Work Life Balance has become a dividing issue. To some (normally employees themselves), it represents an essential freedom, an inviolable right of every employee which is under attack by stifling workplace cultures. To others (normally managers or employers), it is an inconvenient catchphrase being abused by those who shirk their workplace responsibilities. Which is the right interpretation?
Actually, there is no right interpretation. But Work Life Balance (WLB), like it or not, is an aspect of working life that is here to stay. And instead of seeing it as a threat or a zero-sum equation, enhancing the WLB of your employees as well as your own actually leads to a win-win situation where employees are both happier and more productive. (Actually, the secret is even simpler: Happy employees => Better Productivity => Happy bosses. The opposite is also true.)
Let’s start on the importance of WLB first. After all, if we are not convinced that it is important and worth protecting, then everything else I say is meaningless. I believe a real-life story from my mother will suffice to illustrate this point.
My mother was a teacher (now happily retired), and when I was growing up she told me about this colleague of hers that had worked his entire life as a teacher. He would work long hard hours and would always be stressed out by the demands of the job. Finally, he retired when he reached retirement age, and everyone that had seen him give his all for his work was glad that he would finally be able to rest and enjoy his golden years in peace. Unfortunately, within a few months of retirement, he discovered he had terminal cancer and passed away within a year.
Now, I don’t know about you, but the first thing I thought when I heard the story was, “What was the point?” If retirement is meant to be a reward for a life of hard work, this man put in the necessary effort and sacrifices, but did not receive his reward. He spent all his time (and also expended his health) at work, and when he no longer had to work, he had run out of life to live.
This is not to say that one should not work hard. I am not saying that at all. But I am saying that things like this do happen. Accidents can happen. Terminal illnesses can happen. And they can happen anytime. It is true that the average lifespan is getting longer and for most of us, we will probably be able to enjoy long and full retirements. But that should not be the hope that we cling to when we sacrifice our time, effort and happiness for the sake of work, lest we become like my mother’s colleague when all is said and done.
But of course some may have this counterargument: If we were not at work, we would be doing nothing. We would just be lazing about, letting our minds go to waste when we could have stayed later in the office, working hard and advancing our careers. This is a viewpoint that is commonly held by older generations, and it is not hard to see why. For them, working hard has uplifted them out of poverty and into the affluent and comfortable lifestyles they and their children lead today. They have powered through the difficulties of a lifelong career, and have emerged triumphant. Therefore, when they see the younger generation talking about work life balance, is it any wonder that they would scoff at the notion and label them as ‘the strawberry generation’?
The reason why this counterargument exists is because for much of the older generation, lazing about is indeed precisely what they do when they are not working. It was commonplace in the past to come home late from work, eat dinner and then slump in front of the TV. And that’s basically it for the rest of the night, after which it’s off to bed and to prepare for the new work day.
But times have changed, and there are many other things one can do now that simply weren’t around or widely available and accessible in the past. One can travel. Airfares are much cheaper today than they used to be decades ago. One can take a course in an area of interest. There are many more learning institutes and courses available today than before.
And of course, one can spend time with family and friends. What is the point in having a family if you spend all your time at work and your children don’t recognize you?
The above examples I have cited fall into the first type of life activity, the ‘Productive’ type. Psychologists have shown that participating in such activities leads to increased long-term happiness, which in turn leads to better performance at work. But seriously, you don’t need me to lay out these benefits, do you? They should be apparent and obvious to anyone.
The second type of life activity, the ‘Non-productive’ type, includes watching TV. Watching drama serials. Clicking on the next suggested YouTube video. Surfing Facebook and Instagram endlessly. Playing Candy Crush on your phone. Psychologists have discovered that these activities also give us joy – but only up to 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, continuing in this activity actually leads to a drop in happiness. Again, I’m sure you can understand this too. Haven’t you binge-watched a show on your precious weekend for hours on end, only to question what you’re doing with your life afterwards?
So what I am advocating in this article is to take control of your time. Yes, you signed that contract with your employer, and that means you should give your job your best effort during the stipulated working hours. But the time outside of those working hours should be spent just as productively. If Life is more than just Work, then why are we allocating all our efforts to Work and leaving nothing left for what remains of our Life? Is it any wonder that after a long hard day of giving it your all at work, you lack the energy to do anything productive in your personal life? Because we are depleted of our willpower at the end of the work day, we end up following the path of least resistance, answering the siren calls of Youtube, Instagram or whatever show we happen to be addicted to at the moment. And before you know it, the weeks, months and years have flown by. All that precious time that’s never coming back.
Our lifespans are finite. We have the choice to choose how we want to spend every second of it. We may work in an organisation which looks unkindly upon WLB. But is that really reason enough to give up our precious time? Time that we could have spent crossing out items on our bucket list? The choice is yours, dear readers. Don’t make the wrong one.