Welcome to work-life symbiosis

Mother working from home with daughter sitting on her lap


We’ve had work life balance. People objected to that because they said there was no such thing and that it implied that work and life were two different concepts. Then came work life integration, where there are no clear boundaries between both. Now comes work life symbiosis.

A new book by Claire Fox, an HR expert who is currently Global Human Resources Director at Save the Children International, says work life symbiosis is the future and is based on the idea that “the relationship between work and home is fundamental and needs to be a dependent and mutually beneficial relationship. In short, one should make the other better and vice versa”. Integration blurs the edges too much, she says, and you end up with parents checking their emails all the time they are with their kids and never giving either work or home their full attention.

Fox, who has two young sons, works a four-day week which she says allows her to focus on work and also have time for family, friends and looking after herself.

She says this kind of work life symbiosis is the way forward for companies who really want gender equality. She says: “If we want gender equality in leadership positions…we need to make these positions accessible and appealing to as broad a range of women a possible. If it only appeals to the small number of women who want to be fully focused on their career to the exclusion of leaving signifiant time for other things we will never achieve gender balance. We need current boards of directors and leaders in all walks of life to embrace a sustainable relationship between their work and their lives. We need them to have Work-Life Symbiosis.”

The symbiosis allows work to enable family life and vice versa and she recognises people come at it in very different ways and that there is “no right answer”.

However, she recognises that changing work culture will take time. The book focuses on what individuals can do to get the most out of all the different aspects of their lives. Firstly, she says they need to be true to themselves and live by their values. For her, that has meant being open and as a gay woman that has involved some awkward moments, although fortunately no blatant homophobia, and potential barriers to career progression, for instance, because things like international relocation, which often goes hand in hand with career advancement, are more risky given the number of countries with anti-gay legislation.

Fox talks about the need to create your own “lifeboard” and to plot on that what are the things that are most important to you. The book includes exercises and questions to ask which will help ascertain what those priorities and values are. Alongside this comes a recognition of what decisions about your priorities might mean for, for example, your career. Working less than full time or not wanting to travel could limit your career rise – even if she says that it shouldn’t. Fox says it is important to be realistic, but at the same time she personally would rather that than to be working all hours and never seeing her family. She says: “They can keep their bigger jobs and bigger pay cheques and I’ll hold onto my quality time with my family, my tennis matches and my undisturbed holidays and weekends, thank you. It’s just a shame that it has to be a choice at the moment. I believe our society will get past this, but we’re not there yet and so we need to make our choices.”

She recommends having a visual reminder of your priorities so you keep them in the front of your mind. She is big on the power of positive thinking and says engagement at work has to go both ways and not just be something a company does. If employees try to put more in they will get more out, she says. That means they have to be mentally and physically fit. She has a section on diet, exercise and sleep, for instance, as well as understanding your own energy levels, all of which help to avoid burn out.
Next comes ruthless prioritisation and imposing clear boundaries [although being flexible within these].

The book ends with a call to action, to reclaim control of your life. Fox says: “When you feel that you have options and that you are in control of your destiny you are far better placed to cope with life’s challenges and setbacks. You are also far more likely to be bold and make the choices that align your life with what’s really important to you.”

*Work-Life Symbiosis by Claire Fox is published by LID Publishing, price £12.99.

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