In pursuit of a work-life balance

If I’m honest with you I’ve spent most of my life struggling to find balance. As a young child I tended to be into things, in an all or nothing kind of way, so if I was reading a book I wouldn’t just read it and put it down, I’d devour it, keep reading until I got to the end, desperate to know more and fully engage with it. That was never really considered a bad thing, who wouldn’t be pleased if their child was into reading. My parents went to great efforts to make sure that we had a balanced upbringing too, so as much as I loved study that wasn’t all I got up to, I was also into Judo and was regularly dragged out onto Dartmoor to go letterboxing, I attended Sunday School like a good girl should (although nothing stopped me asking questions about why, why, why), we learnt to swim at a young age, spent hours down the beach as kids (although I was often found reading on my favourite rock) and generally had great fun.

Finding my balance as a youngster

As I got older it became clear that I was indeed bookish – a curse my Gran laid on me at a young’ish age, imparted with a warning that I should be careful because boys don’t like bookish girls. Obviously I decided that any boys who didn’t like my bookishness weren’t worth worrying about, and to be fair I wasn’t too interested in serious romance, instead being far more interested in leaving home, studying and socialising. I had a whole string of jobs before I got my first ‘proper job’. I worked in a pot pourri factory, selling icecreams and tat at the Model Village, as a chambermaid and a waitress, at a kids club and so on. I also spent several happy years at Sainsburys, working in the bakery and at one stage did consider becoming a Trainee Manager, a relatively tempting prospect as a 17 year old who wasn’t sure about university (no-one in my family had ever been and there was certainly no pressure to attend). The best thing about Sainsburys was that it felt like a big family in the bakery, a loud and rowdy one, but a team nonetheless. I worked hard and played hard, spending hours of time with my colleagues, at work and out and about enjoying the delights that The English Riviera had to offer. When I left for university my position was kept open for Christmas, Easter and summer holidays (luckily living in a tourist town there usually was extra work available when I was on holiday from my studies).

As a student it was totally accepted, in fact almost expected, that you had to work a lot to afford to live, so I had Sainsburys out of term time and I worked on the university bank staff (ran a post room, worked as a student warden, odd bit of waitressing) during the academic term to pay my bills and afford to socialise. I also volunteered on a number of projects, every Wednesday afternoon (on community projects) and about an evening a week on the Nightline service. As a PhD student I studied full time, lectured at a neighbouring university and ran tutorial groups and did marking at my own. Alongside the social and volunteering. I never had a minute to myself, and that was considered perfectly acceptable – and I rationalised it by considering it all good experience for my future. I guess it’s worth also acknowledging that I was at uni in the days before twitter or facebook (thank god) but it means social distractions were either face to face coffee gatherings or nights out, or phonecalls or texts, and occasionally the odd letter was written.

My first ‘proper job’ was as a lecturer in Dublin. I worked very hard (preparing all my lectures for the first time took hours of research and preparation) and I played very hard, I also worked quite hard at making friends and building a social life (and yes it did feel like work for the first while). It was another all encompassing experience, oh and how could I forget, I also finished the writing up of my PhD in my first year lecturing, luckily I got a solid summer holiday to immerse myself in it. It was only when I returned to the UK to work briefly for the Civil Service that I ever had to consider my work-life balance as a construct. I had to clock in to work for the first time since Sainsburys, and you were actively discouraged from working over your allocated hours in a week. Of course it did happen, but without prior arrangement there would be no pay for it, and it really wasn’t seen as a sign of anything other than your own poor time management. I was living in Wales and working a lot in London at the time and as much as I’d have loved to have worked longer hours when I was in the London office, that was frowned upon, so I spent a lot of evenings wandering the parks of London or eating JS salad in my hotel room! The other joy of working in my job was that although you had a work laptop, you couldn’t connect to the network without hideous amounts of security VPN stuff (which I never did understand) but it meant you couldn’t meaningfully do anything if you weren’t on the network anyhow.

I didn’t last long in the civil service, as much as the enforced work-life balance was great, it did something very damaging to my motivation. Well I’ve always considered that it impacted on my motivation, it might also have been the work I was doing, or the feeling of being very small and insignificant in the face of huge amounts of bureaucracy. Either way I moved on to a role that was more in keeping with my previous experiences, I was part of a much smaller organisation and felt very able to influence, contribute and shape it. Alongside this the other joy of a small organisation was that no-one ever discouraged you from working long hours, there was no mechanism for clocking in or out, travel was also a part of the role and the onus very firmly placed on yourself to protect your own work-life balance.

