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Balancing Act

One of the most obvious implications of the end of the 'job for life' society is that if we wish to hold on to our job we need to demonstrate our utility to the employer. For many, this is interpreted as working long hard hours, and the 'stay at work' culture is often the result. But is this necessary? Did anyone actually lose his or her job by going home at a normal time? People lose their jobs either because they are no good at it (known as being fired) or because the company is not performing well or is restructuring in some way (known as being made redundant).

Indeed, for many employers, working late is not a sign of loyalty; it is a sign of incompetence. If you can't get the work done within a normal working day you are either badly organised or haven't learned to say 'no' to an over-demanding employer. And if you need to work long hours on a regular basis you are likely to be less and less productive over time because you are going to burn out and your morale is going to decline. If this is the case, why do we feel that the employers are trying to deny us balance in our work and life arrangements?

First of all let's examine the term itself. I've never liked the phrase 'work-life balance'. It suggests that work is one activity and life is a separate, conflicting activity. The truth is that work is one part of our life and it competes for our time against the other activities in our life that we wish to attend to. I prefer to use the simpler term 'life balance' or 'life mix'.

The key factor in life balance is 'time' and, critically, work is perhaps the only use of our time that we do not have control over. If we chose when, and for how long we work, the number of hours we allocate to it would not present a conflict. The recent dispute between BA employees and the airline at Heathrow was not some Luddite reaction to new technology, it was born out of the fact that this particular technology is a mechanism to allow BA to manage to a fine degree when it's employees come in to work in accordance with passenger volumes. Of course BA has the right to choose which particular hours it employ people for, but the fact remains that the mechanism shifts time sovereignty from the employee to the employer.

For executives the situation is slightly different. While there are always going to be times when we just need to be in the office in order to complete a task like preparing for a meeting ('though I'd wager that the majority of these case could easily be extinguished with better organisation and planning), employees do have more autonomy than manual workers in terms of the hours spent at work. Contracts, written and verbal, tend to operate on the basis that we do the work expected of us, but that how and when (within an agreed timeframe) is up to us. If you're good and you can do it in a six-hour day I doubt you're going to be fired for not being there the other one (although it is more likely that you'll be given more work).

My contention therefore, is that, people who sign up to the 'stay at work' culture choose to do so. That's fine by me. It seems that in our enlightened society late working is a 'bad thing'. As a rich nation we should be spending less time at work and more time doing mind expanding, fulfilling things with our time, spending it with our friends and family, or exercising. Yet for many people, work is the most fulfilling and stimulating activity in their life. Why should it be the case that there is anything wrong with workaholism? Is it wrong that these people should work 80 hours or more each week?

The problem is that the time sovereignty of employees is gradually being eroded, largely through the introduction of family friendly policies. Far from giving workers flexibility, these policies shackle the staff to the organisation, by creating such an infrastructure of support that to leave would require not just the hard enough task of adjusting to the new employer, but also the need to put back into place all the other arrangements that were previously taken care of.

A recent initiative I heard about comes from Asda. IVF treatment allowance for women (5 days per annum) and their partners (1' days) is their latest big idea. Don't misunderstand me, I'm all for IVF for those that want it, and welcome the idea that employers should allow their staff to take time off for it, just as with any other medical matter. My point is that such initiatives do not constitute a meaningful step towards improving the life balance of employees because improved life balance requires a fundamental review of how we spend our lives, not whether we can get a few hours off every few weeks for medical treatment. The truth is that initiatives such as this and flexible working, cr - ches and duvet days are a response to the difficulties in attracting and retaining staff.

Staff retention is much more a problem with larger companies, which is why they are ahead of the game. By upping the ante these employers will achieve short to medium term advantages which will be lost when the rest of industry finally works out what they need to do to attract and retain staff. What's more, the advantage is rarely, if ever, with the staff. Instead the expectations to perform and show commitment is increased, usually with such strings attached as 'golden handcuffs', long notice periods, and the provision of equipment for home-working which at once allows flexibility to the employee and ties them for even longer hours to the company 'they can never escape work.

When the playing field has been levelled it will simply be that employers will have removed any argument or reason for us not to devote our lives to them. We are moving away from, not towards, greater control of our working lives, and the reason is that we are allowing employers to take away our time sovereignty. If I don't have an issue about picking up the children from nursery because the nursery is down on the first floor, then the company gets that time from me and I don't get to choose how to organise my life, or that of my children.

So let's stop looking to our employers to provide us with life balance 'they are only concerned with our work lives. It's up to us to take control of our time and our job satisfaction. We are not exhausted and de-motivated by running around trying to balance our busy lives; we are exhausted and de-motivated because we do not derive fulfilment from our lives. Work should excite, engage, stimulate and give meaning. It's up to us to decide the extent to which we should pursue it in order to achieve those objectives.

The specific balance between work, family, hobbies, health, relaxation and whatever else might be on your own personal menu of time use is entirely up to you. Only you know how much of each you need in any given time period. It's my belief that over recent years the pressure to 'succeed' (a term that has now taken an almost exclusive reference to professional status or wealth) has encouraged us to spend more time at work than our natural balance would recommend.

Yet these are simply excuses. We can change our lifestyles if we want to, it is within our control as long as we are prepared to reduce our material desires and to take a good long look at what we do for employment. I contend that the vast majority of people have not chosen their current career but have fallen into it more or less by serendipity. When asked if they really 'love' their jobs and why they chose their careers most will be stumped, while many professionals (lawyers, doctors, accountants, etc) will refer to family pressure to secure their future in a sensible occupation.

The employee who does not know how to balance his life in an optimally fulfilling way, or else is scared to address the fact that the 'balance' he wants does not necessarily match the balance his wife wants for him (I have deliberately alluded to men in this scenario as I believe we are the ones who would rather immerse ourselves in work than attend to our emotions and relationships) is the one with a real problem to address.

Moving on, sadly, is a scary alternative. 'Better the devil you know' is the usual response. 'I may not be happy but I'm paid well' doesn't sound like a good trade off to me. Of course we're all for more life, as long as it doesn't mean a salary trade-off. It's a pity that so many people either feel they cannot afford to buy themselves any time away from work, or else engage in the 'stay at work' culture that keeps them in the office until only a taxi can get them home because they feel that somehow the pole becomes less slippery after 5.30 pm. With that attitude regret is sure to follow at some time or other.

The argument I'm presenting is not that flexible working and similar initiatives are wrong. I'm arguing that individuals, that's you and me, not our employers, need to identify what we really want for our work and how to increase fulfilment from it and the rest of our lives. By maximising our fulfilment we reduce stress and that's the key to what we seek when we strive for better life balance. How we manage to get the kids to the dentist or find time to mow the lawn at the weekend follow on as easy decisions when our priorities are in place.

Nick Gendler just about manages to keep his life together as founder of Workjoy, a company that helps people to maximise fulfilment from their careers.

- Nick Gendler, 2003

About the Author

Nick Gendler just about manages to keep his life together as founder of Workjoy,, a company that helps people to maximise fulfilment from their careers.


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