Why we DON’T really want balance

HRM 21 Jan 2013

The term ‘work-life balance’ was first used in the UK in the late 1970s. Since then it has been the Holy Grail that every working person has pursued. After four decades of searching, are we any closer? In a nut shell – NO! According to a survey by JobStreet.com, nine out of 10 Singapore employees worked beyond their official hours. What we are doing is clearly not working.

Why? We are focusing on the wrong thing – balance. Saying you want balance is like saying you want to be on a diet. You don’t want to be on a diet; you want to lose weight. We don’t want balance; we want to be happy and have better relationships. Rather than focus on our schedule, our time management and ensuring that each part of our life gets equal investment, we need to focus on our behaviour. In particular, what we do in the transitional space between work and home.


I first came across this concept of transitions was in 2008 when I watched a number of close friends return home from serving in Iraq. I saw them struggle to re-connect and relate to their family and friends. When I told them about my observation, they shared with me the pain and challenge of transitioning from a vigilant soldier to a calm, loving and empathetic parent or partner. Why was this transition so hard for them? Because the mindset they needed as a soldier was very different to the mindset they needed as a parent, partner or civilian. When we worked on how they transitioned home, their behaviour and level of comfort improved dramatically.

I questioned whether this technique would apply to the average worker. Partnering with John Molineux from Deakin University we set out to test my theory. First step was to take a large group of small business owners and examine their mood and behaviour in the home. The initial survey did not paint a pretty picture. Only a small percentage said that they came home in a good mood, with a positive mindset and exhibited constructive behaviour. The next step was educating them on the ‘Third Space’ (my name for the transitional space between the activity we are doing now and the next activity we are about to transition into). We asked them to carry out the following three simple steps in the ‘Third Space’ between work and home.

Reflect: This is where they reflected on and analysed the day. However, they were encouraged to only focus on what they had achieved and what had gone well for them. This activity of examining how they had grown and improved increased their level of positive emotion and put them in a growth mindset.

Rest: In this step they took time to relax and unwind. Being calm and present allowed their physiology to recover from the stressful day. This phase also allowed their brain chemistry to support more constructive behaviours.

Reset: This is where they became clear about their intention for the home space and articulated the specific behaviours they wanted to exhibit. In other words, how they wanted to ‘show up’ when they walked through the door. From our research the most important step that determined if people had a good interaction in the home was how they entered the home environment. If they walked in happy, calm and relaxed, they had a positive interaction. In contrast, if they came home angry, frustrated and manic, they had a negative interaction.

After a month of the participants applying these three principles, we saw a whopping 41% improvement in behaviour in the home. When interviewed they conveyed that the improved interactions they had with friends and family led to a greater feeling of overall balance.

Broaden the idea

This technique not only applies to the transition between work and home; it applies to all the little transitions we make in our day. Our day is spent moving or transitioning between different roles, tasks and environments. Each of these require us to be different things to different people. Add to this the rapid rate of transitions where juggling interruptions, multi-tasking and layering of time has become our default work style. My research shows that what we do in the Third Space has a significant impact on our performance. In other words, it’s not what you do – it’s what you do in between what you do – that really matters! It is similar to Darwin’s theory: “It is not the strongest of the species that will survive. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change”. Time management is dead. We can’t work any harder! The competitive advantage in the 21st century is the ability to transition rapidly and shift into a mindset that aligns with the next task, role or environment.

In my experience within the corporate world, HR practitioners undergo more transitions than any others. On any given day a HR professional may go from conducting a termination to then carrying out a performance review, to catching up on compliance, to focusing on high level strategy to dealing with a case of bullying to then solving a payroll issue.

When people applied the principles of the Third Space to each transition they made they felt more in control and their performance improved. Some reported back saying they did their Third Space between meetings: they literally had one minute to do it and the Rest phase was relegated to two deep breaths, but they felt it still made a difference. Put simply, when we collected their feedback this was what they said about the benefits of managing the Third Space at work.

Reflect: It allowed them to learn and identify the key behaviours that led to positive outcomes and to deal with the previous interaction without carrying the ‘baggage’ from it to the next one. When Reflect was performed as a group (eg. in a sales meeting reflecting on the previous week and what they had achieved) it led to an improvement in culture. This is powerful because when someone feels that they are growing and achieving, they exhibit an increase in engagement. The Reflect phase facilitates this perfectly.

Rest: This phase simply allowed them to pause and clear their mind. Rest was a chance for them to catch their breath before the next activity. People felt that the clarity of thought that came from Rest helped them be more strategic and accurate with their thoughts. New research in the area of stress management is showing that short regular pauses in our day on a consistent basis leads to a dramatic drop in stress, anxiety and depression.

