I began my first presentation on work life balance by asking for the audience’s questions. Someone blurted out the big issue on everyone’s mind – does it exist?
The answer is yes, but it depends on our definitions of work, life and balance.
When I asked everyone to balance on one foot, people quickly realized that the act of balancing involves lots of movement – feeling out of balance and then adjusting to feel more in balance again. We’re never perfectly in balance, nor do we stay that way for long without having to shift something. This is true in life as well.
And then there’s that division between work and life.
With the integration of electronics into our lives, that line has blurred. Our phones interrupt our “life” with “work” at any moment, even when we’re not in our workplace. The pace of our lives has risen to a constantly stressful level. We seem to work round the clock. Our “life” has become crowded out of our waking hours by our “work.”
One answer, suggested by Michael O’Hara http://smartblogs.com/leadership/2015/12/15/stop-using-work-life-balance-and-start-using-work-life-integration/?utm_source=brief, is to adopt the idea of “work life integration” instead. O’Hara concludes “it’s no longer possible to divide them into two neat little categories.” But by considering how we can best integrate these two aspects of our experience, we can make choices that allow us to be fully engaged with both. The success of this approach depends on two pivotal skills – knowing when to take a break and setting boundaries.
Leaving the office before our charts are complete so we can have dinner and spend the evening with our family, and then logging into our EHR after the kids are asleep is smart integration. Taking a break in our work flow to have important family time can allow us to nurture those important relationships when our children are available. Conversely, if we know we’re expecting an important phone call on a weekend, alerting our family to the anticipated interruption allows us to take a break from a family activity when we’re needed elsewhere. Having participated in the call, we can resume our family interactions with enthusiasm.
The importance of communicating these boundaries can’t be overstated.
When we set a boundary, we let others know definitively what we will or won’t do. This gives them an opportunity to make other arrangements and builds a level of trust that allows us to have even more control over our lives. If we let colleagues and administration know that on Tuesdays we need to leave at 5PM to attend our child’s soccer game, they know not to crowd our schedule on Tuesdays, and that we’ll be more flexible on other days.
Whether we call it balance or integration doesn’t really matter. The foundation of having a life that honors both realms of our lives requires honesty and action on our part. We need to be clear about what we value in our lives, be willing to state those priorities clearly, and then maintain our commitments in and out of work. If we take those steps, our life will feel both balanced and integrated.