Sunday 7 April 2013

In the search for Work-Life-Balance, why are we not making Work more like Life?

The subject of work-life-balance (WLB) is one that has been discussed and opinioned upon so many times that it has now taken on the notion of a cliché. Something like the perennial search for an ‘honest politician’ in politics.
In its simplest form WLB is simply a “meaningful daily achievement and enjoyment in each of your four life quadrants: Work, Family, Friends and Self.” Clearly it is about figuring out a balance between your work and the other domains which are personal and private to you.

Achieving balance between Work and Life is challenging but there is a bias that ‘life is impacted negatively by work’ therefore we have to balance things to get our Life on track! I still remember the sign on many stores run by my family in my home-town that proudly declare that ‘Work is Worship’.

The common stance when it comes to WLB is that it is about “the separation between your work life and your personal life. It is the boundary that you create between your profession, career, or business and every other segment that makes up your life.” As I reflected on this I realised that many people believe that there is a trade-off between the two elements i.e. Work vs. Life. I don’t think so.

I realised that amongst the many things that one could do to figure out WLB was to focus on how to make their 'Work' environment as close as possible to ‘Life’ environment. Please do not stone me for trying to sugar coat work (and the ‘pain’ that goes with it) but for some of us who are devout workaholics have realised that we need divine intervention to ensure that we do not negatively impact the lives and feelings of those who love us (but do not follow us to the office). This is not a blog to cheer them up (the families we leave at home) but a blog to ‘cheer’ us (the people who come to work) up so that when we go home we are more livelier and less stressed out i.e. do not take it out on those who wait for us to go back home but then have to struggle with our moods and our ‘energy sapping sob stories’ from work.

The attempt to find WLB balance is a personal goal for me but as a manager of people I need to also consider what leadership attributes will help or guide my people in their personal quest to find WLB. I sincerely believe that managers and leaders can moderate the process by which an employee seeks to achieve or strive for WLB.
For those who are looking for guidance on improving their chances of leaving Work in a positive frame of mind, I offer the following.

First, stop associating with colleagues that sap your time and/or energy. Work on this element as it is critical. Stay away from that colleague who will search you out (at a water cooler or over coffee/lunch) and have that unnecessary conversation based on gossip and innuendo. If a colleague needs to vent then advise them to visit a therapist or a psychologist. You are doing yourself no favour in this scenario as the 'ventor' (the gossiper) will invariably free themselves of whatever is bothering them but in the process leave you confused and your mind reeling/spinning with negative thoughts and outcomes. Ask yourself did this individual find the time or energy to approach their manager or put their thoughts in writing with solutions (the solution element is critical)! This requires courage and most gossipers/'ventors' do not have courage!

Second, learn to say no. I cannot tell you how many of us in the mistaken belief that we must stretch to support an organisation or team find ourselves constantly taking on more than what our body/mind (the proverbial ‘plate’) can handle. In an attempt to deliver we then find ourselves making more and more sacrifices in terms of time and peace of mind. I am not stating that you say no to everything but do learn to say no when stretching for others and/or accommodating others who did not do their job in the first instance!. This is not easy but can be done. Choose your battles or you will lose the WLB war!

Third, assess time that you spend on productive and unproductive tasks. Let me be blunt here. I am referring to the time you spend on the web, at social media sites, attending extended lunches etc during working hours. I have seen employees hammering away post closure time and with ‘martyrdom welling in their eyes' tell me that they are stretching for the organisation when I know fully well that they lost hours in extended lunches, unnecessary conversations over coffee or distractions. At that point instead of blindly thanking them for their extra effort I tend to ask them some leading questions on time management and prioritisation so that they achieve self-realisation.

I must close off on this point differently though. I once had a manager advise me that he wanted to give a subordinate of his a high performance rating as that individual worked till 9.30pm everyday! I nodded sagely but then advised that this would ensure that all employees would start hanging around till late in an effort to get a good performance rating and frankly, if an employee is working till late consistently then the manager could have done better to balance the work-load for the subordinate or the team (and even if the manager is working till late with the subordinate it still does not detract from my point!).

