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Time to get your act together

Published on 15/04/09 at 03:28pm

I have a confession to make. Sometimes, when Im on a training course, I think I might be better off at circus school. I have to juggle my career, family and other commitments, balance work and life, and occasionally jump through flaming hoops into the unknown. And then there is the occasional lion, hopefully metaphorical, to deal with. But this is all part and parcel of being in a two-career family with small children and ageing parents, something that many of us have to deal with in our working and daily lives.

In this article, I'm going to look at the range of challenges that today's lifestyle throws at us, and identify five ways we can cope, both as employees and employers. While I'm going to talk a lot about families with children, I am equally aware that those of us without children are not without families. Caring for parents or other elderly relatives brings just as many  if not more  pressures.

To get a broad perspective on the issues, I asked several hundred interim managers in the UK and Europe about the most significant challenges to work-life balance and what companies, and individuals, are doing to address them. Interim managers are career professionals who have many years experience, both as full-time employees and as interims meeting companies short-term staffing needs, so they've seen what works and what doesn't work in a wide range of organisations. Their responses picked up some recurring themes that speak to most of us, especially when we or our partner are considering changing jobs.

The root of the problem

First of all, lets look at where our feelings of the work-life balance getting out of control come from. Its obvious that these are tough times, so many of us are feeling stresses from several angles. We worry whether our jobs are secure, and are probably putting in extra hours to make sure we are valued and valuable employees. If colleagues have been made redundant, not only have we lost their skills and contributions, but we may also have to cover their workload as well.

Coupled with job worries come our continuing debts, and while interest rates have come down, mortgage payments remain the biggest monthly outgoing for many of us. Those of us in relationships may well be relying on two salaries, both of which could be under threat. And as I've mentioned, our family responsibilities are expanding, and so too are our work responsibilities as we rise up the career ladder. On top of all this, many senior pharmaceutical, CRO and biotech positions nowadays require national and international experience, so we should expect to move more than once during our careers. Moving can take us away from the support of our extended family, uproot children from school and friends, and mean that we might not get back in time if one of our elderly relatives falls seriously ill. There can also be unseen financial consequences, when an apparent promotion ends up costing money. I know one man who chose a weekly commute from Scotland to Hertfordshire, not just because he didnt want to move his family, but also because house prices meant they would have to swap a large, comfortable house north of the border for something much more cramped down south.

Developing a coping strategy

A sage piece of advice from one of our interims was that coping with these challenges is ultimately your responsibility, you should not expect your company to manage your work-life balance for you. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't expect your employer to have policies in place that are designed to help their employees achieve a better work-life balance, just that ultimately its up to you how you use those policies and organise yourself to get the best out of everything you do. After all, when you change jobs, you might have to accept a different set of policies and if you haven't developed your own abilities to cope, you may have a hard time adjusting.

1. Define the problem

Of our interims, 69% cited working hours, commuting and well-being as the biggest work-life balance challenges they faced. Approximately 10% cited childcare as their most significant challenge, and around 7% cited caring for relatives or business travel as major issues.

Just as you would sit down at work and identify objectively the key challenges of a particular project, you have to take a helicopter view, as one of our interims said, to put your work-life balance problems into perspective. When you take the time to step back and really analyse your situation, you might find that the thing that has been causing you the most stress is perhaps not as significant as your levels of worry suggest.

For instance, let's look at commuting. Some of us spend many hours a week travelling to and from work, and the problem here is that we tend to look on commuting as lost time. But it needn't be so. We might also have a pile of magazines on the floor by our desk that we feel we ought to read but never get round to. A broader perspective might help us to see how we can match the lost time commuting with those magazines - if you take the train, you can work your way through that pile pretty quickly, if you drive (or rarely get a seat), podcasts and audiobooks can help you keep up with the latest developments in your field.

If you switch your view of commuting from lost to useful time, a lot of the stress involved should dissipate. You won't be worrying so much about your train being on time if you know that any delay will give you the opportunity to finish one more article from your reading list. It's not so much problem solved, as a problem reassessed, and turned into a solution.

2. Review your options

Not all problems can be dealt with as easily as making sure you take advantage of your commute. Often you will have to weigh the pros and cons of different potential solutions to see how they might best fit your circumstances now, and possibly into the future.

