Last week, from October 21-25th, many leading companies and organisations in Hong Kong and other Asian countries participated in the annual "Work-Life Balance Week" initiative. It took place for the sixth consecutive time under the patronage of Community Business.
There can be no question that the Hong Kong "Work-Life Balance Week" is an important and much required platform for the promotion of necessary changes to inefficient and unhealthy traditional work patterns in local and international society. If you are interested, the website of Community Business holds a number of studies and other materials which outline where the major challenges and pitfalls are.
Without doubt, the ability to calibrate the various aspects of one's own life and the ability to allow others to do so as well are important to be a successful leader. Where leaders and leadership teams fail to set the right tone in this respect, where workaholics and outlived traditions are allowed to coin the culture, where senior management expects everyone down the ranks to be available day and night, where sheer presence and burning the midnight oil is confused with performance and gets people promoted, companies waste their most important resource. They risk their own and their workforce's willingness and ability to do a great job every day.
Did you know and notice that it was "Work-Life Balance Week" last week? I think this is a good time to remind ourselves what it does mean for us to have a work-life balance. How do you define it for you specifically? How do you know you have the right "work-life balance"?
To me, the established term "work-life-balance" is an unfortunate one to begin with. It indicates that work and life are opposites. We are of course aware that "life" is meant to refer to our "personal life", "family life" or the "leisure time" we have. The messages the term sends to our subconscious minds however are very ambiguous. For our brains, having to seek a work-life balance translates into that when at work, we are not at life and ultimately, not even alive. It also implies that nothing we do outside of the workplace can be labelled work. Or to translate this subtle message into the world of blurred boundaries between professional and private life which comes with today's 24/7 remote access to e-mails and around-the-clock accessibility of employees, the term implies that nothing we do on top of our many job-related tasks is to be considered a burden. Last not least, it postulates that our "work" and our "life" are two clearly distinct arenas of our existence which do not overlap and that all we would need to do to be happy and successful is to counterweight the one against the other. It usually is not that easy. We are confronted with much more complicated decisions.
So how do you find and maintain a balance and set the right priorities when you are torn between contradicting demands?
What do you do when you are overwhelmed by too many deadlines, last minute work assignments, important family obligations and the need to sleep for eight hours in a piece? How can you avoid getting trapped in a vicious cycle of increasing feelings of duty, stress, guilt and fear that could lead straight into burn-out and depression? What can you change when you feel that regardless how much you try, you can satisfy neither your loved ones nor your boss, colleagues and clients anymore, and that least, you get what you need just for yourself?
When I work with clients who struggle with this, and most of us do at times, I often start with asking them to come up with a list of all major components and aspects of their life as it is right now. How much space and time does each one occupy at present? I then encourage them to rate which of those are the important ones to them - and how they know those are important. Sometimes asking yourself the latter question already can resolve inner conflict and open up a wide path for change. In a next step, we work on identifying which of the important components in their life are currently over- and underrepresented. What do they want to do more, what do they want to do less and which components have the right proportion already? What are they ready to give up in order to achieve a new balance in their lives? Many people need to be reminded that they cannot have it all and certainly not all at the same time. Reviewing where one is happy to make compromises and where not and keeping it real can be as important as is setting clear boundaries. Sometimes, learning how to delegate more and getting better organised in the first place, and reminding oneself that when one is clear about one's priorities, one will know when to say "no", can by itself do miracles because it can free a lot of time and resources and take away a lot of unnecessary pressure.
In a bottom line, each of us has to find the balance in life that is right for him or her, and this is a process rather than a one-off task. Therefore, the best organisational "work-life-balance" programs and measures are the ones which acknowledge that there is no one-fits-all. They are the ones which give people the tools to recalibrate their lives in a whole by balancing out their individual priorities with the organisational requirements and goals.