feel.
Both sides interact dynamically to influence the outcomes and the feeling of work-life balance.
You are only going to be as effective and satisfied, as your combination of personal and external allows.
As I saw at the buffet – and I see in organisations all the time – people respond differently to the same environment and policies.
Some people love working towards work-life integration, mixing everything together. Others think that’s a living nightmare and prefer segmentation.
Personal context is crucial.
That’s why we still see people struggling with work-life balance. Even in organisations that have the very best work-life balance flexibility policies available. The environmental side might be rock solid, but an individual’s personal context holds them back.
We need a two-sided approach to work-life balance. We need to support the diversity of individual needs.
An organisation that defines work-life balance situationally and supports diversity will see better outcomes for people. They will also become known as an employer of choice.
When individuals are happy with their work-life balance, the benefits flow to the organisation.
Often, people need help activating the good intentions they have for themselves. Like my colleagues who couldn’t resist the gravitational pull of the buffet desserts.
People know when they want better work-life balance. They’re just unclear on how to get it.
They don’t know how to close the gap between the best intentions they have for themselves and their behaviour.
Let me show you some examples.
Consider Claudine, a 37-year-old project manager, at an international property development company.
They have world-class policies around flexibility. Her supervisor is onboard, and the culture of the organisation is supportive. But Claudine still struggles to achieve work-life balance. It’s her own doing – she tells me – but isn’t exactly sure why. Claudine is very hard on herself and driven by achievement.
What was the one thing that made a significant difference for Claudine to improve her work-life balance? Practicing self-compassion.
Marc is a 29-year-old I.T. Professional at a global bank.
He values collaboration and helping people. Mark often takes on other people’s work to help them out or is the one to stay back late when the unexpected happens. He feels pressure from his girlfriend and friends because he doesn’t have enough time for them. And he feels pressure at work to always be the one to help colleagues out in a fix.
Marc recognised that setting boundaries would be the most helpful thing he could do. That alone improved his work-life balance.
So simple. And yet, frequently unaddressed.
The optimal path to better work-life balance is very different to what most of us imagine.
“If WLB is seen as achieving satisfying experiences in all life domains consistent with their values rather than as either working less or being more efficient, more employees, particularly managers and senior execs, would be interested in participating in programs to facilitate WLB.” (Reiter, 2007)
Work-life balance isn’t about working less or being more efficient.
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