There’s something about the phrase ‘work-life balance’ that’s not quite right. Just ask someone who is out of work. When I hear the words ‘work-life balance’ what I actually hear is ‘disheartened’. It’s a phrase that does no favours to those who use it. Work is part of life. It’s as important as any other aspect of life. It’s part of who we are.
During my training as a chartered accountant, I once spent two weeks ‘unassigned’, which meant hanging around between audit jobs with people occasionally handing us minor jobs. It was humiliating sitting there while people who were fully occupied went about their jobs. In that time I saw a shadow of what unemployment must feel like and it was gut-wrenchingly awful. You wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy.
If you were independently wealthy, what would you do with your life? Play sports? Watch TV or play computer games? Go to parties? Sounds great but, c’mon, for your whole life? Some of us would be playboys and playgirls, certainly, but many others would surely go mad. If, in the far future, the world evolves like that, something close to what we would describe as ‘work’ would emerge. I just don’t see the human race lying around the pool sipping cocktails, forever. We would find something to do and many of the more ambitious projects would require quite a bit of organisation, much like companies today. If ‘work’ didn’t exist, we’d need to invent it.
Even if you hate your job and find it dull and unfulfilling, can you really say that there is nothing at all you enjoy about being at your work? You don’t fancy that guy that works in another department? Never have a laugh with your colleagues? Don’t gossip, and learn no skills whatsoever, even if it’s how not to do certain things. When I was a kid I found school boring most of the time. However, I found the journey back and forth to school hilarious. I mean tears running down my face, doubled-over in laughter hilarious. I looked forward to breaks. Double maths was awful, but ‘school’ was brilliant. This chiming no bells at your work? I don’t believe it. How many people meet their partner at work?
‘Work’ gets a hard time, but I’ve read quite a few studies that point out the psychological benefits of work. Work tells us something about our social status. If we’re lucky, it also gives a sense of achievement and keeps us mentally active. And if we’re really lucky it gives us the opportunity to reach our full potential.
I remember taking some managers that worked for me out to dinner and we got into talking about priorities in life. Each of them said their family was the top priority, with work far behind. I had just started in an interim role and when I shared my outlook I could see they thought an alien had landed in their midst. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with people that take the opposite view to me. And I certainly don’t think such people don’t work perfectly diligently when at their work. They just don’t look for any extra work, and I think they miss out as a result.
Here’s a secret I’ve picked up from my restructuring projects. People will work harder if you ask them to. It’s common when cutting staff numbers to pretend that it won’t have an impact on people’s workload. The justification is that more efficient ways of working will be found to achieve the same aim. Often that’s right but sometimes it would be honest to admit that the previous level at which the company wanted people to work has just been raised a little. Often you’ll find people will respond with ‘Oh, em…ok’. On occasion I’ve even claimed, ‘we’re going to ask you to work harder but you’re going to want to because the jobs will be more interesting’.
Yes, we complain about work but it’s like men complaining of having to shave every day. Offered a cream that would permanently remove their beard, most men would refuse.
My wife’s parents have a family motto ‘work comes first’. My father-in-law is enjoying an active retirement but still describes retirement in this way: ‘Every day is like the next. There’s no ‘weekend”. As I get older, my plan is to work harder.