Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance and order and rhythm and harmony.–Thomas Merton, as quoted in Forbes (4 August 1980)
What is Work Life Balance?
Work life balance is the relationship between your work and all the other commitments and interests in your life, and how all of these interact with and impact on one another.
With ever more demanding workloads, and technology that offers 24-hour contactability, people are finding it harder to achieve a healthy or sometimes even an adequate work life balance. Mental and physical health, recreation, family, spiritual activities and just plain time-out often end up taking a back seat to work and career (and are often expected to).
Of course, work life balance is different for different people. Different individuals will put different values and priorities on various activities. What some are prepared to give up and what is non-negotiable differ from person to person. Even over time, your priorities may change. What you consider dispensable to your work life balance one year may become indispensable the next – or ten years later – and vice versa.
Many of us are prepared to make short-term sacrifices of some activities in our lives so that others can receive more attention until a particular goal is reached. Certainly, when starting a new business or beginning a new job, it is sometimes necessary to prioritise activities. So sidelining or reducing certain activities for a while is acceptable for the greater good of achieving that goal. Unfortunately, all too often that ‘for a while’ becomes permanent.
We all have an outer life and an inner life. The outer life is what everyone would see if they were to take a cursory look over your life. Foremost are usually career and income/wealth and relationships. Balanced against this are other aspects of the outer life – how you approach parenting, how you maintain your business and personal relationships, health care of aging parents, your health and fitness and what you do about this, voluntary work, membership of clubs, religious institutions and other organisations, and so on.
But your inner life is not usually on public view, except perhaps to your family and closest friends. And this inner life – your core values, principles, motives and desires, as well as what you see as your life purpose or reason for being – is as important as your outer life.
Actually, in many ways more important, because this is what makes you uniquely you, and what consciously or sub-consciously drives your outer life. And if inner and outer lives are incongruent, you will have problems with the cracks that will almost inevitably continue to appear in your outer shell because of the inability to reconcile these two aspects of your existence.
Many people feel a sense of entrapment with the choices they ‘had’ to make in their outer lives, and live with consequent feelings of self-betrayal or anger. Such feelings are more liable to be intensified in difficult times, such as the recent years of economic difficulties and uncertainty, as well as the general rise of worldwide dangers, crises, rapid change and unpredictability we have faced since the turn of the Millennium.
Why Work Life Balance is important
Depending on overall values and priorities of the moment, individuals may place different levels of importance on the achievement of a work life balance. Unreasonable employer demands are usually seen as the drivers of a work life imbalance, but it is also in employers’ interests for you to improve this balance.
If you are able to achieve some equilibrium, you are more likely to be happier, more focused and motivated, and more productive in your work over a longer period of time. You will be less subject to debilitating stress and burnout, and your physical, mental and emotional health can all be expected to be better.
As a consequence, you will be absent from work less often, either through real sickness or through a need to maintain some equilibrium by taking ‘mental health days’ off, as part of your designated sick leave.
You will also be less inclined to leave your job, so your employer will have the advantage of retaining your skills and knowledge for longer, and not having to train and ‘work in’ a replacement. Enlightened employers can also expect more employee loyalty, which has often intangible but real benefits. Happy employees make for happy customers. (And don’t forget the reverse situation is not only true, but likely to have a greater intensity in its effects on your business!)
People at all levels of their careers can suffer from both physical and emotional damage caused by ‘workaholic’ work expectations, set either by themselves or those above them. Even more damaging, both to the individual and to the business culture (and ultimately its profit margin), are destructive, authoritarian and capricious management practices. These stifle both initiative and loyalty. Such practices are usually insisted upon by someone who actually has little skill or effectiveness as a manager, or who has outer/inner life conflicts of their own that are interfering with their ability to do the job.
A serious conflict between your outer and inner lives is not sustainable in the long term and finding a true work life balance and balance in all aspects of life is critical for lifelong satisfaction. There is the old adage that no-one’s last words on their death bed are “I wish I’d spent more time at work!”
How do you achieve balance?
If you think about it, the outer life is all about action. It’s about doing things, getting them ‘out of the way’, so that some tangible or intangible result can be achieved.
The inner is more about being, about living in the moment. It is part of what people call “mindfulness”.
How do you achieve this?
Incongruous as it may seem, being present in the moment can require some structure and planning. You might have to write it into your diary and block out periods of time. Keep some buffer times on your daily plan – to catch your breath or just for you. And blocks of time you have set aside for family or people or activities special to you should remain absolutely sacrosanct – NOTHING bar a personal emergency can be allowed to encroach on them.
Here are three useful checklists for work life balance in the personal and family situation, in the workplace, and for employers.