ZAHID UR REHMAN KHOKHER
THE DILEMMA OF WORK-LIFE BALANCE When Harvard Business Review interviewed three best-performing CEOs of the World for 2016, they were also asked about the extent they are trying to model work-life balance for the rest of their company. The first responded briefly “I’m not a great role model”. The other said “It’s difficult to find the right work/life balance as the CEO of a global company” whereas the last one’s response was “I’m not a good role model, either.”
While most working people strive to achieve some balance between their work and other facets of life, more often than not it is considered an “ideal”, which does not exist in real life. That is one of the main reasons why “work” element in the lives of many people acquires much more predominance than all other things combined.
Nevertheless, when Bronnie Ware, the palliative care nurse and author of the famous book “Regrets of Dying” compiled the common remorse of numerous patients who have gone home to pass the last days of their lives, the most prominent regret was “I wish I hadn’t worked that hard” as it led them to “miss their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship”. The other major regret was that they should not have let their friends and relationships slip over the years by being caught up in their own lives. In her words, “Everyone misses their friends when they are dying”.
IS SEGREGATION BETWEEN WORK AND LIFE A PRACTICAL IDEA? Before contemplating the strategies to attain balance in the work-life, a more important question is whether compartmentalising our life roles into “work” and “life” is in itself a good idea. Isn’t our life an “integrated whole” of which “work” is only a component? Doesn’t the context of work-life balance change during different phases of one’s life or have different meanings to different people? Similarly, a bigger question is whether we have a measure or a gauge to help us define whether we have attained the ideal work-life balance. Is it about the quantity or quality of those hours spent in various activities that matters?
Let’s try to untangle some of these puzzles.
The fact is that meaningfulness of life cannot be defined by a single career. If detaching the profession leaves nothing in your life, then that life cannot be considered meaningful. We shouldn’t be among those who become successful in their careers but fail in life.
To have an integrated vision of work-life balance, a better framework is to define life in terms of four kinds of relationships:
• Relationship with Self
• Relationship with Work
• Relationship with Family, Friends and Community
• Relationship with the Creator
The objective is to seamlessly integrate our professional pursuits with our other “relationships” so that we can achieve a greater sense of life, and not merely strive to become effective “time-manger” for the sole purpose of performing better at work.
RELATIONSHIP WITH SELF This relationship is often the most neglected one. Deteriorating health condition should be considered the first metric of work-life imbalance. Our life is meaningless without “us”. However, we have “workaholic identities” created by our corporate lives so that we are not perceived as slack or socially inactive. Instead, many professionals want to portray themselves as a classical “corporate warrior” – who is always available, ready to take the extra workload and willing to sacrifice personal life in favour of job responsibilities, as and when needed. This has led many to presume that availing free time is a waste of time. However, just like the take-off safety messages announced by airlines, putting own wellbeing before the others is the right strategy. This relationship needs time allocation for many reasons.
1. to have a healthy body and mind that could help us to stay active and think creatively
2. to “sharpen the saw”, as termed by Stephen Covey – learning a new skill, language or simply a new sport
3. to plan, reflect and take breaks. Allow the mind to wander, take adequate sleep and support hobbies outside work benefits. Our faculties of organising, analysing and problem-solving develop our broader identities outside professional careers.
RELATIONSHIP WITH WORK In the entire discourse on work-life balance, work gets an elevated status. While work does not – and should not – be the only gauge of how we define ourselves and our successes, it still has an important place. Most of us wish to see ourselves successful in our career pursuits – not only to earn a living but also to enjoy the higher position, to cherish the achievements and to contribute to the professions we work in. However, for some others, work-life balance means where they have minimal work pressure, no impending deadlines or where they can spend most – if not all – of their time with family and friends.
Work is a trust and could be a cause of fulfilment if it is aligned with our purpose in life. Similar to all other life pursuits, without diligence, persistence and ‘love of labour’, success at workplace cannot be attained. While as important as this relationship is, we should be able to get out of this role when we have delivered our part – which will allow us to fulfil our responsibilities in respect of other relationships. Similarly, in case of contrasting pressures of impending deadlines at office and family commitments, honest dialogue with the boss and spouse to find alternatives could help instead of being stressed and distracted.
WHERE TO WORK AND HOW MUCH? WHICH ROLE IS “COMPULSORY” AND WHICH IS “ELECTIVE” IN RELATION TO PEOPLE AND THE COMMUNITY AROUND US. AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, WHAT IS THE “MINIMUM LEVEL OF PERFORMANCE” FOR EACH LIFE ROLE, WHICH CAN GUIDE OUR RE-ALLOCATION OF RESOURCES AMONG THESE ROLES.
