Time to embrace workplace imbalance

| January 28, 2021

With the festive season over for another year, thoughts will turn to the months ahead.

If you have already resolved to achieve work-life balance in the new year, you are not alone.

The topic of work-life balance has become hotter than the devil’s kitchen.

Everyone has a view on how best to achieve it. Even employers are jumping on the bandwagon and including the prospect of achieving a work-life balance as a perk when advertising their jobs.

We have all heard the advice from those around us like “leave work at work”, “don’t become a workaholic”, “find time to get that run in” and “make sure you are living your life as well”.

Literally thousands of Australian workers, perhaps even millions, will chase the much-lauded but exceptionally elusive concept of work-life balance each year – and fail.

And the reason for the mass fail is simple.

Work-life balance as a concept is as broken as a New Year’s resolution in February.

The thought of achieving balance is well intentioned but far from practical and therefore for many of us merely a figment of our imagination.

The problem starts with the phrase itself – it suggests that work is not part of life but something quite separate.

Yet work is a huge component of most of our lives and ends up being a significant part of who we are.

It is not like we walk through the office door and shut down the rest of our life while at work.

And whether we like it or not, our work follows many of us home, not least because technology allows us to be accessible every hour of the day, seven days a week.

Then there is the issue that the concept of work-life balance is underpinned by a flawed assumption that  there is some perfect ratio to be achieved between time spent on work activities and time spent on everything else.

Life is not a mathematic equation. Being happy does not arise from apportioning equal amounts of time to our personal and working lives, and perhaps some sleep.

The various aspects of our lives are fluid and cannot be compartmentalised.

We don’t clock out of one part of our life before we take on another. Quite often, our working lives will flow into our personal space and vice versa.

In the same vein, with work-life balance we tend to place emphasis on daily balance where every day is cut into equal slices – regardless of what is going on in our lives at the time.

The reality is that a longer-term view is needed.

There are times when we need to be more present and available in our workplaces while at other times we need to engage more with families, friends and other aspects of our lives. Sometimes we are pulled in one direction, and other times in another.

Some experts take the longer-term view of achieving balance by referring to the seasons of life.

They suggest that achieving balance in life is in fact a long-term proposition spanning decades.

There will be stages or seasons in a person’s life when the focus will be on working hard and preparing for the future, perhaps to buy a house. That season might be followed by a period in one’s life where work will take a backseat, for example, as parents care for children or an older relative.

And then there will be another season when a person takes on a new role at work and needs to devote extra time to ensure success and effectiveness.

Another issue with the phrase work-life balance is that it suggests the less you work, the happier you will become.

In fact, many of us gain an enormous amount of joy from putting extra hours into our work because it can lead to a sense of purpose and accomplishment and make us happier in our personal lives.

The bottom line is the end pursuit of achieving work-life balance can create stress, anxiety and exhaustion.

Many adults beat themselves up for not being able to achieve a work-life balance.

They could be doing themselves a big favour if they started to embrace work-life imbalance instead.

If you can walk away from an approach that tries to neatly allocate eight hours for your working life, eight hours for your personal life and eight hours for sleep, you will automatically feel less anxious about the year ahead.

When you return to work this year, reconsider work and life as separate entities and perhaps aim for work-life flow instead of trying to chase the elusive work-life balance.

Try viewing your working and personal lives as in-sync and allied rather than either-or forces.

Adopt a flexible approach in which you allow yourself to be pulled towards your personal life when the situation warrants it and drawn more heavily towards work when that is needed.

When you are flexible enough to go with the flow, your life will be in true balance.