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Elusive balance to illuminating harmony

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We are in the midst of Avurudu celebration from work to enjoy “life”. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review reconnected me with this ongoing debate on so called “work-life balance”. It was heartening to see the standpoint I took two years ago in writing a paper and making a presentation on the “myth of work-life balance” at the Asia Pacific Conference of the Federation of Unions. Avurudu awakening alerts us on the need to shift from an elusive balance to an illuminating harmony. Ambiguities of “work-life balance” The concept of work-life balance is based on the notion that paid work and personal life should be seen less as competing priorities than as complementary elements of a full life. The way to achieve this is to adopt an approach that is “conceptualised as a two-way process involving a consideration of the needs of employees as well as those of employers” (Lewis, 2000: p.105). At the core of an effective work-life balance definition are two key everyday concepts that are relevant to us, namely Achievement and Enjoyment (Bard, 2003). How can work be separated from life? The purported distinction between them has been widely criticised. Donkin (2010) critiqued it as a “ghastly and meaningless neologism”. The simple truth is that work and life are inseparable. The origin of such a division goes way back to Rene Descartes, who is attributed the famous quote,” I think, therefore I am”. As the father of modern philosophy, his rational thinking lead to a logical division between mind and matter what he called dualism. Having a digital division between work and life is a direct consequence of such rational thinking. The issue here is the holistic nature of the concept called life. According to the Oxford Dictionary (online), life is the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death. Also, it denotes the existence of an individual human being or animal. In contrast, work is defined as activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a result. Obviously, work is a set of activities within the broad spectrum of life. Then, it is not work vs. life but work in life. In other words, work is a subset of life. The elusive “balance” A balanced life sounds like a balanced diet which is also highly unlikely on a day-to-day basis (Ryan, 2010). According to him, “my life has a multitude of variables that I have no control over and to be trying to keep this all in balance (trying to make equal) would lead to the need to assert myself beyond my locus of control, not my idea of fun or sanity”. This indicates the elusiveness associated. According to the Oxford Dictionary (online), balance is a situation in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions. Is it what managers require in the name of work-life balance? The search to achieve this balanced, ideal manager would yield the expected results is questionable. “It would not only restricts managers’ discretion, but may also create additional anxieties as managers can never hope to live up to these idealised, multiple and balanced identities as perfect parent, partner, friend, colleague, worker and manager” (Ford and Collinson, 2011). This has to be viewed in the context of global realities. First, birth rates are declining throughout much of the industrialised world, notably in Japan and Europe. This raises issues of population sustainability and related concerns about a crisis of caring as population ages. (Lewis and others, 2007). Fertility changes in Europe have been linked with persistent gendered employment experiences, exacerbated by current forms of work which underestimate the importance of social reproduction for national economies as well as the quality of life. Second, rising levels of stress and sickness absence also question the sustainability of current values and ways of working. A social sustainable approach may involve questioning some of the assumptions of current forms of competitive capitalism (Ford and Collinson, 2011). The intent here is not to present a philosophical discourse for or against capitalism, but to look more into the practical aspects of ensuring managers maintain achievement and enjoyment. I would argue that such an endeavour requires us to have a conscious shift from an elusive balance to an insightful harmony. From balance to harmony Balance requires equal attention to different elements. Is this really possible? Covey (1991) in his best seller ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ advocated managers to “begin with the end in mind”. It boils down to one’s fundamental purpose of existence. How much emphasis one would place on to a particular role in professional or personal front of life should depend on this raison d’être. I have seen career women who opted for a challenging managerial career leaving aside a marriage. I have also seen female managers opting to step down in order to take charge of their family front better. It is the emphasis you put into each role. Harmony, in contrast, is all about the accord. According to the Oxford Dictionary (online), it is the quality of forming a pleasing and consistent whole. It is a pleasing arrangement of parts with congruity. A busy manager dropping off his son to school and coming to work, continue till late evening, whilst being in touch with the family, and enjoying a refreshing Sunday with them could be one such example. I would suggest that there are two facets of harmony, inner and outer. Inner harmony deals with mind, body and spirit. Outer harmony deals with work, family and society. Eastern wisdom is abundant with refreshing resources with regard to inner harmony. Zen has paved way, with practices such as meditation, yoga to sustain such an inner harmony. Loehr and Schwartz (2001) in their seminal HBR article titled ‘Making of a Corporate Athlete’ describe vividly the importance of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual “capacities”. This essentially points to inner harmony. The spillover effect of it will facilitate the challenge to achieve outer harmony. Figure 1 depicts such combination of inner and outer harmony. Harmonising work, family and society does not necessary mean perfection. There will be events that you need to prioritise more on office front. Launching a new telecom product or establishing a new bank branch can be such examples. The deprivation of the family front in such cases should be recovered by paying more emphasis on a priority basis, without interrupting the office front. The situation can be more difficult for a manager following a MBA with demanding academic work. There can be simultaneous peaks occurring such as an upcoming exam, looming project timeline and a sick child at home. It requires understanding between the manager and his/her superiors on one side, and between the loved ones on the other side. That is where institutional support becomes useful, even though not always possible. There is even a macro level where political, economic, social, technological, environmental and legal, (popularly known as PESTEL) factors come into the scene. The influence by the national labour policies is one such example. Sung-pil (2012) reports the need to reduce the long work hours in Korea. According to him, “in 2010, the annual working hours of waged employees in Korea amounted to 2,111 hours which are about two-and-a-half months longer than the 1,692 hours, which is the average of the OECD Countries.” The challenge here is to maintain the inner and outer harmony within the macro factors that can be favourable or unfavourable. Sri Lankan managers should be aware on these aspects in order to be attentive towards achieving results. Way forward In the journey of revisiting work-life balance, we rediscovered the inner and outer harmony as essential for managers to achieve and to enjoy. In an increasingly changing world, ensuring inner and outer harmony with individual and institutional initiatives is the sure-fire way towards prosperity. That is where we need to have a conscious shift from an elusive balance to an illuminating harmony. For this to take place there is no better time for us than this Avurudu. (Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri works at the Postgraduate Institute of Management. He can be reached on ajantha@pim.lk or www.ajanthadharmasiri.info.)

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