I have always found the expression work-life balance a bit strange. It makes it sound like you are not living while you work… a peculiar idea, as we spend most of our days at work. Life would be the time we spend outside of the office, our time to be ourselves, as opposed to the time when we have to function as a cog in a machine. This had been a mystery to me, as I have also felt that my work is not only a big part of who I am, and who I want to be, but work also defined a lot of my life choices including my decision to move to Brussels. Yes, I am (or was) a bit of a workaholic. I like my job, I like my colleagues, I believe that what I do is important and that I contribute to promote values I believe in (I work in the public service), therefore, I don’t mind putting in extra hours to get the work done well. So why would I need to limit that to spend more time at home?
So with the work-life balance, I was baffled. But gradually, as my life changed, I started understanding what all the fuss was about and I discovered that:
Work-life balance is important. Work-life balance is particularly important for women. In many situations, work-life balance is a life saver. Work-life balance is not something invented by a lazybones who wants to be paid for nothing. Work-life balance is what will make you work better and longer, and what will keep you motivated – so it is in the long-term interest of your employer. Work-life balance is different depending on your age and family situation, as well as on your position. Work-life balance constantly has to be promoted and defended against attacks from so-called “modern forms of management” seconded by technological gadgets. Work-life balance is something each of us has to find and define and re-define for oneself. Work-life balance is about limits, taking care of yourself and caring about your life – all of it, not only about the one you have at work.
Work-life balance is something that changes in time – the nature of the dilemma and the urgency of having alternative ways to address this challenge cannot be the same. This is how it goes:
When you are 15, and you hear the expression, you laugh. It means the balance between the time you do your homework and bring out the trash and all the rest of the time (95%), that you spend with your friends or relaxing with a good book or a addicting video/computer game or just sleeping in or watching series.
When you are 20, it is partying and having fun all year (oh the student life !) and then locking yourself up in your apartment or in the library for a few weeks writing your thesis and cramming for exams. A few sleepless nights are usually needed, but you don’t care, you have the energy and the drive… you are young.
When you are 25, and you start in your first job, there is no work-life balance. It is all work. Work defines you. This is what you have been preparing for – all those years of studying. You are trying to make your mark. Everything and everyone seems so serious. You want to succeed. You work impossible hours, skip lunch and work weekends. You take extra assignments sometimes to earn extra money, sometimes for the experience. You feel naked without your phone and you are the last one to leave the office – to go networking… You are the one who keeps the fort in the summer and during the holidays when all your other colleagues are at home with their families and snigger at those who leave at five to pick up the kids at the nursery, thinking you’ll never be like that. You always answer the phone. You check your work e-mail all the time including every evening at home. You don’t take a day of holidays for the first two years.
When you are 30, you start to understand. You have had some health problems (ulcers, migraines, burn out) from the bad lifestyle choices you have made in your twenties – too much coffee, too much stress, too little sleep. You can’t drink coffee anymore – your stomach is too sensitive (chronic gastritis from stress). You try not to skip lunch anymore – at least you have a sandwich. You realise that not all e-mails need to be answered right away and you start distinguishing between what is urgent and important, or important and not urgent and what is neither the one nor the other (surprisingly half your Inbox!). You refuse the smartphone offered by your boss, knowing that it’s a ploy to get you to be reachable 24/7. When the phone rings, you check the number to see if it’s from someone important whose call you need to take. You screen the calls on your answering machine. You check your work e-mail once or twice during the holidays, usually before the end to prepare for the first day in the office. You try to leave the office early twice a week to go to your yoga class and to catch the plane on Fridays (you have finally taken the time to travel a bit) or to go spend some time with your darling.
When you are 35, (and especially when you have kids) work-life balance becomes very important. You are very well informed and regularly benefit from all the flexibility your job allows – part time work, compensation after long business trips, flexible hours that allow you to see a doctor (specialist) for a check-up on the health problems you have because or your unhealthy lifestyle from your twenties. You don’t accept any meetings after 16:30. You run from the office at 17:00 so that your kid is not the last one to be picked up from nursery again… You refuse work lunches, but religiously have a sit down lunch everyday – spending some wonderful time alone – well, not completely – alone with a book. You look forward to your free afternoon when you are not in the office but the kids are in school – and you almost feel young and careless again – to end up catching up on chores at home or running around to the cleaners, the post office, the shoe repair shop – all the things you don’t have time to do otherwise. When you have a bit of free time (but who are we kidding, you exchanged your free time for kids, remember ?!) you sleep – or at least you try to sleep…and you dream about all the things that you will do when you will have the time (and the kids will be more independent). You don’t answer the phone – you can’t. You have a baby on one arm and a nappy in the other. The baby plays with your iPhone, so you are happy you don’t have the work e-mail on it. You start hearing about colleagues who are on long-term sick leave with burn-out – and you completely know how that happened.
I will stop here, but you get the picture.
Maybe just one last though. Watching the generation of our parents, I wonder if the work-life balance isn’t also an important preparation for retirement ? Because although work is important and for many of us defines a big part of who we are, work cannot be all our life, because then – retirement would be like death and that would just be too dumb. So take care of the work-life balance, while you can… You are the only one who can do it – for yourself and for others.