Work-life balance: Getting it right

Chuck Martin

Darwin (U.S.)

The balance between work and personal lives is dramatically out of sync.

There are several reasons for this, and many point to the current economic situation. No longer are managers and employees driven by personal and corporate successes (and excesses) of the ’90s. Today, the focus in business is more often on efficient execution and on picking up the slack from increased workload. As this pressured work environment causes more personal angst, more and more work versus life decisions are being made.

In a survey of executives and managers in hundreds of businesses across the U.S., we found that less than one per cent of them thought most people in business today were extremely balanced when it came to work and personal life. The majority (68 per cent) said that the work-life situation of people in business was either somewhat or extremely unbalanced.

“The downsizing of American businesses has taken a toll on family life,” said one survey respondent. “More and more people feel they have to make a choice between their job and their family. The true consequences of this have yet to be felt, and I fear it may be a real blow to both business and individuals when people realize the awful consequences of putting too much emphasis on their jobs.”

Sometimes it takes a major shock to the system for people to change the balance. For example, the events of 9/11 caused many to re-think what was important in their lives.

“Since 9/11, I think most people have reassessed things, realizing that life is precious and oftentimes too short,” said one survey respondent.

“September 11 was a major wake-up call for many people,” said another. ” I personally changed from extremely unbalanced to extremely balanced.”

Another, and more common, work-life changing event is the birth of children. Robert Newman, a 49-year-old securities attorney with the mid-size Wall Street law firm of Herzfeld & Rubin, typically worked 60 to 70 hours a week until he had his first child three years ago.

“I’m trying to balance as fast as I can,” said Newman. “I could literally work 20 hours a day but I now put that 20 hours into a 45-hour work week. The watershed event in my life was having two children. Now I do things faster and I’ve become more efficient. Before children, my ethic was work, work, work.”

Sometimes it doesn’t take a system shock or the birth of a child to change people. Sometimes, they just change. Shannon Ingram was a regional vice-president for a Denver-based corporate travel management company when she left to move to Newport Beach, Calif., to care for her 81-year-old mother.

“My husband got a great job working for a general contractor and we decided that we didn’t need my income if we simplified our lives a bit (i.e., no expensive trips to Europe or golf resorts),” said Ingram. “Today I’m absolutely thrilled with my new, rewarding job of care-giving. This is the first time I’ve been off the career track in 30 years because I don’t have any children of my own. I’m not remotely as driven as I was a few years ago and I’m happy to be out of Corporate America. Frankly, I doubt that I’ll ever go back.”

To improve balance requires a new efficiency to the point of re-thinking how much time is spent on what, after prioritizing what work truly has to be done and what is not really necessary. This may mean skipping a meeting or delegating part of a favorite project.

“I feel people are making a greater effort to be involved in their kids’ and families’ lives,” said Robert Flood, father of an 8-year-old and vice-president of Westport Worldwide, a private wealth planning firm in Westport, Conn. “If people are organized, some degree of balance can be achieved. There is a difference between busy work and productive work.”

Perhaps it’s time for the businesses themselves to take responsibility to force more balance between work and the personal lives of their employees. Those balanced employees just might be more productive.