RELATIONSHIP WITH FAMILY, FRIENDS AND COMMUNITY Harvard Study of Adult Development is one of the world’s longest studies that has been collecting data on the physical and mental health of the research group for about 80 years. Among the key findings of this enormous exercise is that “our relationships and how happy we are in those relationships have a powerful influence on our health”. The study has consistently shown that embracing satisfying relationships cause a delay in the decline of physical and mental health, protect against discontents and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ or even genes. Despite the importance of this relationship, most regrets of working people in their last days, as quoted in Bronnie Ware’s book, actually pertain to not allocating sufficient time to our family and close friends – which we either take for granted and continue giving priority to our work or we hope that one day we will be able to find enough time for them.
HBS professor Clay Christensen has aptly articulated this dilemma of our time allocation in his book “How Will You Measure Your Life?” Unconsciously, people allocated their extra time and energy in pursuits which grant the most tangible and immediate sense of accomplishment – which is often related to work. However, not allocating enough time for spouse and children does not yield immediate results nor does the underlying problem surfaces until it’s too late. The key lesson is that if people around you are important then you have to assign time and energy for them, resulting in lifelong and deep connections that you can rely on in the part of your life when you need them the most.
RELATIONSHIP WITH THE CREATOR Most belief systems of the world who claim to follow the divine guidance are in unison on this core point: that an All-Knowing and AllWise Creator originated this entire universe and everything in it with a deep sense of purpose. Contrary to most other species, as a creature with speech and the ability to make intelligent choices, human beings have gained a special status in this universal design – expected to reflect on their presence in this inhabitable planet and find their purpose through divine guidance brought by His prophets and other signs of His existence in the universe. This endeavour will help them discover their relationship with the Creator.
This relationship is important because this paradigm could provide a sound basis for our definition of success or failure in life. Similarly, this link could help us define and redefine our relationship with the other three aspects of life mentioned above: how much time to give to self, work, rest and reflection. Where to work and how much? Which role is “compulsory” and which is “elective” in relation to people and the community around us. And most importantly, what is the “minimum level of performance” for each life role, which can guide our re-allocation of resources among these roles.
MAKING SENSE OF IT ALL: SOME PRACTICAL TIPS LEARN THE TECHNIQUE OF ROLE BALANCING Cracking relationships with family and deteriorating health are two primary symptoms that suggest that we are sacrificing some roles over others while being unable to meet their minimum expectations and requirements. In order to bring balance to this situation, a careful identification and assessment is needed for us to be able to meet the minimum performance level, as defined by our purpose-in-life.
Once such roles are identified, extra available resources (such as time, energy, money) need to be deployed. If there are no extra resources available, then performance level in some other roles have to be reduced to enable the transfer of those resources to the role where minimum performance level is not being met. For example, you might be allocating more time to work or leisure that could be given to family or to keep in contact with old friends. You should be willing to drop or change some of your life roles without which you can still achieve your purpose. Such as heaving workload, company culture or the attitude of the direct supervisor that is not leaving you enough time for other “compulsory” roles (such as your spouse, son/daughter, father/ mother etc.).This could be the time to seek alternative work opportunities within or outside the company or a new career altogether. The target is that under no circumstances should the performance in compulsory life roles drops or gets below the minimum level.
GIVE UNDIVIDED ATTENTION TO THE ROLE-IN-HAND To contribute most to each role, a primary principle is to be “thoughtfully present” in what we are doing. The technology was supposed to bring us ease of work through tools such as emails, text messaging, video conferencing and project management software that could leave more room to fulfil other life roles. However, the non-stop, compulsive and distracting use of technology, especially with the advent of mobile apps, has blurred the line between professional and personal life, and ushered us in an era of “continuous partial attention”. In this condition, we are constantly in the state of hyper-alertness and multitasking mode but are unable to give full attention to any task or role. Psychologists say that being in this condition for prolonged periods of time can result in poor concentration, hampered brain function and elevated anxiety.
The solution is to give undivided attention to the role-in-hand to the maximum extent possible. Barring any emergency, it is possible to avoid checking new social media posts or WhatsApp messages during work time and stop following office emails or project updates when having dinner with family or friends. If during travel or vacations, following up with staff or office work is unavoidable, allocating a ‘block of time’ during the day is a better strategy, rather than continuously juggling between the both.
Remember: Technology is a good servant but a bad master.