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Is you work life balance worn out?

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The debate about work life balance has been raging since the 70s. Its sounding a little worn out. Maybe we need to be thinking about it in a different way?


Your balance is not my balance. Despite all the advice written about work life balance no-one makes the rules for what is a good balance of personal and professional focus: balance is an internal sense of feeling generally centered and energised. Some women who work full-time in demanding jobs still feel balanced; they often have a high degree of control over their work and may keep their weekends clear. Other women work in highly directed, unstimulating roles for just three days a week and feel stressed and drained.

Balance changes week to week, and according to your stage of life. A twenty year-old may be able to work long hours and party hard. Life feels very different when you’re 35 with two children.

Are you a separator or an integrator?

Our aim used to be to establish a healthy balance in our lives by drawing a clear line between work hours and home life. But a more recent school of thought is dismissive of that aspiration, proclaiming that we now have to integrate our personal and professional lives.

So which approach is right? If, for example you are starting a new role or you’re planning your return to work should you aim to create clear boundaries between job and home? Or do you need to be always contactable? Is it better to have fixed and separate work and home time, or to work from home when you can?

Some people are instinctive integrators: they love the idea of work-life blend and swapping roles throughout the day. You see them switching effortlessly from watching a sports match or cooking dinner to taking a work call. Many energised entrepreneurs and home-workers are natural integrators.

Other people are more naturally separators. They prefer a clear split between work and personal life, closing the door on their professional responsibilities at the end of the day, and perhaps creating a “water the garden, smell the roses” ritual to recalibrate when they get home. They might prefer to go into the office for a couple of hours at the weekend rather than to work at home, or to stay later at the office rather than have to finish a job after the children are in bed.

Identify what works naturally for you and your well-being. There isn’t one right answer for this: if you look around you should be able to find people who model both styles of working in an admirable way. Discuss your work boundaries with your boss and then communicate them clearly to your colleagues. If you’re a separator you can delineate your “on-board” times in your email signature, your online calendar, or (which would send a very strong message) a daily out-of-office reply.

WHAT TO DO to establish your balance

  • Understand your habits and be aware of your behaviours which apply extra pressure. Learn to let go of the things which aren’t important (like always cooking breakfast, or making the bed before you go to work).
  • Learn to ask for help.
  • Learn to say no to anything that doesn’t contribute towards your personal goals, the goals of your department, or your wider purpose.
  • Know your limits and be aware of what you need to do to take care of yourself physically and mentally – and communicate what you need to the people around you.
  • Let go of the “should” and “musts”, define what’s right for you and your circumstances, not what other people say.
  • Let go of the guilt. What guilt?

Before defining your life as balanced or not review at least the last couple of months to get a sense of how satisfied you are. I suggest keeping a short journal, detailing not just what you were doing but how you were feeling, noting the triggers that made you feel stressed and the times you felt most centered and satisfied.

Jan Hills is a respected advisor to C suite leaders and Boards on gender and leadership. She works in the UK, Europe and Australia. She recently published Brain-savvy Wo+man (with her daughter Francesca). The book uses an understanding of science, mainly neuroscience to review myths about gender in the workplace and to provide practical guidance for women and men on how to be successful in their career. She also runs the Brain-savvy Woman’s on-line career management programme.

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