Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Balance in all things

In answering Aztec-rose's questions about work-life balance, I started on a rant about needing a life apart from kids and work. I think this is an underrated concern.

In the workplace, a culture of obsession is developing. Great professionals are held up as role models, people who are described as "having dedicated their lives" to their jobs. Great success stories involve years of working 90 hour weeks. The problem with this is that it is not what everyone should be aspiring to. Now everyone is required to go the extra mile. For me, the pin-up boy of this view is Einstein. He is held up as an academic hero, and there is no doubt that he was genius. He was also a disaster personally. The world needs the odd Einstein, it does not need an entire generation raised as "Little Einsteins". In fact, his obsession even affected his own work. If a driven, obsessed man can be negatively impacted professionally by a lack of balance and distance, I can only assume it has a greater affect on your average punter.

When I first started working in the corporate world, our workplace had an informal policy of mental health days. People were encouraged not to take sickies, to truly only take sick leave when it was needed. In return, if you just really needed a day off, you could take it as a sick day as long as you let the boss know, so that appropriate staffing could be maintained. I thought it was a bit of a rort when I first worked there (which I was more than happy to make the most of), but when it disappeared in an ocean of NYK head office policy, I realised how productive it had been. People who have the opportunity to de-stress when they need it are much better employees. They handle work stress better, they handle irate customers better, and they are less likely to do a bunk when chaos strikes and you really need all hands on deck. In addition to that, people who have a life outside of work are better at keeping an appropriate perspective. For most of us, no matter how bad the disaster, people won't die, empires won't fall. No doubt everyone has worked with someone who seems committed to the belief that this is the gravity of problems at work. In general, this doesn't make for better handling of the problem.

So you need time off from work for your family. After all, poor bonding with your baby will cause emotional problems for life. 95% of juvenile offenders have emotionally or physically absent fathers. The behaviour of your toddler is the best predictor of their behaviour as a teenager. Best not leave them for a moment, you may regret it for the rest of your life. I take the piss, but I understand why these studies, and the headlines they create, exist. If we don't provide some hard evidence that kids need their parents, caring for them will never be valued. This is a war for the social value of productive adults' time, and no weapon can be spared.

The problem is that this is the order in which most people encounter the battle at the moment. They are already living the obsessive corporate life, then they have kids and have all these statistics thrown at them. It is a major struggle to maintain a career and anything resembling the kind of parenting they want. All the studies designed to legitimise parenting as a use of time just become a source of guilt. Added to the guilt about leaving work on time. Taking regular time out to do something with no corporate or parenting value is largely unthinkable.

For those who stay at home (for whatever reasons), the guilt turns into something along the lines of "if you aren't doing real work, you'd better raise perfect kids". Martyrdom to children is becoming legitimised. We hear that someone "devoted their life to their kids". We are supposed to protect them from bad influences, be there for them always, give them every opportunity.

In contrast, hanging out with friends, adult dinners, even a solitary coffee are described as indulgences and luxuries. Leaving work on time to look after kids might just barely be tolerated, but leaving to go surfing or to the pub with mates (not clients) is definitely poor form. Letting your social life in any way impact on your kids is also a no-no.

The problem here is that as well as having an impact on work performance, a lack of a life can have a negative impact on kids. At worst, parents smother their kids. They don't teach them independence, don't let them learn to critically assess the world. Maybe even end up in all the problems that living vicariously through your kids can cause. At best, it just doesn't teach kids how to live an enjoyable life. It creates an expectation that adults live their lives for work and kids. I suspect it also delays the point where kids realise their parents are real people with faults and quirks. Kids are the centre of the universe, seeing their parents doing stuff for their own edification, with no connection to the kids, helps realign the universe for them. I am not suggesting that this realignment won't happen without parents with lives, just that it is worth considering all the consequences of your self-indulgent behaviour, not just the guilt producing ones.

I would love to see some studies on the long term outcomes, both professional and parental, in people who maintain balance in every aspect of their lives, not just the ones society judges as valuable. I want to see a headline that says "Parents without playtime raise delinquent kids". Lets see some alarmist nonsense in favour of down time for everyone. I really think everyone benefits.


  1. really intersting post, just stumbled on your blog by accident.
    hope all is well in sydney
    social supremacy

  2. Wow, what an exellent post on the intricacies of the work family debate. Sometimes it seems like workplaces just don't get it, or don't want to get how important balance is. Many pay lip service, but expect and reward what they see as commitment... ie the ideal care-free worker, who in reality doesn't exist. And there are certainly ramifications that families just seem to have to wear - stressed out, guilt ridden, or alienated parents...Yes more research needs to be done, and incentives given to promote balance. ps. thanks for adding me to your roll :)