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Is Work-Life Balance Beyond Our Reach?

March 20, 2011
Updated May 15, 2016
How balanced are you when it comes to juggling work duties, family responsibilities (not just kids but also ageing parents), social life, physical fitness, walking the dog, hobbies, and the list goes on.When I worked in government before hitting the eject button last December, I spent a good portion of three decades working in the leadership and learning fields. For a few years I was quite involved in the wellness area, where work-life balance had become the rage in the federal government. I realized after a while that the work-life balance topic was not being taken seriously by senior management, despite a lot of espoused behavior. What was rewarded was working slavish hours, serving upwards and never questioning authority. Senior managers (e.g, VP equivalents) who talked about work-life balance were scoffed at.

I refocused my work and moved on. No point in pushing on a string.

True Story #1:
One senior executive I worked for a few years ago was tethered to her Blackberry. She was late forties, single and very focused on upward advancement. One of her new directors (middle-aged) shared an experience with me one morning while on the way into work. The previous morning she had been chatting to someone on the bus when her Blackberry buzzed. She ignored it. When she got into her office her boss was waiting for her, fuming. “When I email you, I expect you to immediately respond, regardless of the time.” The director got the message.

This same senior executive (who was later promoted to a VP-level position) used to tell senior policy officers that if they wanted a Blackberry (indeed they were a status symbol to have, especially showing it off in the elevator) they were expected to reply immediately when she emailed them–evenings, weekends, whenever.

True Story #2:
Another senior executive in my organization was renowned for his slavish devotion to his Blackberry. He was a very nice fellow, exceptionally bright, a workaholic and father of two young kids. What was remarkable about him was that he could chair meetings while simultaneously reading and replying to emails on his device. It was quite a spectacle to observe. Perhaps I’m jealous. However, he certainly was a poor role model to his directors and managers. I also wonder how coherent his email replies were. And I can imagine him at home, texting with one eye while the other is paying attention to his kids.

Work-life balance, as a societal and organizational issue, has fluctuated over the past 15 to 20 years. Some companies have worked diligently at paying attention to their employees’ wellbeing (e.g., Mountain Equipment Co-op, clothing manufacturer Patagonia and statistical software company SAS). In most cases, however, good intentions on work-life balance issues by senior management have often had the attention spans of budgies.

There’s nothing like a good old recession, combined with the globalization of work, to pull the rug out from under initiatives dealing with human health in the workplace. After all, when you look at the working conditions in hungry-to-succeed societies such as India, China, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Turkey, etc., North Americans begin to look pretty pampered.

The March 28, 2011, issue of Canadian Business Magazine had a special feature entitled “Balancing Acts.” The subtitle is what is provocative: “How being ‘always on’ may be the secret to achieving harmony between life and work.”


I can just imagine wellness experts and pseudo gurus going into apoplexy with that statement. But hold the bus. Let’s see what Canadian Business is saying.

Su Grant is a senior manager of recruitment strategy with Deloitte Canada. She’s connected to her team through her laptop and wireless device and argues that it’s a fair deal when an employee has flexible work hours and does work during evenings or weekends. “You can’t have it both ways,” Grant states.

Sean Durfy, on the other hand, said goodbye to the corporate world in 2009. As the CEO of Westjet, Durfy ran the airline for two years, leading its growth to $2 billion. In 2009, he earned a healthy paycheck of $2.1 million; the sky was the limit. But as a guy in his early forties with a wife who had been seriously sick a few years earlier, and with very young kids who hardly knew their dad, Durfy had an awakening while attending the Vancouver Olympics. He quit Westjet and is now a stay-at-home dad.

BusinessWeek profiled a CEO who also packed it in. Australian Hamish McLennan, CEO and global chairman of Young & Rubicam, quit his company at the age of 44. McLennan, CEO for five years, said 25 years “being a racehorse” was enough. As he stated to Diane Brady of BW: ” My daughter is 13 and my son is 11….I don’t want to leave home and say, ‘Well, you had a great career, but we don’t know you.'” He continued: “At age 44, I’d rather be known as a good father than a good CEO.”

Carleton University’s Linda Duxbury is Canada’s leading researcher on work-life balance. In 2008, she and Chris Higgins (University of Western Ontario) published a report Worklife Conflict, the sixth in a series of reports prepared for Health Canada. The first survey was conducted in 2001, involving almost 32,000 workers across Canada. That first report revealed that one third of the respondents said they liked flexible work arrangements.

Duxbury has conducted other research on how people are trying to maintain balance with the use of wireless devices. For example, she followed 25 people for seven months who used Blackberries for work purposes. Of the 25, only four people were able to maintain tight control on when they used their devices. Most of the others used their Blackberries for work outside of office hours; however, four people used them for personal reasons while in the office.

