We have often heard the term, “work-life balance”. What does it mean? Is it really possible to achieve? What are the related issues in the Sri Lankan context? Today’s column will attempt to find answers to the above.
We are living in a changing world where the rate of change is also accelerating. In such a context, consistent performance is increasingly becoming critical. This is particularly true for managers. They are supposed to achieve results in an efficient and effective manner utilising the existing resources, as any management textbook tells us. The crux of the matter is that they have to do so, whilst playing multiple roles in professional and personal fronts. Clarity is required with regard to “what”, “why” and “how” of managing oneself, in doing justice to all roles.
Wok-life balance revisited
Management literature is abundant with research on “work-life balance”. Amongst the widely cited, Kirchmeyer (2000) defined work–life balance as “achieving satisfying experiences in all life domains.” The Department of Trade and Industry of the UK defines work-life balance as being “about adjusting working patterns regardless of age, race or gender, (so) everyone can find a rhythm to help them combine work with their other responsibilities or aspirations” (Maxwell and McDougall, 2004).
On the one hand, anecdotal evidence suggests that work-life balance is an increasingly important value, particularly among younger workers (Shellenbarger, 1999). On the other hand, new communication technologies enabling constant contact with employees and the need for businesses to cut lead times in order to compete globally have led to increased time pressures and intrusion of work into non-work time for managers (Milliken & Dunn-Jensen, 2005).
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 René Descartes, who is attributed with 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 which 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 an 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 concept of work-life balance also relates to assumptions that work “steals” time away from employees’ real lives, and that “life” beyond paid work revolves around family or childcare alone (Ford and Collinson, 2011). The debates on the importance of work-life balance are shaped much more by the perceived benefits to the employer (Healy, 2004). This suggests that alleged worker-friendly approaches mask conflicts of interest between employers and employees behind an apparently benign, humanitarian facade (Legge, 2001).
Hence the reality is not how to achieve work-life balance, but to understand the underpinnings of it to see, what exactly is required and why. Caproni (2004) elaborates it further:
“….that much of the discourse of work/life balance in the scholarly and popular business press is built on a language and logic that are based in traditional models of bureaucratic organisations, and thus the discourse is likely to perpetuate—and perhaps further entrench—many of the problems it promises to alleviate. In short, the same kind of thinking that got us into this predicament is not going to get us out of it (Caproni, 2004)”
The need is to revisit the relationship between work and “non-work” and to see what is required to ensure meaningful interaction between the two.
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 illusiveness 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? Whether the search to achieve this balanced, ideal manager would yield the expected results is questionable. “It would not only restrict 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 the 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 his son off 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.
How can we move from an elusive balance to an insightful harmony? What approaches are possible? Can Sri Lankan managers do better on this front? The next column will continue to explore this matter, in search of better meaning towards higher achievements.
The challenge here is to maintain the inner and outer harmony within the macro factors that can be favourable or unfavourable. In moving further, it is interesting to see how the inner and outer harmony contributes to “work in life” and “life in work”.