Work Life Balance: A Misleading Concept and How Managers Can Help

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Work-life balance… I love this delicious antinomy: as though either you work or you live. Now choose!

Yet many individuals report what one commonly calls “work-life balance” issues, when they blame their professional preoccupations for hindering their ability to address personal, non-work concerns. Looking at it closer, “work-life balance” issues encompass different problems and symptoms such as stress, work overload, inability to deal with personal issues, loss of meaning in life or work, misfit between job and skills, depression, etc. Each of these issues requires a specific answer and these few thoughts do not pretend to give definite answers to a very complex issue.

When one-size-fits-all rules are counterproductive

Trying to balance life at work and life outside work by opposing both spheres has its limits. These are so completely intertwined that finding a balance is not just a question of time spent in either sphere.

Some companies try to enforce rules applied to everyone universally, like turning email servers off during week-ends, limiting the time spent in the office, forbidding meetings starting past 6pm, etc. These rules create another layer of complexity to deal with, when in reality, doing business requires more and more flexibility and reactiveness. At least these initiatives trigger the discussion and shake habits up. They run the risk of being too overbearing, thereby adding more stress to people already dealing with work-life balance issues.

How can a manager help?

The organization cannot impose on each individual how to balance his or her workload. At a time of desire for autonomy and individual recognition, this would sound like a breach in the individuals’ sovereignty over their own life. People want to choose how they organize their life. They want to choose a meaningful job and purposeful projects while having a fulfilling life. Rather than constraining, the organization should help people make the right choices, and so limit the barriers to making these choices. These barriers start in the mindsets of managers who keep looking at people as resources to do tasks, rather than looking at aspiring individuals committed to achieve meaningful outcomes. How do you discuss yearly objectives with your subordinates? How do you assign projects in your service? Do you promote people based on their ability to work hard and long hours and on their faith to your guidance, or do you promote people for their ability to have their individual gifts and personal commitments be useful to the company’s purpose?

Isn’t it a question of commitment balance in the end?

The next time you check in with your team on how they are doing towards their 2013 goals, consider asking them what they are committed to in their life? You do not want the “I am committed to be a good professional” kind of answers, but the deeper answer that reaches to how “being a good professional” contributes to your clients, their co-workers, their own family, and their own personal projects. Then offer them some clues about how your team, service, or company objectives may be an opportunity for them to achieve what they are up to in life. Let them give the rest of the answers. Be sure they have carefully weighed both the effort and time each of their commitments will require from them. If all their individual commitments have not added up to what is needed to reach the team’s objectives, discuss it as a team to see how people, as a group, can take on more commitments, or deprioritize some for more strategic ones. And most importantly put the issue of work-life balance issues on the table: “What are we going to do in 2013, as a team, to support each and every one of us here to avoid falling in the work life balance trap?” This question of caring for one another does not have to be a fatality of our times.

 

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