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Opinion

Work-life balance is a myth – to manage how we live, you need to start thinking about ‘integration’

- February 28, 2020 3 MIN READ
Photo: AdobeStock

 

The average person spends more than 90,000 hours at work during their lifetime, and that’s only accounting for paid, 9-to-5 hours.

We spend approximately one-third of our lives at work – and yet the work never seems to stay there. We think about work in the shower, on our daily commute or in the supermarket. Like many, I sometimes find myself pondering a list of to-dos at 3am.

Technology gives us the freedom to work from anywhere, but it also brings the demands of the workplace into our homes, our cars and even on our holidays. 

The fundamental problem with ‘work-life balance’ is that it implies there are two equal elements to balance out. But it’s impossible to maintain that balance without burning out. It’s not a zero-sum game. There will be times when work life needs more attention and times that family or other areas of your life need more energy or time.

The term work-life balance also suggests a binary opposition between work and life, an inaccurate dynamic for many. Work-life integration instead focusses on all the areas that define ‘life’. These include home, family, community, personal well-being and health – in addition to work, which is a valuable and rewarding part of life for many people too.

 

Natalie Feehan, General Manager Marketing and Direct Sales, MYOB

As someone who loves their work and is passionate about their career, work-life integration enables me to think about my life as a whole, and therefore manage competing priorities in a healthier way than trying to balance everything equally, all the time.

I’ve been on holidays where I worked from 9-10am each day. This isn’t something I’d expect from my team, but based on the projects I had running at the time I could do what I needed to do to keep things under control at work. Then outside of that time be present with my family and enjoy the holiday. I don’t judge it as good or bad, it just is. 

Work-life integration also provides a more positive way to describe and shape the employee experience as a manager. Flexibility is critical for recruitment and retention with demonstrated benefits for wellbeing. Guidelines for creating a flexible working culture at Business.gov.au encourage employers and employees to come to mutually beneficial flexible agreements to this end.

 

Setting boundaries for flexibility

According to research from MYOB, nearly half (46%) of Australian small and medium sized businesses offer flexible work options in an effort to support workplace mental health. This is a great start. By providing a spectrum of flexible options, you allow your team the chance to integrate work more fully into their lives and vice versa. 

It’s important for everyone to remember that how work-life integration works is individual and different for everyone. You cannot expect all employees to want to manage work-life in the same way, as everyone’s lives and preferences are unique to them and their circumstances.  

As a manager, we therefore need to think about how we enable and set boundaries for flexibility. Flexibility has to go both ways and is only successful when the exchange between employee and employer is clear, understood and communicated.  

The exchange must work for the business, the team and the individual.  People can only be successful if they know what is expected of them. The biggest challenge I see in flexible working arrangements is when there is misalignment between a manager and employee on what flexibility is and isn’t, what is acceptable and what is not.

MYOB offers a ‘flexperience’ for employees, with team charters that clearly outline when and how each team member is working. Being explicit in flexibility arrangements benefits both employer and employee. You need collaboration and understanding from the individual, the team and the organisation to truly make it work from the outset. 

While companies may have policies around flexibility, they mean nothing if technology doesn’t facilitate collaboration and remote access or if leaders aren’t equipped to manage workloads and deliver outcomes. 

While technological advances allow flexible working and carry many benefits, it is just as important to set boundaries for your team, and to encourage them to be self-disciplined in a flexible work environment. Modelling this behaviour ourselves is equally important. For me this means making a conscious effort to go for a walk or watch a tv show with my kids, without a device in my hand, knowing I’ll probably have to get back to some work once they’re in bed.

I’m grateful to be able to integrate my career and my home life with three young children, but for this to work it’s important to compartmentalise my time so I can achieve the desired outcomes for the business as well as my family. My preference to integrate work and life takes mental discipline and an ability to quickly shift energy and attention to the main priority at that moment in time. This process in itself is not easy for everyone, and for some people is not possible, nor preferred. I can completely understand why some people’s preference is to work 9-5, or to work a shift, then leave work behind.

Knowing you’re empowered to deliver and have some choice in how you succeed in your work, home and personal lives is universally appealing. Flexibility and work-life integration are not just about creating policies, it’s about adopting the right flexible mentality.

 

  • Natalie Feehan is General Manager Marketing and Direct Sales, MYOB

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