Therein lies the rub. I’ve just never been that good at finding that balance, if my work/hobbies/social interest me then I’ll throw myself into it. That’s just who I am. What I’m slowly growing to realise is that is no bad thing, but it is also not sustainable without support. I can not keep working longer hours in the false economic belief that I’m doing more – well I can, but it’s simply not worth it. There has been a lot written about this of late, for example an article from the Harvard Business Review Is your smartphone making you less productive? (I’m not blaming the technology myself although it definitely doesn’t help), an accompanying book Sleeping with your smartphone: how to break the 24/7 habit and change the way you work, a similar focus from Time Why companies should force employees to unplug and all of this alongside the backdrop of the EU Working Time Directive that limits employees to a maximum 48hour work week (except in the UK where an opt out clause means that employees are allowed to work more than 48hours but can not be forced to do so). Geoffrey James sums it up in his article Stop Working More than 40 Hours a Week where he points out that quality suffers from long hours, that it sets a bad example to colleagues and staff, and that the law is in place for a reason.

Anyone who has browsed my blog before, or knows me at all, will understand that my Dad is terminally ill with cancer at the moment. Not surprisingly, this has had a huge impact on our family life. It has also meant that I’m find it increasingly difficult to focus so solely on work. It’s not that I care any less about work, just that in the face of life or death, it takes a back seat. I’ve also been talking to Dad about what makes me happy, and what the meaning of life is (or could or should be) – nothing obvious here, we decided it is for each and every person to determine for themselves, my last attempt to define what makes me happy is here, but on this topic well worth a read is The Happiness Product from @mistergough.

So it feels like work and family life is a little out of kilter, so what am I going to do about it? Two months ago I signed up for the Torbay Half Marathon but have done very little (and very sporadic) training since, am going to get back on that this week. I’ve also just started a module with the Open University, focusing on Creativity, Innovation and Change I’m hopeful that it will provide me with some practical hints and tips to support me to perform better in my role at work, thereby improving things for myself and my colleagues and making me more efficient at work. If nothing else it will force a balance in my working hours, in a more positive way than a clocking in and out machine might, put simply there are only 24 hours in a day and if I am to run this half marathon, study, work and have enough time to see family and friends I need to realign the allocations somewhat.

I’d be very interested to hear from anyone reading this how they manage their own work-life balance, or whether indeed it’s not a problem. I suspect that this will be an ongoing focus for me over the next while (and indeed possibly my entire working life) so all thoughts are very welcome. Thanks.

A young boy I took loads of photos of when I was on holiday – a tenuous balance photo – more here!

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4 thoughts on “In pursuit of a work-life balance

  1. Great article. When you have work/life separation thrust upon you, as you did during your time in the Civil Service, then I’d imagine that the natural balance gets taken for granted.

    I haven’t had a “proper” job for over twelve years so I find it hard to remember what that was like. Having said that, when I did have a proper job it was in the arts and there was a definite culture of showing who could work the latest/hardest. Sometimes those organisational pressures can be the worst, the tragedy being that you’re working hard for the wrong reasons.

    For me now the difference is that, although I can end up working long hours and at ridiculous times, at least I know that I’m really doing it for the right reasons. I don’t work alone but I still have a lot of responsibility for what does and doesn’t happen.

    Now I don’t have the meaningless pressures of having to show other people that I’m working hard I’m able to think about what I should really be doing, and it comes down to simple things.

    Firstly, I want to make sure that I spend enough time with my family, something I actively have to make time for. For example, I spend all day on Friday with my children (they don’t go to school) instead of working. I choose to work only four days a week because this balance is importnat to me.

    Secondly, it’s really important to have variety. Even if most of the variety comes in the work part it’s still beneficial. If there are things I’m not doing then they nag at me and I have to see if I’m best using my time.

    Finally, for me, the most important thing is that things don’t blur into each other. I’ve been thinking more and more about this lately. Some of the things you talk about in your post are to do with the effect that smartphones and social networks have on us. The distractions they bring are really dangerous I think because they make everything half done, and that doesn’t make for a good balance at all.

  2. There’s quite a lot to consider, I think, with working out a good work-life balance. Firstly, it’s hard to separate work and life when a job does you good in many respects; you enjoy it, it gives you new skills, experiences, friends. People have different psychological contracts with employers – essentially you are exchanging money for your time, but it’s much more emotional than that, something you can see clearly when a company decides to restructure or make people redundant (aside from ‘how do i pay the rent’ the rejection and anger is a strong factor..) I strongly feel that it should be possible to do a good job, demonstrating the commitment and care that is important to you in the hours allotted by the company you work for – this is really important for maintaining a good work-life balance. Secondly – your work ethic is clearly important to you, but it’s not the only one of your values that is important – family is another one, friends and being social another. it is helpful sometimes to think about the core things that are important to you (whether good or bad, you don’t need to make judgements) where you spend your time & if this needs adjusting. I think everyone experiements with this over the course of their lives…good luck 🙂

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