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Work life balance: How we can put “work” and “life” on equal levels

Foto: C. Grauer

Foto: C. Grauer

Der folgende Text erschien erstmals als Gastbeitrag bei „Women working in Aid and Development„. Vielen Dank nochmals an die Betreiberinnen Zehra Rizvi und Fi Davidson, meinen Artikel zu veröffentlichen.

Zehra’s recent post on “Is there a life after work” gave me a lot of food for thinking. Like Zehra, I, too, have been wondering why so many people working in aid and development are struggling with their individual work life balance.

“Generation Y“, aid and development: We are all in the same boat

During the past weeks, I came across quite a few articles and blogs about “Generation Y”’s approach to work. “Gen Yers”, sometimes called “Millennials”, are born around or after 1980 and said to look for personal fulfilment in their jobs while being careful about maintaining their work-life balance. It is expected that employers will increasingly need to adapt to their applicants’ changing demands – but I have the impression that this is not happening in most work places and it rather seems as if especially those working in entry-level positions are even discouraged to think about something as a “work life balance”.

I do not want to discuss the usefulness of the concept of “Gen Y” here, but I find there are some similarities between us working in aid and development and the “Millennials”: We all appear to be driven by values, we want to do something meaningful in our professional lives and contribute our share towards improving the world by some means or other.

Having been working in development since 2006 I, too, experienced the difficulties of bringing together one’s aspirations of “doing good” while ending up in an environment where many people holding junior positions (and not only those) feel enormous pressure. This pressure often resulted from aiming at being promoted to the next higher level (where there were fewer positions available), waiting for short-term contracts to be renewed or simply wishing to get positive recommendations for future applications. Maintaining relationships and friendships or thinking about having children often came second or third or hardly at all.

Competition for jobs and promotion: Does it require us to put “life” last?

Judging from the many comments below a recent post at From Poverty to Power and from having talked to many students and recent graduates during the past year, competition for entry-level positions in aid and development is and will remain high. Right from their first days of work onwards, many people are then told to convinced they need to always put their jobs first or else they won’t be able to have much of a career.

This goes on for the years to follow: In fact, many people working on mid-career levels I talked to (including myself) know the unwritten law whereby working long hours and weekends and sacrificing anything outside work including family and personal life to work still are the main indicators of a person’s qualification.

By this, I am not saying that working hard is bad, not at all. I, too, like working a lot and could not imagine myself without work. When dealing with something I find interesting or that has a deadline, I do not count hours nor do I care working late or on weekends – and I suppose most of us have a similar approach. But despite the fact that one can draw a lot of satisfaction from work, it is equally important to make sure one “gets a life” outside of your job, as well-known aid blogger J. recently put it. After all, our jobs are mostly only temporary affairs whereas our lives outside work may ground us and give us a lot of energy and inspiration we can put into our work.

Why not put “life” first to achieve the balance?

When I read how Fi had been leaving meetings because of commitments with friends or family I wondered how I would react if someone left a meeting I am attending because of a family appointment – and it struck me that I first felt irritated, despite my deep conviction of the importance of having a life outside of one’s job. My second feeling, though, was admiration, because I thought about how utterly important it is that more people do just this: Just do it – act in order to balance work and life instead of giving work always first priority.

So even though we are talking about work life balance, “work” still is mostly considered to have to come first. But why not put “life” first – or, at least, put them on the same level? After all, there are many occasions where an email can be answered the next day or even a meeting may be scheduled an hour earlier, isn’t it? And a close friend whom I haven’t seen in a year may well deserve that I reserve an hour or two once she’s in town whereas I can meet my colleagues the next day as well.

Some strategies for improving the work life balance

Many NGOs or agencies or other workplaces in aid and development do not yet have mechanisms in place allowing employees to find out their individual degree of balance. True, changing organizational cultures needs time, but every process of change begins with individuals starting it. After all, are not all of us working in aid and development experts for change?

I am not suggesting this was a nice and easy task (and an evidence-based best practice collection yet has to be put together), but here are a few strategies I found helpful for improving my own work life balance:

  • Collect “case studies”: When putting together donor reports, we are dealing with case studies all the time. I have been doing this more or less consciously for a long time: Putting together my personal collection of “case studies”, mainly of women I met or read about and their approaches to handling their work, life, and family balance. It can be highly encouraging to see how someone else has coped with a certain situation, e.g. losing one’s job or handling life as working single mum and give you the spirit to do just what you feel you ought to do in a certain situation.
  • Create a network of friends, colleagues and mentors: I am grateful to having met some very special women all working in different positions within the aid/development sector along the way whom I regularly meet and discuss with. Most of them are older than me and I very much appreciate being able to turning to them for advice and looking over their shoulders at times in order to learn about how they are managing to handle their lives and jobs and families. A network of this kind does not need to be large (and not necessarily involve only women), but it is an important opportunity to reflect, share and learn.
  • Find out about one’s priorities (and what “having it all” means to you):This may be the hardest part because it can be difficult to find out what we really want (at least I found it difficult at times).  I am not so sure whether we really “can’t have it all” – after all, “all” depends on each individual’s ideas of life. In my experience, especially during the early years of one’s  career, it can be tricky to be aware of what it is that you want in life as opposed to what you believe you are supposed to want, because so much is insinuated on us by media, teachers, supervisors, etc. It helped me to write a journal and discuss this with friends and with a coach.
  • Take care of yourself and listen to trust your gut feeling: We need to free ourselves of the many pressures we feel, particularly in the workplace. We have to start using our common sense, and learn to act according to our gut feeling. Sounds vague? It sort of is, but I only found out after a few years of working that indeed listening to my inner voice and feeling often gave me the kind of advice I had been looking for with my brain and thoughts.
  • Yes, we can change structures and processes: In everything we do, we always have a choice. We can say “yes” or “no”. We can accept conditions in our work environment that we like or do not like. With new technologies all over the place, most office work (and aid and development to a large part is just that), does not necessarily need to be done at one and the same desk 5 days a week. We can thus insist on being given more flexibility while at the same time trying to find compromises, e.g. have regular team meetings or office times in addition.

Now, does this sound too idealistic or outright naïve to you? It should not because I believe that anyone of us, regardless of her position, regardless of her state of mind, can do this and contribute her share to balancing “work” and “life” in workplace discussions about work life balance.

I’d love to hear about the strategies which have helped you improve your work life balance. And how do your employers handle this whole matter? I am sure there are many out there giving their staff greater freedom for balancing work and life so that it fits to their various living circumstances.

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