Like every other aspect of leaders’ wellbeing, ‘work-life balance’ is a subjective and dynamic phenomenon.
At GLWS we’re well tuned into this space – both professionally (as psychologists and coaches) and personally (as working mums, daughters, sisters and friends with multiple roles, responsibilities, interests and passions).
And we’ve got a thing or two to get off our chest with this email!
And, if you’re working with clients to address ‘work-life balance’ issues, read on to see our top tips for finding a strategy that perfectly suits their individual work and lifestyles.
Forget Work-Life Balance.
Instead, focus on ‘integration and segmentation’
Firstly, people often assume work-life balance is only an issue for women with young children. However, recent research has shown it concerns everyone regardless of their caring responsibilities.
We all fulfil multiple roles in our lives. Combining these roles can sometimes lead to problems. Our time and energy levels aren’t infinite, and when work demands ramp up it inevitably means we have less time and energy to dedicate elsewhere, leaving us feeling guilty (or simply sad) that we’re not performing to a sufficiently high standard.
Much of the focus to date has centred on the concept of ‘role interference’ (i.e. ‘work-life’ or ‘work-family’ conflict). Juggling work and personal commitments takes its toll, as does feeling torn between competing responsibilities – not to mention the horrible duplicitous feeling of pretending to be ‘fully present’ with our loved ones whilst really distracted with work matters.
At some stage, most of us feel we never have enough time left over for ourselves after attending to work and family commitments. We hanker after a ‘slower pace and less race’ each day.
Here’s what we think about work-life balance.
It’s time to help ditch the impossible.
Achieving a perfect work-life balance isn’t even a vaguely attainable goal.
The term ‘work-life balance’ itself is misleading. It implies some kind of static balance with an equal division between two equally important yet separate spheres of ‘work’ and ‘life.’
Instead, let’s promote more awareness around the growing importance for each of us to identify and courageously ‘lean in’ to what best suits our unique combination of priorities at any given time.
A growing body of psychological research suggests ‘work-life facilitation’ or ‘work-life enrichment’ is a more positive and beneficial approach. This means we are liberated to focus on any strategy that results in greater fulfilment. The logic is simple. Having enriching experiences in one area of our lives helps us feel more satisfied overall, feeding us an energy boost and helping develop our sense of self-competence and self-determination.
This approach is consistent with what coaching psychologists refer to as ‘border theory’ – a way of conceptualising work and non-work still as different spheres of operation, but with the important distinction of boundaries with varying degrees of permeability.
The difference between segmentation and work-life integration strategies.
It’s no coincidence that the wellbeing framework that underpins our wellbeing survey talks about ‘Balance & Boundaries’ not Work-Life Balance. It’s not just semantics!
In a day, we’ll cross borders between different roles. When our boundaries are clearly defined with strong separation between non-work and work, we refer to this as a segmentation strategy.
For example, an executive who’s prepared to work long days and most evenings in return for clear weekends has a Friday evening – Monday morning segmented boundary that distinctly and firmly separates work and personal spheres.
On the other hand, a work-life integration strategy is where we purposefully seek more permeable boundaries where work and non-work roles are consciously intertwined, integrating our other life priorities into our work. For example, the executive who deliberately plans a blending of work and personal life (e.g. exercising through the work day, arriving at work mid-morning in anticipation of that evening’s conference call, scheduling one afternoon a month off for ‘me-time stuff’ (hair, doctors, accountant etc…)
And here’s the deal: research has found that neither segmentation nor integration is universally preferable.
The achievement of work-life balance is affected by the match between an individual’s preferences and the unique circumstances of their personal reality. And that, as we said at the beginning of this email, is a subjective and dynamic phenomenon.
What are the implications for coaches?
With the above in mind, how can you help your clients find a strategy to suit their work and lifestyle? Here are our best tips:
Develop a practical work-life boundaries plan. (Quick reminder/ tip – in its most fundamental form, a ‘boundary’ is the line between what is and isn’t acceptable).
Establish a clear picture of your client’s personal realities and job demands. Help them to identify a plan that both suits them and makes business sense for their organisations.
Work with your client to clarify their values. Consider whether important areas are being neglected, such as friends or health. How they can make adjustments to their time and energy that will strengthen meaning, purpose and fulfilment?
Explore ways of adjusting their role and reviewing their work schedules. In particular, can they negotiate (and implement!) more flexibility as to when and where they work?
Encourage clients to work out their own needs. Help them have the courage to meet their needs in terms of what works best for them, rather than making comparisons with others.
Help your client elicit their past and current patterns and preferences. Will these change in the near future? Conduct a ‘gap analysis’ on the current situation.
Explore desired and actual separation/integration. Identify and discuss actions to narrow the gap between them.
Encourage a focus on sustainable performance. Help your clients to look for ways to build in ‘down time’ through exercise, active rest and adequate sleep for recovery.
If your client prefers clearer, stronger boundaries, explore ways of better marking the separation between work and personal life (e.g. actively managing business texts/ email use when at home).
If your client prefers more permeable boundaries, explore ways of purposefully integrating work and personal life.
You may have noticed that we italicised the word purposefully. Without conscious intent (based on planned choices and a vision for how work and life will ideally blend), ‘work-life integration’ is a misnomer for ‘out of control.’ It can feel very much as though life is driving your client rather than the client being in the driving seat of their own life. Tell-tale signs are:
- Allowing their diary to be filled up
- Working long hours by default
- Lack of a daily game plan
- Regularly bumping personal time (e.g. exercise, dentist, doctor, hairdresser, children’s school, family dinners).
You may need to (gently) call your clients out on this as, in our experience, it’s where we often see self-deception at play.
Effective work-life integration takes as much planning as work-life segmentation.
Research confirms that helping your clients develop the belief they are working and living well – in a way that promotes growth and is compatible with their current life priorities – will have a positive effect on their mental and physical health as well as their overall life satisfaction.
It also leads to better performance, reduced sick leave, higher levels of commitment and longer tenure in an organisation. Everyone’s a winner!
Reference: The British Psychological Society, Division of Occupational Psychology, The Work-Life Balance Working Group, Fact Sheet for Coaches: Work-Life Balance – A Psychological Perspective for Coaches.