Work-Life Balance – What’s The Message?

Work-Life Balance – What’s the Message?

I first published this post HERE

There is a lot of talk these days in organisations about ‘work-life balance’. You can attend training courses (short online courses are the best I find if you want to make major changes in your life J), participate in coaching programs and even enroll in courses run by universities. There seems to be a myriad of help available if you want to find the right balance in your life between work and life.

But what is the real message when organisations talk of ‘work-life balance’? Is it some magical formula for better time management? Is it better organising things so you spend more time doing the things you enjoy? Is it about ‘choosing’ life rather than work at important times?

Or, is ‘work-life balance’ just another slogan developed with the aim of pretending that the health and wellbeing of people is a care for the organisation? I do wonder when I hear of how some leaders in organisations talk of ‘work-life balance’.

For example, I recently came across this article from the Business Insider Website which is titled 17 Highly Successful Executives Explain How They Balance Work and Life. In particular, I was struck by one of the ‘solutions’ to ‘work-life balance’ offered up in the article by Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, who described one key strategy in achieving ‘work-life balance’ as:

Marissa Mayer took only two weeks’ maternity leave when her son was born. But she didn’t compromise on spending time with her newborn: She had a nursery built next to her office.

Of course not everyone has the opportunity to bring their children to work. For those workers, Mayer offers a simple suggestion: ‘Find your rhythm.’

So, ‘work-life balance’ is really easy, you simply build a nursery in order to take care of the challenges of looking after a newborn child, or if for some strange reason this is out of reach for you, an even simpler suggestion is to ‘find your rhythm’. There you have it, work-life balance’ achieved in a couple of simple steps. I wonder why we complicate things in life sometimes when simple answers are right there in front of us.

I wonder what message this CEO is trying to portray in sharing this story? Is it that if she, as a busy CEO with a newborn child, can get her life ‘balanced’ and in control, so should you? I didn’t hear a story of ‘work-life balance’ when I read this article, instead I heard a story of control, wealth and power. Funny how we can say one thing but really mean another.

Another example of organisations talking ‘work-life balance’ but really meaning something different is within a large organisation in Australia. I was talking with one of their managers this week and they told me how they “continually bang on about work-life balance, but nothing really changes”. When I asked them what this meant, they said there were no changes to the requirement to work six days per week and 12 hours per day and no changes to the mandatory taking of leave when it suited the organisation, just a mantra that everyone must take ‘work-life balance’ seriously. I really have no idea what this organisation means when they talk of ‘work-life balance’, but it doesn’t seem to have much to do with looking after the health and wellbeing of people working in it. Maybe what they really mean is that they need to better ‘balance’ their leave liabilities?

Maybe ‘work-life balance’ for senior leaders in some organisations is just another myth that they want to believe in and perpetuate through their organisation? Maybe one of the sacrifices one needs to ‘make it to the top’, is a life with little ‘balance’ between work and life?

I’m reminded of the story of Brenda Barnes who was the President of Sara Lee Corporation during the time I worked there some years ago. Brenda visited Australia in 2009 for a series of meetings where she shared updates on company performance, talked of plans for the future, recognised achievements by our local team and fielded questions from the staff. I asked Brenda a question about how she goes about achieving ‘work-life balance’. So how did Brenda answer my question?

One might think that she would come out with an amazing array of time management techniques that she employs and talk of discipline and order. How wrong was I to think this is how she would answer. Instead, in a pleasingly honest way Brenda responded by saying something like: “For me, there is no such thing as work-life balance. In times gone by I used to play golf on Saturday’s but that’s now gone. My daughter is taken care of by a Nanny, and I barely fit in exercise between the hectic schedule of work that includes so much travel. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but as the President of a large corporation, work-life balance just doesn’t exist.”

While a little shocked at first, I later reflected on Brenda’s answer and though how refreshing it was to hear honesty and frankness; there was no spin in her answer, just rawness and reality. There was no talk of how amazing she was and making those listening feel less adequate, in fact, the impression she left me with was that it was a hard slog and instead of balance, she actually compromised, and compromised a lot. It was different to the story of the other CEO.

I left Sara Lee soon after this and I was surprised to learn that not too long after meeting Brenda that: “In May 2010, Sara Lee CEO Brenda Barnes was at a Tuesday-night training session at a gym in suburban Chicago. She stepped away from the bench press, dragged her left foot, and collapsed to the floor. She couldn’t get up.” (source –

It seems those compromises had an unfortunate impact on Brenda’s life. Her many years of travel and hard work resulted in a serious illness that she is still dealing with today. Could it be that the stroke made Brenda’s life better, as it has been reported that; “Today Barnes is in some ways healthier than she’s ever been. “I may not be able to move every part of my body, but I feel great,” she says. She is sleeping 10 to 12 hours a night instead of six. Sleep is such a healer.”

When organisations talk of ‘work-life balance’ what is the real message? What is the discourse? Is there action accompanying the message or is it just rhetoric? If organisations cared for better ‘work-life balance’ would they talk more of autonomy support (Deci) and allow people to have more control and choice in what they do?

I wonder whether instead of talking of ‘work-life balance’, our focus should be on what brings meaning to our life, including work? Are organisations interested in this, or is the focus on efficiency? Should we spend more time critically thinking about what our purpose is and what we can do to achieve it? Is life really balanced? Or, is it a constant journey where we have to navigate through ‘messiness’, learning and discovering things as we go?

What does ‘work-life balance’ mean for you?

We’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences and comments.

Author:          Robert Sams

Phone:            0424 037 112


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