Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Is Life Balance Better Than Work/Life Balance?

Talented Man by Erkuthanci via Flickr cc

Talented Man by Erkuthanci via Flickr cc

I have an issue with work/life balance. By putting work & life on the same line, it implies an equivalency between the two. And by putting work first, it provides a pecking order.

Work and life are not equals to be balanced or prioritized: Work is a part of life, a subset. The real issue is how to balance the different facets of life.

As I wrote in Busting Your Corporate Idol, life has three arenas: sleep, work, and everything else. A Balanced Life requires attention to each arena. 60, 80, 90 hour work weeks encroach on other arenas.

So much of the work/life balance field is focused on flexibility. But what about the person who has flexibility and chooses/feels compelled to work 60+ hours. Is this person happy? Maybe Is his or her life balanced? Doubtful. Freedom to pick your own 90 hours isn’t really a help. It may feel good for a time if you love your job to work all the time, but it isn’t balance, and it isn’t sustainable. (I know, because that was me.)

What I needed, and what many people need, is to work fewer hours. In my last post, I quoted an executive who said to Cali Williams Yost

Every time you say work-life balance all I hear is work less, and we have so much to do. I need everyone to do more. Plus, I don’t have any kind of work/life balance myself. How can I support something I don’t have?

I find it sad that the executive felt that he could not have life balance; he wasn’t even trying. He just assumed that he needed to make sacrifices for the company. (Which regular readers will recognize as corporate idolatry.) It doesn’t have to be that way. This executive had flexibility, and after talking to Yost, agreed to allow his employees more flexibility. But he was still overworked, and so were they!

So it’s time to call a spade a spade. We are overworked, and in order to achieve Life Balance we need to choose to work less. Yes, it is our choice. It does no good to blame the company, the economy, or globalization. No one will tell you to work fewer hours. You need to take back that time for yourself. You might be surprised to know how many managers have told me that they see their employees working too much. They won’t life a finger to stop it, but would comply with a request for less work in an instant.

Balance is not stationary. Life Balance is someone riding a unicycle while with a bunch of bowls on her head, with sticks in her hands, each holding up a ball. She is constantly moving. Life Balance is the same way. We are always moving and adjusting. Your Life Balance will look very different from my Life Balance. Of course they will, because we are different people.

I think that until we give up on the misdirected goal of work/life balance, we cannot achieve what we really want, a balanced, healthy, and meaningful life.

What do you think is the best phrase? Life Balance, work/life balance, or work+life fit?

Thank you Patricia Kempthorne, Founder/CEO of The Twiga Foundation, for your helpful feedback on the concept of Life Balance

You Might Also Like

The Secret Flaw In Work/Life Balance

Discover How I Avoided Burnout

The Secret Flaw In Work Life Balance

work like effectiveness by Mike Kline via Flickr ccI’ve never liked the phrase work/life balance. I’m just not comfortable saying it. I like the sentiment, but the phrase is somehow wrong. I now understand why, but it will take me a while to get there.

Cali Williams Yost makes a significant improvement when she writes about work+life fit. In her book Tweak It, Yost explains the origin of the idea. She was meeting with a senior executive, explaining the benefits to the company of offering employees better work/life balance. But as soon as she said “work/life balance”, his eyes glazed over. Yost asked him to explain why.

“Every time you [Cali] say work-life balance all I hear is work less, and we have so much to do. I need everyone to do more. Plus, I don’t have any kind of work/life balance myself. How can I support something I don’t have?”[i]

Yost explained that is wasn’t about working less, but about having the flexibility to choose when and where you work. Yost invented the phrase “work+life fit” on the spot. The executive got it immediately, recounting how he plays tennis twice a week, and tries to fit his son’s soccer games into his overall schedule. Work+life fit is about giving individuals the flexibility to make work fit into their unique circumstances.[ii] For Yost, this was a key breakthrough that has enabled her to open dialog with business leaders about increasing workplace flexibility.

I loved work+life fit when I first heard about it. It made sense to me, because flexibility is a significant improvement over inflexible work hours.  People are happier and less stressed if they have flexibility.

But, there remained a niggling doubt in my gut, which is captured by the image I chose for the post. Our heroine has work+life fit of a sort, but it is not a happy picture. Flexibility is a plus, but if one it merely moving around the ninety hours, there still is not enough time to have a balanced life.

The problem I am trying to solve is chronic overwork, and increased flexibility doesn’t help if the overall hours remain the same.

Continued … the Real Goal Is Life Balance


[i] Tweak It: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day by Cali Williams Yost. p xiv More

[ii] Ibid p xiv-xv

 

The Secret To Avoiding a Fatal Mistake in the Office

No one can be told what the Matrix is

Chapter 10: Embrace People First Part 5

I love the movie The Matrix.  At the beginning of the movie, Neo had a feeling that something was wrong with his life, but couldn’t tell what it was. He discovered that his entire life had been a lie, an elaborate illusion constructed by a malevolent computer network.

Nothing so dramatic in my life, but I did get a signal that opened my eyes to my life of corporate idolatry. Many of the thing that kept me in a “company-first” mindset were also illusions. A spiritual teacher told me that I was smart to listen, because he ignored the signals he was given, and his life had to fall apart before he started to make changes.