Fourthly, associate with positive people and look for opportunities to engage in activities that build social standing and a positive work-place. This is a difficult concept as many of us leave it to the manager to work on creating employee engagement whereas it is a function of employee led initiatives (to some degree) also. Are you the employee looking at active ways to offer your ability or support to activities or ‘moments of truth’ that improve the work environment for you and your colleagues? I am always surprised by the paucity of individuals that will stand up and offer to support an activity to improve employee engagement or improve the atmosphere in the office. Are you part of some social club? Have you formed an alliance with like minded people around a hobby (for e.g. some cycle together over the week-ends)? Are you known as someone who spreads good cheer and gives out positive vibes?

My input guidance to the manager or leader who is working on creating the right environment to encourage WLB (or move toward it) is as follows:
  • Be a role model yourself. Practice what I just preached above
  • Call out and hold people accountable when you see them engaging in energy sapping activity. Remind them of the opportunity cost of gossip, innuendo and the inability to say no. Actively dissuade. Your silence is taken as consent by most employees and an endorsement of the wrong behaviours
  • Identify and isolate gossip mongers and energy sapping people. Be visible in how you neutralise such people in your team and how you handle such people who may be outside of your team but impact your team negatively. Don’t assume that this will happen automatically. It can only happen if you the leader stand up from your chair and walk up to someone and hold them accountable for the impact of their behaviour on your employee(s). Your employee is your investment, so protect that investment. Your visibility on such matters is a form of insurance!
  • Question the need for employees to work late. If you see teams or groups working till late consistently then that is a cry for help. Don’t run away from the fire (in this case the employees working till late)…but run to it. Actively seek out such situations and aim to fix the same!
  • Focus on rewarding the right behaviour and question your basis for recognition. Do you reward for hard work or smart work. Do you reward for internal reasons i.e. 'super human effort in stepping in for process failure'? If you have process failure then change the process rather than reward people for acting as substitutes to the process! That is to put it mildly – plain stupid! Identify and make an example of those who work to improving the work environment for others. How about a 'great colleague at work' award, but which is not based on the recipients ability to not say no and do other people’s work for them? And by the way, did you (the manager) ever try to reason or dissuade employees who take advantage of a colleague’s inability to say no!
  • Focus on skills development. A mind is a terrible thing to waste! Get people to focus their energies on developing skills that will help them beyond their day to day jobs. Investing in people is a great way to create focus and let people work on something that will improve their outlook and chances of moving up in the organisation. And when you have evidence of someone being successful on this count then highlight them as role models to the others. For once, I will encourage selfish thinking on the part of employees to grow and develop as they own the responsibility of growing their career but the manager must facilitate and guide the skills development process
  • Employees are your biggest asset even if you cannot see them on your balance sheet! Aim to create a culture of trust, empowerment and make the place fun to work at. Herb Kelleher (Chairman of Southwest Airlines) says it perfectly “What keeps me awake at night are the intangibles. You can get airplanes, you can get ticket counter space, you can get tugs, you can get baggage conveyors. But the spirit of Southwest is the most difficult thing to emulate. So my biggest concern is that somehow, through inattention, through misunderstanding, we lose the esprit de corps, the culture, the spirit. if we ever lose that, we will have lost our most valuable competitive asset.” 

Let me summarise my stance on WLB. I think it is utopia to think that we can achieve WLB at the expense of Work or Life. It is not a war and it should not be. The term balance means achieving a win win outcome on both fronts. Making Work more closer in form and structure to what Life looks like reduces the stress of the WLB transition faced by us all.
Actively work on refreshing your perspective on Work. Work is not a punishment. It is a privilege. Hard to earn and quick to lose if you do not show respect to it! In the battle between Work and Life it is workaholics that suffer the most. Those (like me) that have a chemical disembalance and need the most guidance and support in the search for WLB. [And by the way this specific blog is dedicated to people like me who have a chemical disembalance and are devout workaholics!].


Please feel free to subscribe via email (on the right use 'follow by email' feature) and also consider sharing with others using the links/tools provided below. This is the best way for me to broaden my reach and increasing my blog's visibility. Thanks in advance for your support.


  1. Well... Sirjee you have only covered the work part of it where is the life part of it? I am sure we can discuss how to get a life :)

    But cant agree more on the points covered. Thanks!

    1. The life part of it is shared over a beer..makes it more livelier then!

  2. Dr B, I have very strong opinions against your post, but will state only a few here (in the interest of ur readers).

    1. WLB is a cultural thing where in India it feels ok to call me on a Saturday, not even ask if I'm busy and dive into what's bothering him/ opposed to Singapore or Australia where people would ask if they were disturbing if they called after office hours even on week days.

