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Does work-life balance actually exist?

This term has been thrown around time and time again. It’s work-life balance and it’s something that I’ve got a bit of a gripe with.

I’ll proudly jump on my soapbox and let you know why. In fact, I’ll do that right now. I’m Ryan, the Lead Facilitator of our Science of Recovery program, and I am sick and tired of seeing people get burned out at work.

Burn out isn’t fun and it doesn’t need to be such a common occurrence. I truly believe that if we re-work our personal definition of what work-life balance is, it can make a world of difference.

Read on to find out what work-life equilibrium could look like.

 

Work-life equilibrium in action.

Just this morning I had a coffee with my colleague Erin. What I noticed, and had to comment on, was the interesting interplay between talking about work and talking about life.

During our walk to the café, we were all business. We discussed goals and upcoming work and while we enjoyed talking about work, we spent the time at the café connecting as two human beings.

We discussed relationships, what we did over Christmas and what upgrades we wanted to make to our homes over the next year. Once we finished up and started walking back to the office, we stepped right back into our professional roles. It was a marked and definitive switch.

This got me to thinking – how much of a place do our personal lives have in our place of work?

 

What’s the deal with work-life balance anyway?

A key discussion point that comes up in almost every high-performance program I run for leaders and executives is a feeling of obligation to achieve a better ‘work-life balance’.

While I completely empathise with these hard-working leaders, who they themselves are often walking the line between kicking goals and hitting the burnout wall, in my experience it’s actually an old-fashioned way of thinking about a very modern problem.

What is work-life balance?

What does it look like?

Let’s say it’s achieving time at work that is roughly equal to when we shed our professional persona and step into our ‘real’ lives. Sounds fairly doable right?

The problem with looking to achieve this ‘balance’ is that long gone are the days when we left work at our desk as we walked out the door. How many of us are still checking work emails when we arrive home in the evening or on the weekend? How often do we reply to them? How often are we still pensively thinking about work concerns long after the hours we are employed to do so? The answer for many, particularly for leaders, is often enough to call it the rule and not the exception.

This means that to achieve ‘balance’ in the sense of equitable time spent focusing on work and on our personal lives, we’d have to be taking a third of the calendar year as time in lieu. Not likely to happen anytime soon, right?

So rather than writing a vanilla blog post about strategies to switch off from work (although I will definitely write that at some point) here I am, focusing on something a bit different.

If you’re in the boat of trying to keep work away from your personal life, I urge you to consider moving away from the goal of balance to one of ‘give and take’.

 

A case for work-life give and take.

If we can’t switch off work when we leave the office, we need to create space for ourselves, and for those we lead, to bring some more personal life into the workplace.

By this, I don’t mean inappropriate oversharing or lunch-time wine tastings. What I do mean is bringing your authentic self to work and being willing to take that personal phone call or to step out for an hour for that important family event. It’s the seemingly small acts like this that can create a sense of work accommodating for life, not the other way around.

Having said that, based on my experience running programs that touch on this very topic, I reckon about 50% of people reading this just cringed uncomfortably and thought something very much like ‘That just won’t fly at my work’.

Now, I will admit that in many workplaces going for a coffee with a colleague to talk life rather than work may be a new occurrence. If you’re feeling that concern, here’s two points I will offer you:

  1. In my experience, it is rarely as bad as people think. Treat it like an experiment, and you may just be surprised how much room for life there is in your workplace.
  2. As overused as the saying is, be the change you want to see. Culture can be shifted by even just a few people walking the walk and talking the talk. And in this case, we are talking about something that can reduce employee burnout and disengagement, so it’s in the organisation’s best interest.

We often overestimate how much we can achieve in a day and underestimate how much we can achieve in a month. If you’re feeling fatigued or like work is taking over your life, try introducing a little bit more life to your workday.

Do this even once or twice a week and the physical and emotional benefits can add up to a pretty big difference in your sense of equilibrium between work and life.