Give up work-life ‘balance’ for work-life ‘fit’
Does anyone ever achieve work-life ‘balance? The concept of balance implies that the work and the non-work need to be in equal measure, and when it’s not then we’re ‘out of balance’. When you feel out of balance, something’s not right – you’re doing it all ‘wrong’. No one wants to feel wrong all the time, focusing on what you don’t have, feeling unproductively guilty that you haven’t made it all work out perfectly.
Another problem that work-life balance often sounds to leaders and managers as if you’re going to be working less... and that gives them a problem.
Formal work-life balance policies in the workplace don’t have great success either. There’s no point in being told to go home at 6pm if, when you get there, you sit around thinking about what you didn’t get done and how you’re going to get it all finished by lunchtime tomorrow. Formal policies don’t really leave people with much autonomy – and isn’t that what people really want – to be able to fit work around their own specific requirements, feel in control of how work fits into their life so they can put their energy where it’s most needed depending on priorities? What works for me probably won’t work for you. Balance ignores the fact that work and life are constantly changing.
The way I look at it, what we need is more of a whole-person approach. You take all of you to work and you take your work home, even if it's just in your head. Success in one affects the other. What you need is some wiggle room. It’s a work-life jigsaw – when work and life fit together is presents a pretty picture.
A new definition
Increasingly people are working towards a work-life ‘fit’.
Sometimes you want to be able to come into the office at 9.30 instead of 8.30. Maybe you want to do the school run without stress or get a morning train or flight back from your weekend minibreak, get away on Friday lunchtime. So long as we don’t all do it at the same time, what’s the problem? You can offer to cover for someone else while they do the same next week or offer to go to the conference that no one really wants to go to but you know someone’s got to go and there might be some useful contacts – you’ll take one for the team. Or you could make it up with some remote work on Sunday afternoon when the kids are at football.
Maybe Tuesday morning is the only time this week that you’re going to make it to the gym; coming to work 15 or 20 minutes late on morning could be what supports you in being fit and healthy. For many of the sandwich generation (parents who are also carers of elderly relatives) being able to make a 20-minute early morning visit could help them support their relative to continue to live at home. These are very real situations for many people. The word ‘balance’ doesn’t get uttered – it just makes it possible to fit everything in and be nice to some of the people you love.
Some of my clients who are trying to make life changes are studying as well as trying to fit in work and family commitments. Perhaps you want to study but feel too tired when you don’t get home until 7 and then, by the time you’ve cooked dinner... But if you got up early and didn’t have to get in until 10 two mornings a week, you could get hours of real work done; you could stay late to make up the time and miss the traffic or stay out and meet a friend.
Present solutions, not problems
Presenting your unique solutions to your work-life fit is key to finishing the jigsaw. This involves presenting it to yourself as a solution first, rather than something that you need to feel guilty about, or judge yourself for. You only get one life. It's pretty reasonable to want to enjoy it.
If you’re the first person in your workplace to try to get decent work-life fit, then congratulate yourself for confronting a problem head-on and think how you could be making it easier for others who would benefit from you showing the way.
Involve colleagues before you meet your line manager, get their support for helping you out (possibly in exchange for doing the same for you). This shows that there’s a will from others for this to work out too.
When you approach a manager, present your request as a solution, and it is much more likely to be received positively. If there’s resistance, ask for a three-month trial and a review of how it’s going for all concerned; if you haven’t tried it, there’s no evidence that it won’t work!
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