It seems like every week that goes by produces more and more weirdness in the world of work-life balance. Here’s what I’ve learned relatively recently:
- Too many U.S. workers fail to use up all of their vacation time, so we must all be workaholics.
- Since workers don’t know when to call it quits on a workday, we must use an automated pulley system to physically raise work desks into the ceiling.
- And even if we force people to go home, apparently they are struggling with “having it all” at home, too.
So, we all work too hard and need our employers to force us to quit working at the end of the day. But even if they do, we can’t manage to balance our non-work demands either, so what’s the point?
Something is missing from the conversation, something very, very important. There’s an insight that seems to go unnoticed, unmentioned or simply ignored. All too often, the blame for poor work-life balance is placed squarely on the shoulders of the employer. And while I think there are some employers that foster unrealistic expectations about the number of hours employees are expected to work, it certainly isn’t all of them. What’s missing from the conversation is the importance of self-management, which, if the Google definition is to be believed, involves “the taking of responsibility for one’s own behavior and well-being.”
And that is the missing element in a lot of the conversation regarding work-life balance. There seems to be a refusal to acknowledge the responsibility that each of us has to manage ourselves.
Take for example, the poll conducted by the American Psychological Association in 2013 regarding communication technology. Of those surveyed, 53 percent said they checked work messages at least once a day during days off, and 52 percent said they checked email during non-work hours on workdays. However, 71 percent reported that they had control over whether or not they did work outside of normal work hours.
That tells me is people are often choosing to do work outside the office. They are choosing to add demands that are not required of them.
So, how much of the stress in our lives, the stress we experience while trying to create an effective work-life interface, is actually brought about by our own inability to effectively engage in self-management? How much time do we waste watching television, piddling around on Facebook and other mindless diversions? How much time do we lose because we try to engage in multiple tasks at the same time (like watching T.V. while we’re trying to work)? How well do we proactively manage our schedules, so that we don’t overcommit? And how often do we set priorities and stay true to them by telling our kids, our friends or even our employer the simple word “no” from time to time?
The fact is, there are only so many hours in a given day or week. There is only so much effort and energy to go around, and people are only so good at managing their limited resources. Yet, that issue is so seldom discussed in the articles and news items you find on the Internet. Instead, what you see most often is an emphasis on blaming the organization. Yet, forcing people to use their vacation time or lifting their desks into the ceiling to prohibit work beyond a certain time does not address the underlying problems that produce the stress people experience.
The problem with forcing people to use vacation time or implementing a mandatory end time for work is that those types of policies simply force people to suspend the allocation of time and energy on work demands during arbitrary periods of time. They do nothing to:
- Reduce the number of demands (if I can’t work on something at home tonight, it’s just one more thing I have to do tomorrow),
- Give employees the opportunity to work when they are most likely to be engaged (such as for those who prefer to work in the evenings), or
- Provide people with the needed competencies to better manage their time.
And as long as we continue to take a paternalistic approach to work-life balance, which assumes that all workers are the same and removes accountability to self-management, we will continue to hear story after story of people who are having a difficult time “having it all.”
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