Striking the balance

When looking at work-life as a battle between two opposing forces, it seems hard to believe a peaceable long-term resolution can be achieved. Is it just time for us to drop the balancing act?

Striking the balance

A common misconception we have about work-life balance is that it’s a question of how many hours we work. Julie Hurst, the director of the Work Life Balance Centre, has been running a national research project looking at work-life balance. “What we’ve found is that if you divide people into those who work fewer and those who work more than 48 hours a week and then measure the ill health of those groups they are roughly the same.” However, when divided according to whether they felt they had sufficient control over their working life or not, the findings were stark. “The ‘not in control’ group are three times as likely to be ill and about 19 times as likely to make a serious error,” she states. “It’s all about feelings of control, not necessarily the hours.”

This obviously has significant ramifications for entrepreneurs. “If it’s your own business, you have a very high degree of control,” says Hurst. However, this is not to say that entrepreneurs are not susceptible to making errors in how they distribute their attention. In Hurst’s opinion, this is down to the fact that most of our psychological needs can find an outlet in the workplace – whether that’s besting challenges or helping others – and this ease of access means we can often stop looking for fulfilment across a broader spectrum. Ultimately, this means either other areas begin to atrophy or that when a job ends we are suddenly cut adrift without any of our needs being met. She explains: “Wherever you are in your career, it’s about drawing your sense of self and your self-esteem from lots of different sources.”

That’s not to say these concerns only work one way. Although we tend to think of work-life balance as a case of work encroaching on the needs of our domestic lives, George Whitehead, who is venture partner manager at Octopus Investments, says he’s known plenty of entrepreneurs who decide they’ve earned a bit of time work-free after their first exit. All too often they quickly discover something is missing. “They try this new life out and realise that it just doesn’t work for them because the work-life balance isn’t there,” says Whitehead. Without any attempt to achieve and strive they end up feeling untested and unfulfilled. “The work is a really important part of their identity and also their way of a making a difference.” 

This is a point that Hurst concurs with. “I would say that it’s as dangerous to put all of your eggs in a life basket as putting all of them in a work basket,” Hurst states. “It is about spreading that load.” She provides an example – when people invest themselves in raising their children. Inevitably, when their children grow up and leave home, the individual’s sense of self comes under question because they have over-invested in a single area of their life. “It’s that ‘all or nothing’ investment in one thing that’s the problem.”

Kevin Friery, the head of counselling for Right Corecare notes something that is often overlooked is the fact that 85% of workplace productivity and attendance problems have nothing to do with work. “People worry about taking work home and the impact of work on home life but actually it works much more the other way round,” he says. “What you find is people’s personal lives intrude on their work lives.”

Because of this, it’s important for individuals to find ways to make their homelife more tolerant of the requirements of their working lives. This is partly about showing other people in your life you reconise they are still affected by your work life. “If you live with somebody and you take a job, that other person is impacted upon because you’re in their space and their time thinking about that job,” he explains. “Get your family on side so they’re not drawn into it as well.” Rather than seeing your work and home life as being at odds, you can then start to make them support each other much more effectively.

And this raises a very important point. Recently Facebook’s director of mobile partnerships Emily White coined a term that has seemed to capture the business world’s imagination: the work-life merge. In these times of flexible working and uninterrupted connectivity, is the image of work and life as two distinct, conflicting parties really appropriate or is it time the work-life balance was struck from our minds entirely?

“It’s a very important point, one that we’ve been working with for the last decade,” remarks Friery. “When you talk about work-life balance, it sounds like ‘this’ versus ‘that’.” He identifies that there are now two distinct approaches to work-life and which approach you adopt is dictated by necessity. Some roles – for example, working in a factory – require a clock-in, clock-out approach and here it’s best to preserve a very firm boundary between home and work. But for other situations, such as the one an entrepreneur finds themselves in where out-of-hours work and firefighting may be required, the focus needs to be on integration and mutual support between the complexities of working and non-working life. Friery continues: “When you talk about work-life integration, which is the term we use, what you’re acknowledging is that it’s one person with a complex life.”

There is also a strong connection between an increasing interest in entrepreneurialism and this sense of work-life integration. Octopus Investments’ Whitehead is also the chairman of the £50m Business Angel Co-investment Fund and he has observed that a great number of new angel investors are emerging to involve themselves in the next generation of businesses. “I think people are recognising that it’s not just a rare group of dragons that this is relevant to,” he comments. “A much wider swathe of the population are thinking perhaps it makes sense to spend some of their redundancy money on building up a business themselves or helping someone else get started.” He feels this is another area where the boundaries between an individual’s non-work life and their career are beginning to become far more blurred.

While it may be tempting to try and force a barrier between these elements, ultimately it’s better accepting the fact that our workplace and non-work needs are interdependent. As Hurst comments: “I don’t think it’s that easy to set up boundaries and I think there is a certain amount of merging.” But if we learn to go with this trend and try to integrate these elements evenly and without bias it can give us a level of security unavailable when the two are in conflict. “As human beings we just do better when we can draw strength from lots of different areas.” 

Josh Russell
Josh Russell

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