Is Work Life imbalance a personal choice?


Is Work Life imbalance a personal choice? Or does it just reflect a changed work environment?

We recently asked the users at WorkersCount about their Work/Life Balance. 38% responded that they do not have a positive work life balance. A slightly higher number earlier said they are frequently at the office at 8pm. We assume this means virtually as well.  What’s amazing is that 80% say their organization actually supports work life balance. What can explain this disconnect?


An always-on generation

The discrepancy fascinated us so much we asked a series of workplace engagement experts. Our first expert said that the notion of the 9-to-5 model was an outdated construct of the industrial revolution. As we have almost all become knowledge workers, it is increasingly difficult to "leave work (and especially work problems) at the office." Simply put, we work in our head - which travels with us everywhere.   And so does our smartphone, email and SMS. 

Beyond this is the issue of an increasingly global economy where business partners, suppliers and customers often are in different parts of the world – and different time zones. When economies were not on global time, everyone worked with “colleagues” in the same time zone and went home at the same time.   Today, someone is always awake, working and sending work-related communications to others.  “It’s five O’clock somewhere” has been changed to “It’s 8:30 AM somewhere.”


A greater work ethic than previous periods or obsessive-compulsive?

Our second expert suggest that many peoples’ personality and work ethic are such that that they devote themselves completely to work when they are "on the clock." However, because of their level of commitment and focus, they find it hard to leave work at work or obey “the clock.”  Selfishly, some employers take advantage of this and encourage working groups to “continue to collaborate” from home and after hours.  This essentially extends the workday from 8 to 10 to 12 hours and more, as workers receive communications from colleagues and bosses that they feel obligated to return in real time.


What I say versus what I do

Another expert relates the discrepancy to the difference between what is written versus reality.   He said: “Many companies also have codes of ethics and conduct that aren't worth the paper they're written on. I've found the work life balance not to be as much the interruption of electronic means or being always on so much, but rather from things like workplace bullying where people get work dumped on their desk with no consideration for their capacity, or where junior staff have to fix up the mess their bosses have made, because they'll be blamed when the wheels fall off anyway, despite their seniors being the ones at fault. More fair play leads to better work life balance.”


Lacking a subordinate experience = lacking management skills

The last expert claims that many senior managers and executives have jumped levels, moving from being individual contributors and “ super-workers” directly to becoming managers of many people and processes.  Thus they have not been working as subordinates in any real sense.  This means that they have very little empathy or experience setting reasonable work-life balance limits.  They were those obsessive-compulsive, super-workers and thus they don’t know anything different. 


So what is reality?

It is probably a mix of what each of our experts had to say. Clearly, we can be “always on” –which is to our detriment ultimately.  Is there any pure “down time” in today’s Generation Y worker?  Perhaps not if we define it as being “OOO” or the old “Out Of Office” Outlook auto-reply to email.  For many of today’s workers there is no “OOO” –ever.  Additionally, today’s workers (especially Gen-X and Boomers) are so afraid of “failure” that this is mistranslated into “always being available is a great work ethic.”  The consequence of this misalignment are that personal limits are gone; workers don’t know when to push-back, set limits and shut off the “office.”  Burn-out is more likely to happen, and productivity drops.


The prescription? 

Create limits, know your own addictions, and force yourself to shut-off.  If you must, carry 2 phones.  Give your laptop and phone a nice home in your apartment or house that is far away from the dinner table and family room.  Turn your ringer to “vibrate” or “silent” when you have family time.  Resist the urge to check email five times an hour.  Set your phone’s email notifications off when you leave the office.  Take walks with the dog, friends and family and don’t carry a phone.  Insist on leaving the office and make up an excuse like “I promised my family I’d be home for a special dinner by 6:00 today.”  Get a buddy in the office or in your building to carpool or commute with you and use that as the excuse to stand up and announce you’re leaving for the day.  You’ll earn big-time respect and people will magically figure out how to work with you to get the work done.  It’s amazing how that happens.

Want to read more about how some workers are achieving work-life balance?  Read this interesting article from Business Insider @businessinsider :

“HOW TO HAVE IT ALL: Advice From 10 Rockstar Startup Executives Who Are Parents”

We think it should be re-titled however to read:  “Rockstar Parents who are also executives.”  Think about it, and consider which is the more important job.   No question about it.