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As soon as they learn I’m one of the UK’s leading work-life balance experts people tell me they could do with better balance themselves. Some say it with a sense of pride in how busy they are – almost like a badge of success. Male senior managers often say “my wife tells me I need better balance” and I’m struggling to decide whether that means “my wife and I have different priorities in life” or “I’m too macho to admit anything other than work is important to me”. By far the largest group simply look confused and suggest they have little idea of how to improve their balance.
Why is work-life balance so elusive? I believe part of the problem is the plethora of quizzes and helpful tips that suggest there’s a ‘magic formula’ and when we find it all will be well. The reality – as 30 years of social science research has found – is that our work-life balance is determined by our personal preferences and our life stage. The choices we make will be determined by our current priorities.
For instance, Professor Ellen Ernst Kossek separates people into Work Firsters – who find their identity predominantly through work – and Family Firsters who prioritise their non-work lives. This can be a challenge for new parents whose identities have so far been grounded in professional roles and who are now making the adjustment to parenthood.
Where mothers are concerned this can lead them to experience Stereotype Threat – a psychological concept where individuals are at risk of confirming stereotypes held about them. The typical perception is that mothers are less committed to their work since their children take priority. Consequently professional women are often reluctant to ask for adjustments to working patterns – worrying they will conform to negative stereotypes held by colleagues. If you find yourself in that situation I would urge you to be brave, pick the right moment and ask for the minimum you need at that point in time.
The fact that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution to work-life balance challenges means it’s also possible you may need a working arrangement outside of your employer’s current policies. Developing a strong business case for the benefits of working an alternative pattern increases the likelihood your employer will agree to supporting your quest for better balance. And if the alternative involves you throwing in the towel altogether you have nothing to lose by asking.
While balancing work and family can at times be challenging, there are positive benefits when the two aspects are in harmony. Any disappointments experienced in one area of your life are likely to be offset by gains in the other while skills are often transferable. Any parent of a toddler will confirm the overall improvements in their negotiating abilities brought about by trying to reason with a two year old.
If work-life balance is personal and dynamic, how do we identify what we need at any point in time? My preference is to use a question drawn from a branch of positive psychology called Solutions Focus. “Imagine you went to bed tonight and a miracle happened. When you woke you had your perfect balance. How would you know? What would tell you?”
The beauty of this question is that it bypasses all the prescriptive lists of the analytical mind, ignores the “shoulds” and gets to the heart of what would make us feel our lives are better balanced. Which is a great thing to aim for in 2017. After all, most of us know that while work can be satisfying, it’s our family life that often presents us with unrepeatable moments – attending a child’s first nativity play or perhaps spending time with an ageing relative being lost to dementia. As the saying goes “nobody on their deathbed regretted not spending more time in the office”.
*Anna Meller is the Executive Work ReBalance Mentor. She has supported senior managers to improve their work life balance with a practical approach grounded in her own corporate HR career in the financial services sector. She has developed an innovative work-life balance coaching model that draws on Positive Psychology, her own published research and her consulting work. Anna is offering Workingmums.co.uk readers free advice in December when they sign up for her #AdventAdvantage in December. Based on the idea of an Advent Calendar for grown-ups the #AdventAdvantage involves receiving an email from Anna for the first 15 working days of December. When you open the email you’ll be asked one simple but powerful question designed to facilitate changes towards better work-life balance. Anna is also offering a free coaching package to one participant. Everyone who signs up will be included in the prize draw.