By Mark Richards.
We are constantly told that we should aim for ‘work-life balance:’ success at work and a happy, healthy home life. But for most of us work-life balance is an impossible goal. And aiming for it is making us unhappy. So what should we do?
Tap the words ‘work-life balance’ into Google and – in exactly 0.55 seconds – the search engine rewards you with 590 million results.
There they all are 10 tips for a better work-life balance from the Guardian. The importance of work-life balance from the Happiness Index and a gazillion employment agencies telling you why work-life balance is so important.
Work-life balance is big business. It is the philosopher’s stone that will turn our base metal into gold. Fortunes have been made telling us how we can ‘have it all’ and entire forests have been chopped down to produce thousands of books on the subject.
And the good news is, we are getting there…
After all, as we wrote on Friday, office culture has completely changed. Those irksome deadlines and functional workspaces have given way to mindfulness classes, liberal scatterings of bean bags and – like accountants, PwC recently introduced – work when you feel like working.
We have apps to organise us, to tell us how and when to exercise, what we should eat and how to turn them all into regular, consistent habits.
The world is awash with tips and how-to’s – so surely by now, everyone’s work-life balance must be, well… perfectly balanced?
Except that Christmas is coming
Sadly, it is my duty to play Scrooge and say, ‘Bah, humbug.’ If only because Christmas is coming. As you read this article there are just six weeks until Christmas Eve (unless you have young children, in which case there are 42 nights of sleep).
What are we going to do in those 42 days?
We are going to rush around to office parties, nativity plays and family functions. We are going to be forced to socialise with people we do not like. Buy presents for people we do not like. Spend more money than we can afford to spend. Worry about whether we have bought enough for the children and whether we have treated them all equally. And – for most of us – try and keep the magic alive in our relationship while we are doing everything else.
Is it not time to admit the truth? In the run-up to Christmas, work-life balance goes out of the window.
And for the rest of the year…
In fact, work-life balance goes out of the window for the other 46 weeks of the year as well. Work happens. Life happens. And we never have them in balance.
Money happens – or does not happen – as well. Yes, wages may now be rising faster than inflation. The Chancellor may have assured us in the Budget that this happy state of affairs is going to continue for the next five years. But for most of us, wages are not rising that much faster than inflation – and there is the constant worry that – whatever job we do – advances in AI and robotics – might suddenly render it obsolete.
Is it not time to accept the reality – and admit that work-life balance is just a fantasy? Great for selling books – and good news for the lucky few that have written those books. Work-life balance is brilliant for filling a few column inches, but for most of us, it is an impossible dream. And pursuing that impossible dream is making us miserable…
So what can we do?
Are there any strategies we can adopt as Christmas looms? Or are the demands of the office party, the nativity play and the Christmas shopping going to overwhelm us?
Writing in Forbes magazine Jessica Lutz suggests that we should forget about ‘balance.’ That we just have to accept that some weeks the demands of work mean that family life has to take second place. By the same token, if your child is ill work is going to come a poor second.
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, echoes this view and suggests that work-life harmony is a better phrase because ‘balance’ implies a trade-off.
“If I’m happy at home I’m happy at work and vice-versa,” he says.
Some people go even further, advocating simply ‘acting like a grown-up.’ Sleep when you need it, take some exercise, eat healthily and realise that the world will still keep turning if you do not check your e-mails six times over the weekend. And accept that you are not a failure if you do not achieve the impossible.
There are certain basic things we all have to do: the things that pay the bills and put food on the table. But outside of that, we should enjoy our freedom, not strive for a goal that we are never going to achieve.
Time to compromise
As an old friend said to me the other day, “I’ve reached the age where everything is a compromise.” There comes a time when we have to accept that we are never going to have the perfect body. That our children – much as we love them and stand faithfully on the touchline – are not going to play for Manchester United. And that come Monday, work is going to have to take precedence and ‘life’ will just have to take a back seat.
I do know someone whose work-life balance is perfect. He is rested, he is not stressed, he does his work but it is not the central focus of his life. He pursues outside interests. And you know what? He is, frankly, a little boring. He is not ambitious and – in his late twenties – seems to have settled for that. Is he happy? Yes. But it is the happiness that comes from the total elimination of risk. And no, he is not married and does not have children.
Most of us are never going to be like that. And you know what? It is being unbalanced that makes us normal. And interesting…