One of Duxbury’s findings was that while the use of Blackberries changed how these people worked, their overall weekly hours of work remained the same. In another larger survey (840 workers), she found that the average number of hours worked outside the office was seven.

Other surveys have essentially corroborated Duxbury’s finding, with workers expressing that the use of technology has either had a neutral effect on their lives or improved their productivity and in turn their lifestyles.

As much as these studies were done following statistical methodologies, there remain serious issues on just how technology is affecting how we work, collaborate (virtual versus face-to-face), raise kids and assist ageing parents. At a macro level, how is it contributing to fostering innovation, productivity and national competitiveness? These are what counts when you want to have a serious conversation on a nation’s wealth and the ability to distribute it.

In the meantime, the haphazard approach to addressing work-life balance will continue in the midst of global volatility, with some organizations “getting it” and implementing meaningful policies, such as American Express and GlaxoSmith-Kline which ban email during weekends, evenings and holidays.

I’ll close with a quotation from Sean Durfy, who was interviewed for the March 28 issue of Canadian Business magazine. Durfy explained that he’s keeping up with developments in the business world by being a member of boards and staying in contact with business acquaintances. He does miss the “…game, challenge, leading people, building strategy, all that good stuff.”

His final comment, however, brought it home when asked what has he learned:

“It’s about putting down the Blackberry. People get comfortable working too much, or scared to quit. So many people say, ‘Frig, I hate what I’m doing, and my marriage is in trouble, but jeez, I gotta work, blah-blah-blah.’ My advice: If you’re not happy, if you’re not doing what you love, don’t friggin’ do it. Life’s too friggin’ short.”

Thanks for these wise words, Sean.

Take a moment to reflect on them.

Then take a minute to share your work-life balance experiences – the good, the bad and the ugly.

I see my patterns, and I choose to make changes.
-Louise Hay


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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 29, 2011 9:52 am

    Corporate…I did it for 12 years.

    Much of what I learned I use today. The experiences I had made a great contrast for how I did NOT want to live my life and how I did NOT want my family to remember me.

    I am now a happy entrepreneur with a blackberry and a crazy schedule…the kicker is I LOVE what I do, I am serving others, making the world a better place because of my passion for my work and I get to make hot breakfasts and lunches for the wee ones(a priority for me), also when my kids come home from school I am there.

    A shift is happening and we can all feel it…

    Thanks Jim for reinforcing that I did the right thing when I walked out on that life so I could walk into this amazing one.


    • March 29, 2011 11:28 am

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Elaine, and for reminding us how much energy passion about our work gives us. I recall reading some of Canadian Hans Selye’s work on good stress versus bad stress (he died in 1982). Bad stress includes being powerless in a corporate setting; good stress is what you describe where you empower yoourself and love what you do, despite being very busy.

  2. March 22, 2011 1:27 am

    It’s interesting that you have written on this topic, as it is one I have just been thinking about the past few days. I was reviewing some notes I’d made last year on work-life balance, and looking at some circular charts I’d made of my own work-life balance over time, comparing how they had changed over time. The circles were divided into eight areas of balance. I don’t recall all of the eight categories at the moment, but some of them were things like career, family and relationships, health, finances, physical environment, fun, etc. At present, I live in the Middle East, and began to compare the ideas current here about work-life balance with American ideas from back home. I had a sudden realization that in America, in general as a society, we DON’T feel that a person has a right to work-life balance unless they have reached a certain threshhold of financial or material success. During the years one is building one’s career, one is expected to put any of this balance on hold and concentrate primarily on career and finances. This makes for very lopsided life-balance circles. Furthermore, I see from reading your posts, that the higher one rises, that elusive time when one can pay attention to life balance is pushed ever further, perhaps even up to retirement for people who have risen quite high, but who work for others.

    • March 22, 2011 1:44 am

      You’ve some fascinating observations, Lynne. Given the huge effects of the Great Recession and the financial meltdown, which have affected dozens of countries, but America particularly, I would suggest there are the “Haves” and the “Have-Nots” when it comes to being able to self-empower to strive towards some semblance of work-life balance. It’s not just an issue for working folk who’ve lost decent paying jobs and who must now hold down two to three jobs, but retirees who are forced to work until 70 years age or older.

      To push this further, is the work-life balance issue in effect a topic for the well-educated middle class? I noted in my post that emerging economies are focused on creating wealth and competing in the global economy. We middle class Westeners have been pampered too long, with some attending to navel-gazing about balancing work and personal life.

      Am I out of line here?

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