    2. No matter what culture, one has to define WLB for themselves. For eg. I don't take calls or respond to emails on the weekends or on holidays. I know that a lot of people (especially in India) provide this as a reason for bad feedback when they respond to management feedback questionnaires! Either I can choose to not bother about their feedback (resulting in bad ratings) or follow their feedback (resulting in bad WLB).

    3. The only one who can ensure that true WLB happens is a manager who understands the difference between people whining about someone not responding on the weekend and someone slacking on the job when he's rating his employees.

    True WLB is in the hands of the employee. Whether he gets screwed for it or not is in the hands of his boss.

    1. WLB is not an Indian phenomenon. Most research originates from the US or UK. The very places where you are referring to as being WLB issue-free.

      I have worked in Singapore so yes agree with the comment that people there respect privacy. For the record I have not been to the office over week-ends for more than 2.5 years but I do check my email. Not because I want to but because the job and role I do warrants it.

      But I do agree that WLB is in the hands of the employee but yes he or she then carries the risk of how a bad manager would handle them. The tone for WLB is set at the top..that is why my blog ended with advice for the managers .... they are key to making WLB successful...thanks...

  3. A very insightful read, sir!!! IMO, the seven points that you have focused upon are good enough to be treated as Seven Commandments of WLB (to be studied by every leader, aspiring or established); with our ever changing modus vivendi and increasingly stressful work environment, WLB is emerging as a pivotal area of discussion. I have no doubt in my mind that that day is not very far away when it would taken up as academic discipline to be taught to the future honchos before they step into the professional life.

    I had the privilege of attending your session at Delhi Technological University last year. And I really loved the manner in which you shared with the audience your different highs and lows in life. I could sense that you were a workaholic but I could also see that you enjoy your personal space as much. You talked about your love for movies and how you indulge yourself in different activities (family responsibilities, movies, drumming, psychology, etc... if I remember correctly) just to keep yourself charged up mentally as well as physically. Now my first question is that how you are able to re-distribute and re-transmit these energies while hopping from one avenue to the other so seamlessly? And how important in life it is to keep the mind occupied, engaged, and happy so as to keep away the physical fatigue?

    1. Murtaza...what a coincidence. I am right now writing from the back of a car on my way to Delhi Techological University to give another talk to the students there. You have great recall of what I presented last year.

      Reality is that physical fatique does still get to me. I also think age is catching up. What worked when I was 30 needs moderation and adjustment now that I am in my 40s. Stil working on that adjustment. Mind is still far ahead of where my body is capable of taking me!

    2. Thanks for your candid response! I must tell you that today's session was as enthralling as the last one, if not more. I, like most of the audience members, was simply in awe when the session ended. It has indeed been a matter of great privilege and honor for me to have attended not one but two of your sessions. And frankly speaking I am far from being satisfied. In fact, I would love to devour more of your sessions, if the opportunity presents itself.

      Btw, here is the link to my film blogsite, "A Potpourri of Vestiges". Do take some time out of your busy schedule to explore it. I am certain that it won't disappoint you :-)

  4. I never expected you to write on this topic as it was my impression that you are not a very strong advocate of the ideology of WLB. However, let me confess that I always believed that the two cannot be confined within boundaries, or to be measured like commodities on a scale. Your article has given this ideology a new dimension and certainly seeks to dispel the myth of some proponents of this ideology of branding work and life in different boxes. In my opinion those who vouch for WLB as separate entities, not to be infringed upon are under the impression that it will earn them the goodwill of the employees and improve the employee’s performance. On the contrary, it encourages the employee to be complacent and spawns mediocrity in their work; they are not inspired to add value to their job and fail to deliver to their full potential. It is only when you love to do what you do and do it with passion that work ceases to be the drudgery and becomes part of your life which you enjoy doing. Suddenly you realise that you have pulled down the barrier of misconception separating life and work and feel liberated and inspired to take up new challenges.
    Deepakji, you never cease to amaze me. Great stuff indeed!

  5. Great blog, Deepak. I just discovered your writings though LinkedIn and I'm enjoying reading what you're put down. Loved this line, "The term balance means achieving a win win outcome on both fronts."

    People forget that.