Work-life balance: a pseudonym for dodging work?

Listening to the radio recently, I heard a discussion regarding work-life balance.

A gentleman was complaining of too much focus on the lot of women and not enough ‘special initiatives’ for men.  What made me sit up was when he claimed that a woman looking to improve her ‘work-life balance’ really meant she wanted to cut working hours.  “When” he asked “do women ever try to improve their work-life balance by taking on more work?”

The implication seems to be that men work harder than women.  Presumably believing ‘taking on more work’ is synonymous with a good work-life balance.

In my 20 years of experience helping people with their careers, I can say that men and women both seek better balance, and it is true that for each person what that balance looks like is different.

What is interesting in career discussions is that there is often a big disparity between what someone starts out thinking they want – eg.“ to take a step up in my career” – and what after an in-depth career discussion they really want – eg “to be valued and appreciated for my hard work”.  It is easy to think if you were more senior you would be more valued.  However it is rarely true.  If you are already undervalued, promotion may make things worse, adding stress, more hours and more demanding responsibilities whilst still not being appreciated!

When will we realise that life isn’t a competition?  It is an experience.  And whilst we are here we may as well try and make it an enjoyable one.

The aim – whether described as work-life balance or just being happy – should be to love your work, just as you love your home life and your family.  Balance isn’t about sacrificing one for another, nor is it about shirking or being lazy.

When my mum was hospitalised I found myself rushing from work, to the hospital, and to the home to make time for my family.  That this was the hardest “job” I’ve ever done, but with no sacrifice of work time. Many of those who play a caring role at home – whether of children or of the elderly – will tell you this is the most demanding part of their daily lives, and actually by comparison work can represent a bit of a rest.

With more women than men playing the (unpaid) caring role in the home (58% are women)  where does that leave us with patronizing assertions that women are lazy and want to lounge about at home, whilst men are left to grind out a hard day’s work?

To use one of my mum’s favourite phrases – that’s poppycock!

At the root of achieving a good work-life balance lies motivation.  Our recent study shows that motivation is different for all of us.  If we understand our own motivations, we can move towards getting the balance right and recognising that some things light our personal fires more than others. The truth is that in doing nothing, lounging about, having no purpose or focus in life – these are not among the things that motivate anyone, male or female, young or old.

The idea of lumping women together and suggesting that the majority seek to do as little ‘work’ as possible is really quite shocking.  I am sure many of my female colleagues would have no trouble pointing at how they have extended their work and working hours whilst simultaneously playing the lead role in managing home and family life.

I didn’t wait to hear if there was a response to defend women, but I did leave the radio on long enough to hear him bemoaning (presumably thinking he was building his argument about the unfair bias against men) “Why do they have women-only gyms but nothing just for men?”

Those of us who have considered trying to get a round of golf at the St. George’s well renowned golf club (and many others besides no doubt) would immediately see the irony of this remark.  Actually if anything the problem remains the opposite.  Despite all our attempts in the working world to eliminate gender discrimination, it is clear that the problem lies in the perceptions and beliefs of individuals, so aptly represented in the assertions I heard on the radio.  Regrettably, it will take more than anti-discriminatory rules and regulations to change that.

I suggest an appreciation of the many permutations of what a good “work-life balance” means – for men and women alike – would be a good start!

Sarah Chiumento