How much separation should there be between your work and your personal life? What is a healthy balance? When should you just switch off from it all and carry on with your life?
Work is no longer a place, but a ‘state of mind’, according to a 2012 report by Forbes Insights and Gyro, a business consultancy, which examined the attitudes to work and personal life of global executives. Most of us can probably relate to this idea and are well aware of the benefits and pitfalls of technology enabling work to expand to fill all available space and time rather than being confined to the period between 9am and 5pm or the space between the office walls.
The ‘at work state of mind’ concept is important. For Gyro, this presents exciting challenges in how to market to business decision-makers who aren’t necessarily making ‘business decisions’ when we expect them to. For employers it presents other issues such as to how to measure and reward what work people are actually doing, or how to maintain a duty of care over their working time. For employees there is the constant struggle to negotiate the boundary between ‘work’ and ‘life’. Many organisations will give you a laptop and a smartphone, but it’s largely up to you as an individual to strike your own balance. I’ve had managers tell me that their staff are working ’24 hours a day’, which seems unlikely, not to mention in contravention of the Working Time Directive and rendering them hugely underpaid for the hours they’re doing. So we’ve also got issues with managers making assumptions that staff are ‘working’ when they may not necessarily be doing anything of the sort.
In the current working environment it’s not just your time that needs managing, it’s your own mindset. For some, it’s stressful to switch off from work completely. A former colleague of mine always checked her inbox on the final Sunday evening of her holiday; it helped her to relax knowing in advance what was waiting for her back in the office. At the other extreme, I have another friend who switches to ‘holiday mode’ whenever she steps out of the office building, and she’s the one at my elbow on a regular Tuesday night in the pub saying: ‘C’mon, you’re on your holidays, you might aswell have another drink.’
In the @Work State of Mind report Rich Karlgaard from Forbes argues that the advent of smartphones and wi-fi should enable us to enjoy the freedom to pursue our leisure interests during the middle of the weekday and fit work in at other times that suit us: ‘…lose the guilt over declaring your own independence. Enjoy that freedom, and bestow it generously on your colleagues.’
This sounds fantastic and liberating, but most of us do not work for such progressive employers who would allow us the freedom to work on our ‘key deliverables’ after going on a midday 40km bike ride whilst the roads are quieter. In a lot of companies, the freedom to do something completely unrelated to work in the middle of the working day is still the hard-earned privilege of the senior executive, who’ll make you well aware that that privilege is not extended to you.
‘Freedom’ is therefore to be claimed back by employees. Otherwise known as ‘discretionary effort’, you not only choose how much ‘extra’ to put into your work when you’re at your desk, but also how much of your own time you’re going to spend ‘at work’ in your head during non-working hours. I would argue that the responsibility for managing your own mental health also lies with you; it is also important for individuals to recognise when their freedom is being curtailed by unhealthy working habits or managerial expectations.
Knowing when ‘good enough’ is good enough, and knowing when to push for better results from yourself are important skills if you’re going to get somewhere in your career and not burnout along the way. If your organisation is not bestowing freedom generously on you you will need to strike your own accord and mark out your own boundaries between ‘work’ and ‘personal’. Getting this right so that all the people who have a claim on your time are happy, including yourself, is the fine art of ‘balance’.