Work-life balance -- who are you kidding?
I often hear women and men and organizations speaking about the need for work-life balance. Whenever I hear this discussion my mind conjures up an image of two people on a teeter-totter trying to create a balance. Much of the time when two individuals are sitting on the teeter-totter, it is out of balance and equilibrium because the joy is going up and down -- not staying in a steady state.
Most of the conversations I hear about work-life balance are a cry from the participants for help to achieve that balance. Women regularly ask how can I achieve work-life balance, especially now that I either have children or am contemplating having children.
If I do not seem to have balance there is something wrong, and I feel frustrated or guilty because I am not giving enough time to some part of my life. This notion that we need to achieve balance has somehow become ingrained in our psyches and gives us, especially women, another reason to feel guilty.
Family friendly policies of organizations are supposed to allow for work-life balance. Provisions for part-time work, tele-work and flexible hours are designed to try to make it possible to meet the needs of a family and the workplace. Many are really aimed at women, and unfortunately they forget that men have family responsibilities, too, reinforcing stereotypes from the past.
Some time ago I began to question this whole idea of work-life balance. I asked why do we frame the debate as if work and life are not one and the same? Do we not think work is part of the continuum that makes up our life?
For me, anyway, and I suspect many others, work is an essential part of life and how we contribute to our society. Work, whether at home or in the workplace, can be a means for fulfilling our passion or dreams. I watch entrepreneurs passionately building their businesses, teachers inspiring their students, parliamentarians caring deeply about some issues that compelled them to run for office, and on and on.
I arrived at the conclusion that striving for this elusive balance did not make me happy, and I often fell short of the ideal embodied in the notion. Some days my work hours were very long and time with my family was reduced, and vice-versa on other days.
Along the way I realized very few of my days actually fit the idea of a balance. I asked myself was I happy with my work and with my family? Did I have my priorities and did they guide me in making choices about my day?
For example, if my family had a special event such as a concert or graduation or birthday -- to name a few -- my priority was clear. Other days my work took priority. As time progressed I realized I was less stressed because I accepted that some days my life would seem crazy and maybe even a little out of control, and on others, life may feel like a stream flowing smoothly along.
I looked for ways to simplify my daily life which in part meant not doing things because I "should" but rather because they made sense for my family and myself, including not enrolling my children in every activity imaginable for fear that they may miss an opportunity. In reality they would have the joy of some unstructured time and we as parents could better manage our schedule.
We should throw out the notion of work-life balance and instead ask ourselves what allocation of time works best for each of us and our family. This takes understanding what deeply matters to us and letting this shape our priorities and our allocation of energy.
Spending some time working on what matters to each of us individually and as a family will better facilitate our choices on a daily basis. I may not want that "bigger job" because I value more time to do other things, or I may love my work and never feel unhappy with long hours doing it.
The real question is are we satisfied with the choices we have made and if not how do we realign our choices and where we place our daily energy? We will reduce our stress immediately by dropping the pursuit of the elusive goal of work-life balance and can encourage true family friendly workplace policies that help facilitate our choices.
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