October 2004 Insight Newsletter

Is Work-Life Balance Still An Issue?

1. Is Work-Life Balance Still An Issue?

“A diamond is a chunk of coal that made good under pressure.” – Anonymous

Life balance may be the least understood, most talked about issue in workplaces and families today. A former champion of balance published a new magazine article recently entitled “Balance is Bunk.” He points out we keep hearing that in newly industrialized countries people work ceaselessly and therefore so must we.

That same week a single Saturday paper contained three pieces: one on expatriate employees returning home to North America for family/balance reasons, another going the other way – a flood of graduates rushing to Asia to pin down major jobs (with highly stressful challenges – changing cultures, building home lives in new countries and over-work added to lack of former social life) and a “drop-out” article about an entrepreneur who quit a high stress, highly paid corporate job to find balance in her own business.

Why the confusion among advice? The short story: balance isn’t a one-time achievement and it’s not what most people think. You can’t either have it or not have it. It’s a daily challenge regardless of the work you choose or whether you choose any at all. Doing nothing for months or years can be particularly stressful even for those who can afford it. If you learn to work at balance “with balance” you can develop it just as you do with any skill you choose to learn.

We live in a fast-paced, high-change environment where learning to balance is actually our most important skill – not “finding” balance, but learning to balance. While some will quit, others will choose to stay in those high stress corporate jobs. That won’t change anytime soon. Just as someone will go overseas to replace the expatriates who come home.

Some of those who stay will do so because they’ve figured out how to do their tough jobs without driving themselves crazy. Others will burn out! Depression from over-stress is escalating rapidly in most industrialized workplaces. Absenteeism costs blamed on it are skyrocketing. The problem is real, but is there a solution?

Psychologists have long known that the person who feels in control is happier and less stressed than those who don’t. But our sense of control is fleeting. Everyone has a boss even if, as with entrepreneurs, that’s you. It’s tempting to say we have no one to blame, but ourselves. We can walk away from any job any time in one sense. But making a living, feeding our families and achieving the lifestyle we want can seem to make us prisoners in another – unless we consciously work to give ourselves options and manage as if we have them.

The happiest people are those who feel they’re doing something they’ve eagerly chosen. If we bite off too much, we’re stressed by overwork, too little and we’re bored – a common finding in workplaces today where as many as 60% of managers surveyed report they aren’t given enough challenging opportunities.

Over the years, those I observed who balance most successfully have goals for themselves that involve trying to keep an eye on what comes next – alternatives. Not that they look to quit each job or get the next promotion, quite the contrary. Their goals are to build a view of how long the current work will satisfy them, whether their energy for it will last and what might come next. In other words, they anticipate change and learn to feel as if they have choices instead of being slaves to a single job.

For every person who says they don’t have choices, there’s another who keeps working on creating choices for themselves. This survival technique is also the key to a happy life. It allows people to summon the courage to fit in time for balance. When someone believes they can’t take time off, the result is literally feeling like a slave. Successful people learn they can actually enjoy the decision to take time away from work, but it does take courage. It also takes a bit of time from work to keep building toward choices. Both pay off enormously. Creating options can be done by saving money for a bit of a cushion, keeping aware of alternatives and consciously developing new skills you inevitably need every day in whatever work you do.

2. What To Do and NOT Do

Though I’ve mentioned it before, this page of quotations contains two lists. What NOT to do may be as important or more so than the typical list provided of what you should do. To the excellent “should do” list I’d simply add – work on creating choices for yourself whenever you can with these hints.

3. Is It Ever Too Soon To Start Learning To Manage Stress?

I’ll leave you with this web site and just one further comment. The kids we help to see choices will be the adults who manage stressful work-family lives better: Kids Have Stress, Too.