Achieving Work Life Balance

Work Life balance is an issue that has gained increasing attention in recent years with numerous employee care surveys for major corporations revealing that increasing numbers of people are dissatisfied with their work-life balance.

The World Health organisation, as well as the UK Health and Safety executive, are concerned that stress is reaching epidemic proportions. Even politicians in the last decade have even cited the need to achieve a better work-life balance as a reason for resignation or early retirement.  Executive coaches also report that the need to achieve a more effective work-life balance is an underlying reason why many people seek the guidance of a coach. These trends are on the increase despite all improvements in standards of living, life expectancy, and flexible working arrangements. 

So why is it an issue, what does it mean for ourselves as individuals and the organisations we work for and lead, and what can be done to achieve the right balance?

Let’s start with a brief sketch of the territory. Work life balance is a broad topic. It concerns people’s ability to remain motivated, work effectively under pressure, handle change, and to have the time and energy to lead a fulfilling personal life outside work. We each seek fulfilment, achievement, satisfaction, challenge, and well-being. We all have desires, hopes and dreams for our life, spanning both our working and private lives, and we all want to not suffer undue anxiety, depression and stress.

The ever increasing popularity of management and self-help books bears testament to these needs and one way or another they all promote an image of the effective, fulfilled, “in control of your life and destiny” person you can become. Yet real life is as much about what happens to us as it is about us making and fulfilling plans. To quote John Lennon “Life is what happens when we’re busy making other plans”.  It’s a question of balance after all.

This points to a crucial consideration about work-life balance. It’s not about the number of hours we work or how hard we work, nor is it about being in total “proactive” control.   Its about our own personal balance, viewed from a number of perspectives.

  • The balance between working for longer-term aspirations and enjoyment in our daily lives.
  • The balance of time and energy we give to the many lives that we each lead - as employees, managers, partners, parents, friends, members of a community, as some examples.
  • The balance between our needs for security and stability on the one hand and change and excitement on the other.
  • The balance between what we have to do and what we want to do.
  • The balance between being proactive in our use of time and energy and being responsive to the demands and needs of others.
  • The balance between our planned life and our unplanned life.

Just why it is that modern life places strains upon our personal balance is also important to realise. The reasons may not lie directly in the amount or time and energy we give to work but they do lie in a number of underlying trends to our work and life patterns.

  • The accelerating pace of change and the attendant uncertainty and anxiety that this can cause.
  • The sheer degree of information and communications traffic we all have to handle, and the expectation of ever faster responsiveness.
  • The ever increasing economic demand to achieve more with less resources.
  • The increase in our personal expectations.

How do we recognise imbalance in ourselves? Early signs can be a feeling of lack of motivation, increase in stress and anxiety or simply feeling that we’re being led along by life rather than leading our lives. We may all experience these feelings on occasions, but where they become more prolonged is usually a sign of an imbalance that needs to be addressed.

Achieving work life balance does call for self-leadership. In simple terms we need to put some work into our life and make sure there’s life and vitality in our work!

The starting point is about beginning to take control. Good time management, meeting management and email management can all help, but on their own they may not achieve lasting impact.  Achieving work-life balance involves self-understanding first, followed by an alignment process, which simply put involves adjusting one’s mindset and behaviours to self-decided values and priorities.

At a recent workshop session, a senior executive, who had initially thought they had a satisfactory balance, eventually realised that the only time they were actually free from work and the overrun of work-related worries and issues was for a few hours on a Sunday morning. It wasn’t that they were actually working weekends. They simply didn’t know how to stop their mind from thinking about it. Once they realised that they had the motivation to do something about it, which involved a combination of improving delegation and self-planning. The to-do list in this sense became a means of being able to temporarily forget things rather than remember them!

Whilst the needs of individuals and organisations vary, there are guidelines that can at least provoke thoughts towards improving the balance.

  • Be clear about what’s important to you, what you want and your priorities.
  • Take personal responsibility for your work/life balance and stress levels.
  • Keep a clear separation between your life and work.
  • Manage your time and work well – don’t let a large queue of unfinished business build up.
  • Help to make a motivated, industrious and enjoyable work environment for yourself and your colleagues.
  • Look after yourself – your health, fitness and energy.
  • With your colleagues and managers, seek ways of saving time and energy – achieve more with less!
  • Act with integrity.  Do what you say you will do – say “no” or “yes but” constructively.
  • Be pro-active in raising issues.
  • Find ways of staying inspired and motivated in your life and work.

A UK corporation I recently worked with has taken some elements of these and developed a management work-life balance charter. They developed their own practical behaviour changes as well, recognising that as organisational leaders their work patterns influenced the entire organisation. In some cases it was a matter of stopping certain practices rather than adopting new ones. The one action they took that at affected the organisation most positively was to stop routinely holding internal conference calls after 6.00pm.

Examples like this show that improving balance doesn’t usually involve major changes. Taking the time to find the one or two actions that count and can make a difference is often all it takes.

Nick Woodeson worked for many years as a project director in the IT industry successfully running multi-million pound projects before becoming an independent consultant and trainer.