I used to know someone who regularly worked from 10AM to 2AM at his first job in a consulting firm. During the occasional meal break, he would take his laptop with him and continue in between bites of food. Once, he bailed on a friend because of a work emergency, leaving her to watch a concert alone, until the last 20 minutes when he finally dropped by.
He might have been handsomely compensated, but no one in their right mind would say he had “work-life balance”.
A recent survey found that Singaporeans tout seeking better work-life balance as the top reason for leaving one’s job. If any of these Singaporeans were in his place, they would have probably left within the first week.
This seemingly all-important phrase, “work-life balance”, regarded as an ideal to strive towards, reinforces that life outside of work is just as important as work itself.
Many of us don’t just believe that we should be able to separate “work” from “life”; we also want to equally divide the time and energy allocated to them.
According to Channel NewsAsia, this 50/50 approach ignores the reality that work and life are not mutually exclusive. They are fluid entities, often overlapping each other. As long as our office email is linked to our phone and we are contactable via our office Whatsapp chat groups long after the day ends, we can never truly get away from work, even when we are out of the office.
Insisting that work and life must not intertwine also pits the two against each other. It forces us to regard one as superior to the other, creating unnecessary stress when we find ourselves unable to compartmentalise.
Naturally, when we find ourselves doing OT, we blame our employers for piling us with too much work. Ask anyone what their idea of a perfect work day looks like, and they’d insist that having less work or more time would make them happier. In some situations, where employers don’t respect their employees’ need for personal time, this is true.
In other cases, however, I suspect the idea that we need less work or more time is just an excuse for not having to better manage our own happiness.
Barring physical and mental health reasons that incapacitate us, less work or more time wouldn’t necessarily change our working habits.
For example, poor time management or being unable to focus on the task at hand can cause work to pile up. At companies with free access to the internet, many of us often go back and forth between multiple tabs and windows on our computer: work, Whatsapp, Telegram, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, and even online shopping.
As a result, we feel stressed about having “so much to do, so little time”.
This basic lack of organisational skills doesn’t change just because we take on less work or are given more hours in a day. We would likely take the same unproductivity and inefficiency into any other situation.
Yet it’s tempting to hold our employers accountable for our happiness (or lack thereof) because we don’t need to assume responsibility for our life. If we surrender control of our self-discipline, we can blame others when life doesn’t turn out the way we want it to.
Yes, some of us do need less work and more time. But many of us just need to be more resourceful with what we’re given.
It’s also crucial that we redefine how this balance actually looks, and what it means for our individual careers. For some, it means going home early everyday while working on weekends. For others, working on a packed schedule from the day till night, with a few substantial breaks in between, provides the elusive balance they seek.
Another thing to note is that work-life balance looks different for different people. Those who love their jobs or find meaning in what they do might find that balance easily. They may not even desire balance, but something closer to what we might call work-life integration.
For these people, there’s no need for a clear divide between work and life. They understand that the two will cross paths, and that work is part of life. They embrace it.
In the same way, the person at the start of this article might have had to work till wee hours of the morning everyday, but he still found his job fulfilling because of how challenging it was. Likewise, for others, work-life balance might mean ‘work’ for the next 10 years, and ‘life’ after that.
Ultimately, regardless of whether we love, hate, or are indifferent to our jobs, the question is this: what are we truly hoping to balance?
After all, work and life are each complex and multidimensional constructs, impossible to sort into black and white categories.
Suppose you work only six hours a day, but complain incessantly about your job to anyone who would listen. This is still too much work and not enough time; you would probably find that you lack work-life balance.
When we talk about attaining greater work-life balance, we are essentially hoping to balance a multitude of factors: time spent in the office, pleasure, meaning, social fulfilment, exercise, personal time, and anything else that makes us content. Whether we like it or not, some of these factors are overlap with both work and life.
So perhaps the secret to true work-life balance is learning to be content with our circumstances, and understanding that few of us get to have everything we want in life. There are always sacrifices that need to be made; if you want the freedom to pursue your own ideas at work, flexible hours, and career fulfilment, chances are that you need to give up something in the way of compensation.
It’s simple to aspire to tangible goals, such as doing less work and having more time. But as anyone who has actually gotten less work and more time realises, it’s merely a superficial balm to a deeper dissatisfaction.
It all comes down to what you’re doing with the reduced workload, and how you spend the additional time, that determines whether your life is balanced.