Why I think work life balance is impossible to achieve
Work life balance. It’s what we’re all striving for – or at least it’s what we’re told we should all be striving for. That point of perfection when everything at work is perfect and everything outside work is perfect; a place where there’s no stress, no pressure, no playing catch-up, no working evenings and weekends, no missing the school sports day; a place where the 9 to 5 doesn’t impact on the family and where holidays are email free…
But we need to face up to the fact that this Utopia, this work life balance, is a dream. It’s something that’s out of reach for most, if not all, of us. It’s unattainable.
Your whole life is your life, and it includes everything – work and whatever is outside work, so when you think about it, work life integration makes more sense and should perhaps be what we’re focusing on, not work life balance.
So, what on earth is work life integration and how is it different from work life balance?
Integration involves combining ‘two or more things in order to become more effective’, whereas balance implies ‘a situation in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions’.
But life as a whole is not static. The work and the life bits are not equal, they’re not in balance. They are dynamic and ever changing. Sometimes we need to focus more of our time and effort on our work to meet an important deadline or complete an order, but at other times our families or leisure will be more important to us.
I recently heard whole life being described as a choppy ocean – sometimes the life bit is at the peak of a wave and work is in a trough and then it all changes and work surges up to breaking point and life outside work falls swiftly downwards. I quite like this analogy and think it describes whole life well.
So, by looking as your whole life as an entity, by concentrating on achieving work life integration, you will be more fulfilled and more satisfied with your lot. You can stop playing work off against life and life off against work. You can stop trying to calm the ocean. You can ditch the guilt that you should be working when you’re at home or that you should be out with friends when you’re working late on a project.
This year has been a tough one, and without work life integration it would have been a disaster for me.
Who would have ever guessed that we would get such extremes of weather in the UK over the space of three or four months.
I keep sheep and just as lambing time was starting this spring, the ‘Beast from the East’ struck – an extremely cold biting wind with deep drifting snow that got into every barn through every crevice. And to top it off, a large number of the ewes produced triplet lambs. This is not ideal in the best of weather, but in this year’s winter in spring it just added to the workload – bottle feeding lambs as their mothers didn’t have enough milk to sustain them. And thawing water troughs was a bit like painting the Forth Bridge – by the time I had finished the last one, the first was frozen again.
And meanwhile my virtual assistant business continued to thrive with me continuing to efficiently support my clients with admin and marketing around my shepherdess responsibilities. Everyone was happy – I met my client deadlines, my ewes and lambs were well cared for and I felt I was doing the best I could, although I must admit to being a tad jaded!
But there’s been no let up this year. The rains came next, and didn’t it rain?
So still the ewes and lambs were inside in the barn as the grass was turned to mud.
And eventually the sun came out, but in this year of extremes we didn’t get an English summer we got more of an African one. The grass died and was burnt yellow and the ewes and lambs needed water, so much water. Instead of the ice breaking of a few months before, I was now continually filling water troughs as they were quickly emptied by thirsty ewes feeding their lambs.
Generally, sheep look after themselves in the summer and I concentrate on other things, just checking they are OK once a day. But not this year.
I’m so glad I’m not striving for work life balance – I think I would be a jabbering wreck by now.
By blurring the boundaries between each area of my life, I’m more able to give each one the attention it needs when it needs it, servicing each to the best of my ability.
Over a number of years Jae Ellard, founder of Simple Intentions spoke to thousands of people in many different countries and she found “that most people share a simple and similar desire to create easy joy and meaningful engagement between the interconnected roles, relationships and responsibilities that make up their lives.”
So, it looks like most people are really looking for work life integration rather than work life balance. In a way, we’re lucky in this day and age that we live in a 24/7 world and can call upon technology to help us achieve this. We can leave the office early to watch the school play and check our emails in the interval or we can read the latest blog post from our favourite contributors while we’re waiting for the kettle to boil.
But of course, it’s important to switch off every now and again, but that’s a topic we’ll talk about another day.
Sarah Liddle is The Lady in the Shed. She is a virtual assistant specialising in marketing, admin and techie solutions for small businesses, a smallholder, a sheep farmer and a farm bygones dealer. She loves supporting small business owners to do whatever they do by enabling them to use their time more effectively.