The elusive work-life balance

The year is off to a brisk start, with many people promising themselves that they will maintain a better work-life balance in 2018. But is it really possible in this day and age?

Cathie Webb, director of the South African Payroll Association, says people talk about work-life balance as if one can interchange the one with the other without any issue. “I do not think that is as achievable as we would like it to be.”

People have to take responsibilities for their roles in a business, and they should understand that they are employed for a purpose. People also need to know where they fit in to the organisation for which they work, and why they are important for the business.

“In many instances, people understand what their jobs are, but they don’t understand why it is integral to the success of the business,” says Webb. Very few businesses have “reserves” to fill in the gaps when people are not available, or when they are not doing what they are supposed to do.

Many South Africans, particularly if they depend on public transport, have to commute long distances between their home and workplace. Increased traffic and deteriorating roads mean that an eight-to-five job may take many more hours out of one’s day than the time spent at work.

People who tend to have a more balanced work and private life generally work in isolation and do not have to keep regular office hours. Even if a company allows for more flexibility – where people can start earlier and finish earlier, or the other way around – there is an added level of complexity as soon as the job is “customer facing” or the employee is part of a team.

Webb says honest and open communication at work and at home is important. “It is important for employees to be honest about challenges they may be facing at home. They must be equally honest at home about challenges they are facing at work.”

Webb says people start working longer hours to get tasks done, or they tend to come in a bit later than they should in the mornings. Managers who have smaller teams will be able to pick up on signs that the balance between work and private life is being affected.

“Make time to meet with your team regularly. It does not have to be a lengthy meeting with everyone weekly, but you need to meet often enough to understand what is happening in their lives.”

Webb says if someone has issues at home that affect performance at work, you should try to find workable solutions for the company and the employee who is trying to keep all the balls in the air. For example, time given off formally to deal with a specific issue, rather than “stolen” hours having to be taken randomly through a work day, may mean much to an employee under pressure.

Statistics provided by the South African Revenue Service and National Treasury indicate that 2744 taxpayers worked overtime in 2013, compared with 656 in 2016. The income from overtime dropped from a combined R33 million to R14m during the same time.

There is no underlying information to these statistics, and the decrease may be due to businesses reducing their spending on overtime. But, Webb says, it may signify an increased awareness on the part of employers that people need “me time”, even in a pressurised economy.

When people are asked how they are, most tend to give the “stock response” of “fine”, “hectic” or “it does not help to complain”. Many of these responses become a habit. People should learn to check their habitual response to this question and ask themselves why they use them. Managers equally have to pay attention to why people respond the way they do. If someone is always genuinely “hectic”, there is something wrong, somewhere.

“We are responsible for the way we think about ourselves. We can make ourselves feel more positive about ourselves and our day, as well as making others feel more optimistic.”

Webb says the balance comes from being “fully present” when you are at work. People have to be committed to the tasks they need to fulfil. “You need to find a way to switch-off when you are on your way home so that you can also be fully present at home.”

She says the importance of spending time with the family over dinner (not in front of the television) should never be underestimated. If you need to put in extra time at home, at least spent time during dinner to catch up on the day.

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