Exposing the myths about work-life balance

HRM 23 Mar 2012

One of the most popular goals in workplace coaching programmes is to find 'work-life balance'. Work-life balance is such an overused term, as far as I am concerned, because many people don't do 'balance'; they are involved in some elaborate juggling act. I think of a circus character walking across the tightrope, metres up in the air, with no safety net, just a big pole to create balance.

Left side goes down (work), right side goes up (home life), and up and down and backwards and forwards as you move across the wire. Add in a nice dose of peer pressure, guilt, stress about getting from home to school for an early meeting, drop-offs, pick-ups, arranging care and babysitting and it makes for one complicated work-life balancing act!

I had the pleasure of talking to Sean Richardson, sports psychologist, to offer us a new paradigm for balance that explodes once and for all the work-life balance myth.

There is so much that we can learn from competitive sport and its application to the corporate workplace.

The culture of competitive sport is an old school culture that pits individuals against each other, assesses their capabilities, and ranks them accordingly into winners and losers. It's aggressive, physical and high pressure, with high stakes. In contact sports the physical stakes are high with the risks of being hurt, as are the mental aspects.

The high-pressure nature of the game helps our understanding of how people lead in tense environments, and how it's difficult to change this style of leadership. The traditional leadership approach in high-pressure, high-stakes, high-physical environments is to drive the team to be as tough as possible, and to push them hard to peak performance.

But the message from Sean is about balance - the balance between stress and recovery.

It's okay to push your team to achieve deadlines, but leaders have to remember that just like physical stress and recovery, employees need to have recovery time, or downtime, to recover from their mental and emotional exertion.

There are many things about Sean's message that resonate with me. I remember the long corporate hours, pushing the envelope and then putting myself into bed for a week, laptop on my knee, tears every now and again because I was exhausted and couldn't get the job done, and not recognising the very obvious signs of burnout.

Recovery or taking a day off just wasn't an option. I remember saying, 'I put in more hours than everyone else so that when I want a day off or some time in lieu to go home early, nobody will question me!' And then a coach asked me, 'How many days do you take off?' The answer was 'None!' Ten years of working overtime so I could take a day off, and I didn't ever do it!

Sean asks a great coaching question: 'What am I doing to balance the stress I am putting on myself? What relief am I giving myself to recover from the stress going on in my head?' And it doesn't need to be stress in a negative sense. Stress is any way that you are stretching yourself, and this can be innovatively and creativity. When muscles are stretched and put under stress, they get stronger. Fatigue and soreness are not bad; they are a sign that the body has been stretched. The key is that you have recovery time.

Leaders in the workplace need to understand that there is a time to push and drive and time to recover! They need to understand when you can push people and when you need to support them. In sport it is easy to focus on push, but if we don't pull back and make athletes feel good as human beings, they won't perform and over the long term they will break down.

About the author

Natalie Ashdown is the CEO of the Open Door Coaching Group and author of the latest book on corporate coaching 'Bring Out Their Best - Inspiring a Coaching Culture in Your Workplace'.

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Commented by: BALEIPOH at 12 Nov 2012 09:52 PM Report this comment
I loved your article a great deal.However I feel it is incomplete as you did not mention types of support or recovery the company could embark on.

thank you

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