The other day a friend pointed me to an article in the Globe and Mail about work-life balance that points out that Canadians are increasingly losing in the tug of war between their professional and personal time. Compared to 10 years ago, work weeks are more rigid and “flex-time” scheduling has dropped by a third. Only 23% of Canadians report being, “highly satisfied with life,” but in 1991, twice as many Canadians could say that. Why are we getting increasingly dissatisfied with life AND working more?
Typically, the recommended solutions to the work-life balance dilemma is to examine how we might use our time more efficiently, or find ways to boost our energy levels so that we can do more. Many psychologists recommend things like boosting your energy by building exercise time into your schedule and by putting social time into your schedule to re-fill the emotional well. It may seem counterintuitive to ADD things to an already full schedule, but the wisdom is that if you are getting your needs met, you’ll be able to focus more on the work you have to do, while you’re at work. Similarly, it’s often recommended that if you’re struggling to meet your work demands, perhaps it’s time to examine how much time you lose to social media, answering personal e-mails, or chatting with your cubicle-mate about Jim in Accounting’s toupee. Other solutions focus on finding different career paths, or maybe deciding to open your own business or otherwise have more control over your day to day life. And we know from the literature on workplace satisfaction that when people have more control over their work, they tend to feel happier about it.
Although, making time to exercise and relax can prove helpful, I find these kinds of discussions quite frustrating because it seems to me that many of the solutions focus on how individuals can change their particular situation to make it better, rather than looking at the bigger structure that’s driving so many people into a state of dissatisfaction. Sure—we could all increase our productivity at work so we’re not thinking about work on our off time, but who is this serving, really? The solutions above are based on changes an individual can make, which might also suggest that if the person were somehow different, then they wouldn’t be struggling with finding this work-life balance. However, if so many people are encountering the same problem, when do we start asking the questions about why that is?
On Tuesday while the Americans are going to the polls to elect a president, Canadians are likely to get their first peek at a new standard to be released by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace is setting a national tone that workplaces meet esteem needs of employees, distribute work equitably and recognize the contributions that employees make to organizations. FINALLY, some possibilities for structural solutions that might help us! There is some incentive—beyond being compassionate—for employers to care about healthy workplaces, as well: mental health issues typically account for 30% of short term disability claims and 70% of the costs paid out in such claims.
This isn’t an either-or issue, and I’m not trying to oversimplify things. Of course we are all agents in our own lives and can make choices that will help us to connect more with our families and friends while also having a working life where we can get at least some of our needs met. However, as long as we are seeing work-life balance as an individual problem—i.e. what’s wrong with me that I’m not able to balance my work and my family life?—and ignore the structural impediments to balancing our various roles in life, we will continue to focus on personal solutions, rather than looking at what both individuals and organizations can do to help bring work-life balance to the fore. We live in a culture that says if you work hard enough you’ll meet all your goals, which just reinforces that work-life balance is a personal problem. It’s personal, alright. I know many people who work their tuchus off and don’t find the balance they are seeking, and then end up feeling like failures.
When people come to see me in therapy about issues relating to work-life balance, I try to help them focus on what it is they have control over in their situation. We look at what kind of goals they might be able to realistically set and achieve in terms of striking this balance, given the limits of their situation. What changes can be made personally? Is there wiggle room to talk with supervisors about making accommodations that might help shift the culture at work? Is there wiggle room at home to redistribute domestic responsibilities? And where is the time going to appear for you to have a moment to relax? Certainly, it’s a challenge to figure out how to achieve work-life balance. And in an economy where having a job at all is seen as something to be grateful for, it makes sense that we hesitate to push the structure to help us find balance.
I think of work-life balance less as a destination where we end up, and more of something that we need to be evaluating regularly, due to its dynamic nature. How am I feeling about my participation in the different parts of my life? What do I have control over? What do I have to accept and let go? How does this fit with how I want to live my life? What battles are worth fighting? If we are checking in with ourselves more often about the fit between our needs and the balance we strike at work and at home, we up the odds that we won’t get too out of alignment, too quickly, and can find ways to adjust the course.
If we make our struggles to achieve work-life balance known more publicly to our families, friends, colleagues, and supervisors, we may also be able to shift the culture that values productivity to the exclusion of personal well-being. Going public can shift the conversation from it being a personal issue only, to being a problem that requires both personal and structural changes. Obviously, raising such issues makes us feel vulnerable and in a difficult economy we may not want to rock any boats. Also, just thinking about asking for what you need at work can lead to feeling overwhelmed when the work-life balance is already askew. However, these sometimes-small-but-meaningful acts of advocacy can give us a sense of pride and overcome the stigma and guilt we may feel for not being able to do it all.
But why do we have to do it all, anyway? It seems to me that our expectations of ourselves and the expectations placed on us by others are a set-up for disappointment. We are perpetually being told to do more with less—work harder at work when our colleagues are let go, have cleaner homes when we have more multi-earner families, and somehow we need to be leading meetings at work while also simultaneously volunteering at the kids’ school and figuring out how to entertain friends and family on the weekends. I may start to sound like a broken record, but I fundamentally believe that we all would feel much more balanced if we saw what we’re doing as good enough and not like we need to strive for perfection.