My father once told me that he knew alcoholics who suddenly stopped drinking because they “heard something.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“They heard angel wings,” he answered. “The wings of the angel of death. They knew that if they didn’t stop drinking, they were going to die.”

Kind of creepy, but the image stayed with me.  Have you ever heard something, or had a quiet voice in your head saying that things are not ok?  Remember Sue, the VP who was secretly crying and throwing up every day?  She ignored a “nagging voice telling me it had gone too far,” and she ended up sick.

For some people, life won’t change until a crisis. One person suggested that I try to reach people who have hit rock bottom due to burnout.  She is a psychologist, who worked crazy hours until her father got sick, and her life went on tilt trying to deal with it all.  She took a leave and may never go back. “I would not have been ready to hear this message until I got to the breaking point.”

After telling my story at a writers meeting, a woman handed me a note that said “I just buried my 52 year old husband due to Karoshi [a Japanese word that means death by overwork].  He was a brilliant genius.” She told me her husband was a workaholic, driven by “inner demons” and couldn’t be reached. And a friend of mine had a coworker drop dead of a heart attack at his desk after he was laid off.

I refuse to believe that nothing can be done until it is too late.  I am the proof. I am convinced that I would have had health issues if I were still working 90 hours a week today.

It starts with listening to that little voice that says things should be different. It isn’t the voice of fear; it is the voice of hope.

<<Previous Next>>

Passover, Work, and Corporate Idolatry

Passover, Work, and Corporate Idolatry

Remember This Day by Tim Sachton via Flickr

In this season of Passover and Easter, I’ve been thinking about work.

The Last Supper was a Passover Seder, which is a ritual meal that tells the story of the Exodus from Egypt.  In many ways, Passover is like Thanksgiving, in that family gets together, and remembers a historical event.  What is particular about Passover is the detail in which the story is told, how Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.  Participants in the Seder are exhorted to make a personal connection to those freed from slavery.  There is a lot to connect to.  This year I connected to my own experience of going from a 90 to a 60 hour work week.

Passover is all about freedom

The Exodus from Egypt is a seminal event in the history of the world, remembered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims who together account for over half the world’s population*. The Exodus, although less salient for the worlds 1.3 billion Atheists, has been highly influential on the secular world as well.  Harriet Tubman, hero of the Underground Railroad was nicknamed  Moses.  So imagine my surprise when I found that a sizable portion of the Israelites wanted to return to slavery in Egypt.  Why?  Why after generations of slavery, when finally offered the chance at freedom, would anyone want to return to slavery?

The voices to return to slavery were particularly acute at times of uncertainty, when the Hebrews were trapped against the shores of the

Edward G Robinson as Dathan

Red Sea, or when Moses was absent for forty days and the people began to doubt whether he would return.  There were two types of people who argued for a return to Egypt.  The first were self-serving people like Dathan, who collaborated with the Egyptians and betrayed Moses to Pharaoh for personal gain. When later exiled by Pharaoh with the rest of the Jews, Dathan continued to advocate for a return to Egypt, presumably so he could regain his wealth and privileges.  (Dathan was played by Edward G. Robinson in the movie The Ten Commandments.)

Most people who wanted to return to Egypt were not self-serving, but simply afraid of change and/or the uncertainty of the road ahead. The Dathans of the world prey on the fears and insecurities of other people.  Dathan argued that servitude in Egypt would be better than death in the desert.  I can’t help but notice the way that Dathan positioned slavery as mere servitude.  I am reminded of the way some of my former managers would spin things to encourage me to work over the weekend.

Freedom from chronic overwork

Over the course of one year, I went from working 90 hours per week to working 60 hours per week.  My job title never changed, but my boss did – seven times that year.  Not one of my seven managers said “Greg, you are working too hard.  Let me take this off your plate.”  I needed to liberate myself in the midst of a chaotic and highly political environment. The details of that year are a story for another day, but what was key was a revelation that my devotion to the company was a modern form of idolatry.  I realized that “doing what is best for the company” was an adoption of a company-first value system, and this Corporate Idolatry was at the expense of my family and my personal health.  By reconnecting with people-first values, I was able to drastically cut back my working hours.

Idolatry was very much a part of the story of Exodus.  Not only were the Hebrews enslaved, they worshipped the Egyptian gods.  The story of Passover makes it clear that the Hebrews were not freed from slavery until they cried out to the one God for freedom. On a metaphorical level, Passover is the story of people who chose an uncertain future that carried the promise of freedom over the known path of slavery.

I made as much money working 60 hours as I did working 90 hours. In a sense, I was working those extra forty hours for free.  I obsess about those 30 hours, in part because I think working for free is a form of slavery.  Why did I do it for so many years?  But that too is a post for another day.  Today, I am thankful that I am free.

*For more information on the number of people in different religions, check out The Big Religion Chart, which lists the world Jewish population at 14 million, Christians at 2 billion, Muslims at 1.3 billion and Atheists at 1.1 billion.

If you like “Passover, Work, and Corporate Idolatry” you may also like Discover How I Avoided Burnout, an excerpt from my book Busting Your Corporate Idol.