It is a classic first world problem. At a time when millions around the world are still living in extreme poverty and the benefits of globalisation and free trade haven’t even appeared on their horizon, let alone trickled down into their lives, we in developed countries are wrestling with the challenge of ‘work-life balance’. Or, as I have written on this blog before, life-work balance – because I believe it is important to get the priorities and hence the words in the right order.
We have seen companies and countries trying a variety of measures, from building a new mountain of HR policies, to turning off email servers outside normal working hours to stop anti-social hour emailing and produce healthy, happy workers. We have seen an explosion in ‘family friendly’ employment policies and organisations of all shapes and sizes talking the talk about wellbeing at work, respecting that people have lives outside of the office and embracing flexible working with hot desking, home working and more ‘non-standard’ hours and contracts.
And yet days lost to stress at work continue to rocket, referrals to occupational health and work-based counselling services are rising exponentially and organisation after organisation report that their staff survey results highlight work-life balance and stress at work as the biggest issue or concern amongst their workforce. What is going wrong? Why, despite all the insights and technology at our disposal are we failing so miserably?
Two things. Culture. And choices.
The culture of an organisation dictates so much about the expectations placed upon its staff. Culture for me is ‘the way stuff is done around here’ and is rarely, if ever, to be found in job descriptions or recruitment adverts. This is the reality of the organisation that you only discover once you’re through the door on day one and sat at your desk. This is the stuff that is hard to control or influence and yet it has a huge impact on your life and that of your family and loved ones.
This culture – in unhealthily environments – and here it is important to acknowledge that you can work for a good organisation but be unlucky to work in one team, department or division that has an unhealthy culture (check out the Francis Report on Mid Staffs NHS Trust for brutal evidence of this) – will often place value and emphasis on long hours, being seen at your desk, out of hours email responsiveness, lots of long meetings, people working through lunchtimes, the sacrificing of personal commitments to deliver a key work deadline and the responding to calls and emails even when on holiday or at the weekend. These places – these modern day sweatshops – often have their culture set from the top – by the boss; by the top team; by the manager who is running the show. They don’t sit down and develop a policy or statement that says we want people to work themselves to a standstill, put their work commitments over their home lives and make unrealistic and unnecessary demands on each other – but sadly that can be the effect of how the go about their business.
It happens because of the way their behaviour; the tone they set; how they are perceived. If they get into the office before 8am others will start to follow suit. If they send emails after 5:30pm their team members will feel the need to respond. If they have lunch at their desks every day, or seem too busy to stop and talk to colleagues, others will mimic that behaviour. The message it sends is clear. If you want to get on here, be like me. If you want to be sat in my seat, follow my lead. Imitation is the highest form of flattery. Or more aptly in the workplace, it is the route many people see as the only way to get on.
This question of culture and what makes “good” or ‘bad” culture is the stock and trade for the big consultancy firms – I know as I spent time working for some of them doing that work for some of the UK’s biggest brands – and it has a huge body of research behind it. From my own lived experience I can say that the cultures I worked within definitely affected my own wellbeing – both my physical and mental health – and that at its worse, they created the perfect breeding ground for my depression and anxiety to lead to exhaustion, pneumonia and a breakdown. But culture alone cannot bring you down – it cannot on its own take your life-work balance from you. It cannot dominate you, unless you allow it to.
That brings me to the second ‘c’. Choices.
If you want to achieve and maintain a good, healthy work-life/life-work balance then you have to make the right choices for you. Everyone is different and everyone has to decide for themselves what the right balance is for them. But only they can deliver it. Only they can know what good looks like for them. They then have to take responsibly for their life and their behaviour. It is no good blaming your boss, your colleagues or your employers. Yes, they have a role to play but it’s your life and you have the ability to shape it. There’s no point waiting for the organisation to intervene in your life for your benefit.
Some of those choices involve picking the type of work and organisation that best suits you. Some of those choices involve you being clear about what success means to you – really, honestly clear about this. Not saying you want to get home every day by 6pm and see your kids but then say yes to every offer your boss makes for you to attend a dinner, a conference, travel with work or take on that new project because really your priority is promotion not bath time. Honestly is important. Being honest to yourself. Really honest.
Some of these choices are simples ones about where you draw your lines; it is the time you arrive and leave the office and sticking to that; is it taking a walk each lunchtime to get some fresh air and a break from the grind; is it not looking at work emails ate 5:30pm?
I have five principles that I believe are the keys to achieving and maintaining the right work-life/life-work balance for you. Over the next few weeks I will be blogging more about each of these and including them in a book I am currently writing which reflects on these practical ideas and suggestions but also looks at them through my lived experience of trying – failing – trying – and then eventually succeeding in finding the right balance for me, via hospital, therapy and more ups and downs than the sort of rollercoaster I would never willingly go on at the fairground.
I am also developing these ideas and experience into a workshop I am looking to run to bring together people who have an interest in their own or their colleagues’ work-life balance/life-work balance. Watch this space for more on this and, in the meantime, take some time to watch out for your choices.
The photo I have used for this post is a selfie I took just after boarding a flight back to London from Saudi Arabia when I was working at PwC. This is five or so months before my breakdown and was at a time when I thought I had the balance sorted. I could not have been more wrong. This photo is symbolic for me – I look awful; I felt awful and I was making a lot of very bad work-related choices. I wish I knew then what I know now; I wish I knew my five point list back then.