Work-Life Balance And Why We've Got It Wrong

Work-Life Balance and Why We’ve Got It Wrong

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Work-Life Balance and Why We’ve Got It Wrong

It’s that time of year again. Life ramps up, and we join the mad scramble to make it to Christmas in one piece. December’s arrival sends us into collective shock at another year over, and it will again next year! As a leadership coach, I’m all too familiar with the lament that the longed-for work-life balance has again failed to materialise. 

It’s had me thinking about that elusive unicorn we call ‘work-life balance’. What is it? What does it look like? And where are all the happy people who’ve achieved it?

According to Bill Browne from the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute in a 2019 update on ‘Excessive Hours & Unpaid Overtime’,

“…unpaid overtime is a frequent occurrence: including coming in early, leaving late, working at home or on weekends, and working through regular breaks and lunch hours. Across all forms of employment, our respondents reported working an average of 4.6 hours of unpaid labour per week.”


I recently worked with a client who’s moved into a step-up role. It’s beyond anything they’ve experienced thus far in their career, with a size and scope to match. They’ve moved from doing what they’re passionate about into doing what they think needs to be done to help the team.

In my role, I get to work with great people who are passionate about what they do, and who genuinely care for their teams. They want to bring the best out in those around them. But time and again, I see leaders assuming responsibility for the minutiae instead of empowering and releasing others to bring their skill, ability and expertise to the fore.

Many leaders are drawing too much to themselves, creating a heap of work that has them staying late, working weekends, and sending emails at all hours to staff. The irony is that most don’t expect their team to stay late, work weekends or answer emails in the middle of the night. But you know what; actions speak loudly!


There are a couple of things at play with this kind of leadership that outwork in longer hours and more stress for everyone.

Micro-managing people, projects and tasks, disempowers our teams. It creates an unhealthy dependence on our input, leaving everyone second-guessing, and creating an environment where people feel they can’t proceed until we sign off on every step.

That’s one outcome. The other is that we create an environment that’s cluttered, unclear, and more likely to involve long hours, at least for us. And what happens when we set the example by staying late, working weekends and emailing at all hours of the night? We send the signal to our teams that this is what’s expected – even if we say something different.

Now, I freely admit there are going to be times and projects requiring all hands on deck and long hours – but these should be the exception – not the rule.


So how do we escape the cycle? How do we give ourselves a break, and let our staff know it’s OK to have a life outside of work? I think it’s important to ask a few questions of ourselves and challenge our beliefs.

For example, do we believe, in our heart of hearts, that it’s OK to go home before dark and email only during office hours? What do we honestly expect of ourselves and our teams? What do we value? And the tough one; What part does our ego play in the hours we work and the schedule we keep?

The folks at Google have undertaken a long-term study into the work-life balance (or lack thereof) of their employees. The research identified the ability to completely unplug after leaving the office as key to living a significantly happier and stress-free life.

So, is finding a work-life balance for ourselves and our team as simple as confining our work activity to working hours and switching off at the end of the day? After all, before the internet, email, and smartphones; most people stepped out of their work life and into home life at day’s end.


For some, it may be that simple, but I believe there’s another vital, often overlooked ingredient. I think our definition of success has an enormous bearing on our version of work-life balance. When we start with what success looks like and work our way back – work-life balance gains clarity; for our team and us.

A nearly universal theme I’ve encountered with those I coach is the need to identify what success looks like for them. What many do is define their success and subsequent actions based on how they believe others define success. It sounds a bit crazy when you read it in black and white, but it happens all the time.

Let me illustrate the point. Another client of mine was promoted and was busy working long hours while juggling spending quality time with their young family. I asked why they were working such long hours, and they replied that it was expected of someone in their position. because he was a partner. Sounds reasonable enough.

So I pushed my point. “Who asked you to work these hours?”

“No one.”

We analysed what they were getting done in the hours after the kids went to bed – drafting email responses that would usually need to be redraft the following morning before being sent. I challenged them to stop working in the evening and instead spend the first hour at work answering all the emails. They gave it a go and found that they pumped them out without the need for redrafts.

It’s no surprise that research confirms that long hours are a false economy and can wreak havoc on our cognitive function and physical health. However – stopping doing too much – cold turkey – can leave us feeling unfulfilled and guilt-ridden! Defining our vision for success is what changes our perspective.

What does success, not just at work, but in life, look like for you? Your family? Is it, on one level, being available for school drop-off or pick-up? Is it taking time to visit your parents, or be at your child’s school presentation?


If you’re a leader, you set the culture for your staff. What you do and how you do it matter. If you send emails to your team after hours but say you don’t expect a reply – it’s too late. You’ve already invaded their night, and now they’re thinking about the issues as they go to bed.

If your success includes leaving early on certain days or working from home once a week, great, do it! Just make sure your team understand your ‘what’ and ‘why’! We have to break the culture of pretending we don’t have lives outside of the office. When we, as leaders, quietly slip out to go to a school presentation – it perpetuates the culture we’re trying to change.

Leave loud! I’ve heard others talk about this concept, and I love it! Make it clear that you will be working from home on certain days – and why. Good communication around the give and take that should be a natural part of life goes a long way to removing the shame many people experience. When leaders practise this kind of leadership, they permit others to ‘leave loud’.


In the end, I think that trying to achieve the almost mythical work-life balance leaves many guilt-ridden because they can’t find the magical ingredient. For me and those I coach, it’s a trade-off. There will be times when work takes centre-stage; when we spend those long hours on a project. But, that’s the exception – not the rule.

And those pesky emails – what would it look like for your team to send and answer them during office hours? Communication is vital, but actions speak louder than words! Why not give your staff an early Christmas present by giving it a go? What have you got to lose?

We all have one life to live. Let’s make the most of it before the year is out!

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