Most employee surveys that feature questions on work life balance are likely to have responses that show that there is low or no work life balance in an organisation. The truth is that, the response may not be the true picture of what work life balance is in the organisation.
If you ask each of your employee to define work life balance based on his/her own understanding, you are likely going to find a common theme, but the definitions will be different because living a balanced life is different for each individual, it is what it is for you and you alone.
The first reason why an organisational wide attempt at work life balance may fail is because the concept is widely desirable but individually defined. Organisations can hardly get it right with some of their initiatives to address issues of work life balance, they may appeal to some and disgusting to others.
A second reason is that every individual will be in and out of balance all the time. Values change overtime, so also our needs for balance. Think of a mother with infants, she will desire to spend more time at home with them, but when they grow up and they are in boarding schools, there will be less need to stay at home with the kids. Her desire for balance changes with the new state of her home just like it can change with other factors like; new relationships, new hobbies, new jobs, health challenge etc. Knowing that individual needs change, affecting what balance means per time, it will be difficult for organisations to adapt to individual changing taste of what constitute work life balance per time.
A third reason why efforts by organisation at addressing work life balance issue fail sounds ironic. Work life balance has nothing to do with work, it is about the authentic conversations we are not having with people that matter in our lives – our bosses, business partners, spouses, children etc. These conversations we are not having, which sometimes make us go against our values, are mostly the cause of the imbalance. When we are unable to say ‘no’ to requests that conflict with our values, we are actually saying ‘no’ to ourselves, and in the process creating an imbalance in our lives.
Coming fourth on my list of why organisational attempts at work life balance fail is our inability to realise that work life balance is about individual choice. An organisation I once worked with conducted an employee survey and one of the outcomes was the suggestion that a gym should be set up in the office as part of the effort to facilitate work life balance. The gym was completed in no time but it turned out to be the least patronised place in the organisation. The people made the choice not to visit the gym by their actions, even though it was free.
Organisations may put structure in place to facilitate work life balance, but such will fail if the individual employees do not make a choice to work within the structure.
It is an individual choice to define what balance means, to understand that life oscillates and there will never be a balance, and to say ‘no’ when one has to.
How Should Organisations then help its employees achieve work life balance?
Organisations must realise that the best of their effort cannot guarantee work life balance in the organisation until the individual employee is empowered to create his/her system around work life balance. This is not to say that organisations should hand off completely, but it should understand its role as a facilitator as long as balance is concerned.
This role as a facilitator is played in two ways;
- By providing the policies, systems and infrastructures that support a climate where work life balance is possible. This is not addressed at trying to specify what work life balance is for the employee, but creating an atmosphere where each person can make his/her own definition of work life balance possible. The advantages of doing this include;
- To prop individual employee towards doing the right thing
- Manage the reputation of the organisation
- Manage employee expectations
2. Empower employees on how to go about taking ownership of creating their own work life balance. This would come in form of training them on how to create their own work life balance commandments and be more value adding to the organisation.