Make sure you find out exactly what your potential employer's policies are on the issues that are most important to you, such as flexible working, or time off for important family events or charity work. But also make sure that you factor in options from your side, as well. We've already pointed out that it is not your employer who should be running your work-life balance, so you might have to make a difficult choice between a job that pays more but is harder to fit into your lifestyle versus one that pays less but helps you better maintain the work-life balance you, and your family, want.

3. Talk

Once youve defined what you see as the problem, you need to find out how it affects those closest to you at home and at work. Spouse, family and your line manager can all have useful opinions that will help refine your understanding of your current approach to work-life balance and help you make the right choices.

But don't fall into the trap of spending more time complaining about a problem than trying to do something about it. For instance, if your company does not have a home-working policy, you might be able to persuade them that such a policy is feasible if you can demonstrate the possible benefits. One of our interim managers suggests using articles from reputable sources that discuss the health and productivity benefits of flexible working hours to open the debate with your line manager and HR department. Be proactive, rather than just moaning.

Talking to others in similar situations can also help you better understand your own situation. Those with small children can get a lot of help and advice at the school gate, including potential for car-pooling and sharing other tasks. Those caring for elderly relatives can find advice from organisations such as Age Concern or local support groups.

4. Plan

I'm willing to bet that your employer has provided you with training in time and project management, possibly career coaching as well. These are all skills that you can use across all aspects of your life, not just at work.

Using time management to run your family life might seem a bit clinical at first, but planning ahead reduces stress and gives you more quality time with those who are most important to you. We plan our work with an eye on whether things are urgent or important, but we should also watch out for family activities that fall into the important but not urgent trap. I know couples who sit down with their diaries every Sunday to plan the week ahead. Not only does this mean that they can ring-fence quality time for the family, but it also means that they can be sure that nothing will fall through the cracks and so the process eliminates worry about who is doing which school run or attending the match. The same applies if you are a carer. Planning ahead so that you know how and when any needs will be taken care of removes a significant portion of the stress involved.

5. Be ready for change

It is inevitable that your situation will change, both at work and at home. Some change will be for the better, some might be for the worse. Whatever happens, it is certain that the challenges you face in five years time will be different from those you are facing now. But you can still use the same coping skills to address whatever life throws at you next.

Is flexibility the panacea?

Unsurprisingly, many of the interim managers surveyed cited the importance of flexible working to work-life balance. This flexibility could be around time, or location.

Time solutions included being able to make up time at weekends if a non-work event has interrupted the working week, and allowing staff to start and end later to fit around school drop-off in the morning. Another, innovative solution is to work variable hours - the Cambridge operations of an American biotechnology company allow staff to work 8.30-5.30 with a short lunch break Monday to Thursday so that they can leave early on Friday. Companies such as Napp Pharmaceuticals and W L Gore & Associates also have a flexible approach to holidays. The holiday entitlement at Napp increases with length of service, and staff at both companies can also buy extra holidays if necessary.

Another important aspect of flexibility for many people is time for community contributions. Many firms either actively support specific local charities, or allow additional time off for staff members to fulfil their own charitable commitments.

The most obvious flexibility around location is working outside the office, usually from home, but this is a challenge for both employee and employer. While many people say they are much more productive at home, not everybody can resist the lure of Loose Women. Developing the levels of trust necessary to allow home-working includes focusing on results rather than on hours seen to be worked.

Of course some work cannot be done from home, but flexibility should allow for negotiation around things that can, such as report writing. There is, however, a quid pro quo for the employee - if your employer is flexible enough to let you work from home some of the time, in return you might need to be flexible, too, for instance travelling on a Sunday.

Companies that do not, or cannot, allow flexible working give their employees additional decisions to deal with. Parenting activities, such as the school run, can be challenging and expensive under these circumstances, and for some career couples it might be more economically sensible for one of the partners to stop working.

An alternative solution to the flexible working problem for parents was provided by GlaxoSmithKline, which set up the first child-minder network in Hertfordshire. This meant that employees could drop their children with registered childminders near home rather than drive them to a nursery somewhere else, saving commuting time both ways.

Perhaps the critical thing about flexibility is that employers must be seen to be fair and consistent. They cannot appear to favour employees with children over those without, or whose children have grown up and left home, so will have to come up with creative solutions that provide similar benefits, or benefits in kind, to employees with different family responsibilities.

Roll up, roll up

Perhaps we don't need to go to circus school after all. If we apply the skills that we already have, and choose our employers with care, we should be able to balance our work and life without going anywhere near those lions.


Tarquin Bennett-Coles is the director of RSA Interims:

Direct line +44 (0) 1707 280816.



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