Contemplating questions of work life balance

Visit the Apple website and have read of their “Jobs at Apple” page and you will be enticed by an organisation is all about creating the conditions where people can engage in work with impact.

Do more than you ever thought possible. Have more impact than you ever imagined. - This is where some of the world’s most passionate people create the world’s most innovative products and experiences. Join us and you’ll do the best work of your life — and make a difference in other people’s lives.

It sounds like the perfect description for a teaching role. After all, is this not how we see our roles as educators and is this not the sort of person we hope to have leading the learning of our children. As educators we are in the very special position of being that person with the opportunity by actions to shape a life, to lay a foundation upon which a lifelong love of learning is built and to empower the next generation. Surely this is a position that even an Apple engineer would be envious of.

Oddly lately I have been pondering how schools responds to the question of a work life balance. Let me try to explain my thinking. I am still trying to clarify my thinking here, so please bear with me.

I think it is a positive step that the question of work life balance is regularly an agenda item. The hero narrative of the teacher giving there all for the good of their students has probably served no one well. Claims that teaching is a calling and not a profession seem to undervalue the importance of professionalism and give permission for the deeply thoughtful and reflective practices of educators to be devalued. We should be proud of our profession and value what our professionalism brings to the care and nurture we provide to young people.

And we need to have conversations about how we take care of ourselves and how we meet our needs. This is where the question of work-life balance is of importance. For ourselves, for our families, for our students, our employers and all who rely upon us, our health and well-being matters. I wonder though if the current work-life balance agenda is based on a somewhat limited interpretation of what it means to achieve a work-life balance. I wonder how the work-life balance mix that is typically advocated for in this current agenda might be misaligned with the life-goals of some.

Don’t get me wrong, for many people the dialogue around striking a balance between life and work is important. Any move away from workplace cultures that place unceasing demands on time and availability, an always on lifestyle where sleep deprivation and constant business is a badge of honour, is a positive thing. Messages that it is ok to turn the phone off, disconnect from email and take a lunch break are all positive and necessary. I just wonder if we have perhaps have adopted a restrictive one-size fits all imagining of what it means to strike a work-life balance?

In our search for a happy work life balance, maybe we approach this goal from the wrong direction. At the core the concept is that individuals have their work which occupies a large amount of their time and energy and almost diametrically opposed to this their life which includes family and friends. Striking a work life balance becomes a balancing act between time at work, time with family and friends, between doing what we have to do for work and doing what we enjoy. And this is important for many people, but has the pendulum swung to far and are we now creating cultures where individuals confront pressure if their lives do not align with the traditional imagining of work and life.

Maybe the traditional approach to work and life does not serve the needs of all and ignores that for some of us the questions around work and life require a different perspective. Phil Libin the former CEO of Evernote, the popular cloud based solution for note-taking. When interviewed for Traingulation by Leo Laporte, Phil provided the following insight to this question of balance in life and work:

"If you think of it as life as being separate from work, then you’re going to have this conflict, if you think of them together and you try to have a job that’s sufficiently epic that you want to spend more time, that no matter how much time you spend at it you want to spend more then its great."

Astronaut Chris Hadfield echoes this sentiment in these words, “Decide in your heart of hearts what really excites and challenges you… Don't let life randomly kick you into the adult you don't want to become.” And these thoughts seem to fit with the sort of people who read the Apple jobs page and think, “yes, that’s where I want to be”, putting a ding in the universe. The challenge is how might we create cultures in our workplaces that give those who need it permission to switch off while also providing those who want to ‘do more than they ever thought possible’ the conditions they need to do just that.

It seems it is about empowerment and agency. If we are in control of our work and our life then we can make choices that provide us with the balance we require, whether that be through switching off or powering on. When our choices are restricted through policy or culture we will find balance a struggle but where we have control and can act strategically for our own well-being true balance becomes achievable.

By Nigel Coutts