I’ll be the first to admit that while I was working in the UN- “work-life balance” seemed more like “work – life imbalance”.
I’ll say three things for the record:
1. I’ve almost never heard an international worker talk positively about work-life balance;
2. Most international workers settle for work-life imbalance because they think it is the normal price to pay to be in the game and there are no other options;
3. Most international workers feel their achievement is a reflection of their self-worth; this fans the misconception that the more you work the more you will achieve AND the better you will feel about yourself.
My goal is to offer some insights around the work-life balance issue through
- Reviewing common perspectives
- Inviting you to take a more personal perspective
- Offering some thoughts on a possible action plan
Over the years, as a colleague and a manager, I have come to characterize people’s perspective about work-life balance as one of the following, or a combination of these perspectives:
Pessimistic: Work-life balance is like waiting for a train that never seems to pull into the station. You wait for work-life balance to somehow arrive into your life and you feel disappointed that it never does;
Regretful: Work-life balance feels like a train you miss and keep missing. Usually, the lack of work-life balance affects your personal life in dramatic ways – your relationship with your partner/children might have fallen apart or almost, you never take time to develop your personal life and now there is an anxiety about loneliness, present or future, and/or your personal physical/mental/emotional and spiritual development suffers;
Desperate: Work-Life balance feels like a train you can never catch. You are just starting to feel the effects of poor work-life balance and are feeling desperate to make changes before it is too late. You see older colleagues who have zero work-life balance and cringe because you don’t want their life, their body, or their mental/emotional state;
Steady: Work-life balance is a one-way train ticket: yours; but you forgot (or maybe did not want to deal with the stress) to buy tickets for your family. You do activities that satisfy your personal work-life balance and then move on at your pace and not anyone else’s. You rarely think of alternatives or update your ideas and are reluctant to make changes to your routine. However, when you slow down for a minute you can feel something is missing;
Over-achiever: Work-life balance is like a wonderful train journey that you cannot allow yourself to enjoy. You are trying very hard to achieve your work related goals and feel you need to focus all your energy on work. You are afraid if you spend any time taking care of yourself or enjoying yourself, you will be risking your current and future success;
Risky: Work-life balance is a party train. The way that you balance out, or rather unload, from your work life may be through risky behaviors. When you first started international work, it felt fun and free. Now it is just a habit that has a high emotional and physical cost;
Avoider: You cannot see the work-life balance train. Work, among other things, has become a distraction for you. Outside of your work, the other elements of your life are underdeveloped – like a plant that has not received water. It feels like work and your work related identity, dramas, and achievements are all that you “have”.
Whatever your current perspective(s), I invite you and your family to forget the previous stories you have told yourself about work-life balance.
Instead, focus on what you want to create – both in terms of concrete activities and impact you want these activities to have on you and your family.
In dealing with work-life balance, there are two levels of responsibility: the first is the enabling policy/ directives of the organization, with specific regulations and framework for work-life balance. And some of that does exist. But it is not enough and staff associations and HR should be partners for positive and progressive change because “duty of care” fosters wellbeing, positivity and productivity.
The second level of responsibility belongs to you and is not something that you can put in a rulebook. Here’s the point: Creating work-life balance is your responsibility and 100% your opportunity; Work-life balance means that you and your family feel satisfied, or increasingly so, with the distribution of time, energy and action in priority areas of your life.
Thoughts on Getting Started
1. The primary pre-requisite for creating this change is giving yourself permission to create work-life balance. This permission is a necessary pre-condition for follow up actions;
2. If you want to improve your work-life balance and that of your family, start by thinking through and updating your definition.
Definition: One that works for me is “I create work-life balance when I take concrete and positive action (what I actually want to “do”) in the following 4 parts of my life: SELF, FAMILY, FRIENDS, WORK.”
- Work-life balance is NOT about equal distribution of time and energy in the 4 parts.
Work life balance, and the emphasis on each of the four parts will vary over time and is different for each person. What is important is that you and your family feel truly good about your “energy distribution” in all areas of your life and over given periods of time.
- Productivity at work is NOT the only thing of value in one’s life.
Productive time and engagement outside of work is an investment in your life, both personal and professional. Working without adequate breaks (and here I am not only talking about R and R but about intellectual, spiritual, physical, etc) may lead to a kind of burnout and hence low productivity at work and a whole lot of other issues outside of work.
3. Experiment within a finite timeframe: choose a timeframe that is realistic for you and your family and experiment together with committing to an action in one (or more) of self, family, friends, work. See how it feels to you and your family. If it works, then start thinking a bit more long-term about how you organize your life, professional and personal.
4. Go public to create partnerships: As international workers, we often keep hidden our non-work related interests. I invite you to “go public” with your interest and enroll at least one person to be your partner in the activity. Is there anyone else in your office that wants to exercise during lunch? ..Create a meditation group in your mission? .. Wants to improve his/her parenting skills? .. Wants to play music, paint, play chess, discuss about books? Etc. etc.