Work Life Balance. What is it?


I was involved in a discussion recently where a number of people were complaining that their jobs were so demanding they had no work life balance.  There seemed to be some acceptance of work life balance as some magic and universal standard that everyone should aspire to and be entitled to. In this case the shared view seemed to be that they wanted more ‘life’ and less ‘work’.  Most of them were working about 45 to 50 hours per week.

It reminded me of a dinner discussion a few years ago with a group of Secretaries and Deputy Secretaries of departments. There were a number of issues under discussion and one was the impact their way of working had on staff in their respective organisations.  The group were mindful of encouraging staff to maintain a healthy work life balance.  One of the women Secretaries laughed and said that “We of all people cant talk about work life balance, look at the hours we work!”  There was a general round of laughter.  After the mirth subsided those present acknowledged that all of them were passionate about their careers and work and that while they all worked long hours (and sometimes wished for a little less) they had taken on these senior roles enthusiastically because of what they felt they had to offer and also because of the satisfaction they gained.  What they also acknowledged was the challenge in pursuing their chosen work life balance as senior executives without seeming to convey that is what they expected from staff.

I had another discussion in this past week with someone who is a chef.  He was feeling pressured with work and that he was losing work life balance.  As we talked he reflected that this was a point in time situation.  He is currently working about 90 hours per week.  I asked him what he felt work life balance looked like.  He had no hesitation.  “Look, I love my work and in catering a 60 hour work week is normal and fine with the occasional 70 hour week.  Its just that 90 hours a week on a regular basis means I don’t get enough time with my family and when I am with them I find it hard to switch off from planning the next menu.”

Coincidentally, I also read a Post this week from Inge Geerdens titled “I’m Not Balancing Work and Life and I Feel Great” in which she shares how she avoids having to resolve work life balance. The Post is at  Interestingly the Post also doesn’t attempt to answer what work life balance is.  What does come through strongly, however, is that Inge Geerdens loves her work.

The issue is that work life balance is no universally acceptable formula and what looks like great work life balance to one person may not be to another.  Some people are passionate about their work and it is their work from which they achieve gratification, a sense of purpose and a sense of self.  For others work is merely a means to an end, how we pay the bills.  For others the workplace and time spent in it is how they achieve their social interaction and sense of community.

I have often observed people being critical of others for having no work life balance.  We need to be careful not to apply the Perfect Me Test in such assessments.  You know the one ….. anyone who drinks more than me is an alcoholic, anyone who drinks less is a wowser ….. anyone who spends more money than me is spendthrift while anyone who spends less is tight ….. anyone who puts in longer hours than me is a workaholic, anyone who works less is a bit of a bludger …..

There are a few issues here and I am not going to try and come up with some magic answers or explore them all here but it is worth taking time, particularly for those who aspire to increasingly senior roles, to think about three things:

–    what is work life balance to me (and what are the implications of moving to more senior roles);

–    when I put in long hours of work because I am passionate about it, how does that land with my staff (and how might I manage it so I do not seem to impose the same work life balance on them); and

–    when someone seems to be getting the balance wrong check in with them to see how they are travelling but don’t necessarily assume they should adopt the same work life balance as you (nor should they necessarily subscribe to the same work life balance as their peers).

Image:   Crystal Eye Studio/

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