Reset: People found that the Reset phase (which asks us to identify our clear intention for the next interaction and the behaviour that will make the intention a reality) helped them cut through the clutter and busyness of the world. Due to our hyperkinetic society where we feel that we are on a roller coaster stuck on repeat, we often lose sight of the outcome we are after. The Reset phase allows us to get clear, heightening our sense of control. The articulation of behaviour is also crucial. If we want to change and grow it starts with altering behaviours.

If you feel the need to have greater control over your life and improve your relationships, apply the principles of the Third Space to each transition you make. Go forth and Reflect, Rest and Reset.


Boundaries don’t exist anymore!

Most work-life balance strategies have a mindset of pushing against the world. If you prescribe to this doctrine it is a fight you will surely lose. One way many people suggest to gain balance is to place very clear boundaries between work and home. How’s that working for you? Forbes, in their report titled The @Work State of Mind Project, showed that boundaries between work and home no longer exist. Ninety-eight per cent of people surveyed said that they regularly did work in home/family time.

The rise of globalisation and development of mobile technology drove a knife deep into the heart of regular work hours. However, is the lack of boundaries a bad thing? Many people I’ve spoken to stated that this blurring of boundaries actually improved their balance. Some said that they checked emails and did work at 9pm. While that sounds like a complete lack of balance, doing this allowed them to come home at 6pm and be with their family while the kids were awake. While working at home was not ideal, the alternative was to stay at work until 7.30pm and miss seeing the kids altogether. Likewise, one manager said that she was at her boys’ school sports carnival and took a phone call on her mobile from the office. When one of the other mums gave her a hard time, the manager pointed out the alternative was to stay at work and miss the carnival altogether.

Case study 1

‘As soon as I get in the door at the end of the day the kids have to go to the rumpus room (their garage has been converted to a play room). They are not allowed out for 30 minutes. My husband is not allowed home during that time. It’s the only 30 minutes of the day I have to myself, where I’m not responsible for another human being. In that time I do my Reflect, Rest and Reset. NO ONE interferes with that time – my kids could be bleeding from the eyes and they would not get my attention. I could not even begin to measure its impact. I’m less stressed, the relationships with my family are better and I am a better mother, partner and psychologist. I love it.’


Case study 2

A CEO sent me an email after hearing of this concept. He realised that the people at work got the best of him. At work he was energetic, fun, optimistic and engaged. However, when he went home his family got the worst of him. Not that he was openly horrible to them, he just showed up better at work than at home. He gave the best of himself to work. He lives in a gorgeous suburb of Sydney called Manly. Due to his position in the company he has a parking space right under the building. After hearing of the Third Space he now parks the car outside the city and does a six-kilometre walk into and out of the city each day. On the way in to work he listens to music on his iPod. He thinks about what is coming up in the day and starts to visualise it – how he wants it to work and what his focus will be. In contrast, on the way home he doesn’t play music, he simply does his Reflect, Rest and Reset. He goes over the day in his head. What went well and then how he can relax. As he gets halfway to his car, he switches off from work and starts to think about how he wants to show up when he gets in the door. What kind of a husband and father he wants to be. He said that the Third Space completely changed how he enters the home environment. He no longer feels like his family gets the worst part of him.


About the author

Dr Adam Fraser is a thought leader and author in the area of human performance. For further information visit dradamfraser.com


Leave your comment
Start a new discussion

HRM Asia forum is the place for positive industry interaction and welcomes your professional and informed opinion.

Post a Comment
HRM Asia welcomes your contribution. Your IP address is recorded in the event of a complaint.
Name *
Email *
(required, but will not display)
Comment *
Please enter in the numbers in the box left.
You are about to submit your comment. Is it:
  • Professional
  • In your own name or pseudonym, not impersonating someone else
  • Free from rude language
  • Free from advertising
  • If you prefer not to post but are still keen to get your viewpoint across, you can always e-mail the editor.
  • 20 Sep | Michael Page International | Singapore
    19 Sep | Michael Page International | Singapore
    Gamification and story-telling at Sabre Holdings
    Joyita Poddar, HR Director, APAC, Sabre Holdings, elaborates on how firms should sell the success stories of their own employees through different platforms
    TTSH: HR leading the health drive
    The business case for WSH
    Itron: A five-prong guideline to employee retention
    Performance Leadership Pte Ltd | info@performance.sg
    Lunch, Learn and Bond with your teams, all within 1 hour! Choose from a variety of light-hearted, interesting or thought-provoking topics that appeal ...
    Performance Recognition Pte Ltd | info@performance.sg
    A monthly business incubator where leaders grow their skills, exchange ideas and share best practices.
    Organisational Development Concepts | enquiries@odctraining.com.sg
    Public speaking is a set of skills not a talent. You can be a good presenter if you learn the skills for presentation success.