Business Page November 30, 2003

Balancing work and life:imperative, not impossible

Introduction  

The book Double Lives published last year is a story of the extraordinary achievements of ten fascinating individuals who not only lived more than one life but who were incredibly successful at each of them.

Written by David Heenan who is himself quite accomplished as a corporate executive as well as a successful writer the book recounts the lives and achievements of persons who may be known for their remarkable achievements in one field while carrying on separate roles with almost equally successful results.

The book features personalities from politics (Winston Churchill, author/artist/orator/statesman), business (Norio Ohga, Sony chairman/professional opera singer/licensed jet pilot/symphony conductor), science (Sally Ride, physicist/astronaut/ professional tennis player/ entrepreneur), international finance (James Wolfensohn, Olympic fencer/cellist/arts baron/World Bank President) and for good measure mortician (Thomas Lynch, funeral director/poet).

With the exception of the legendary Winston Churchill, all the characters in the book are contemporary, although some are less well-known than others as are their alter-egos. That in no way diminishes them or their secondary (??) achievements which, in a world where specialisation is considered the only route to excellence, would normally exclude the performance of any but the most basic of roles.

Dr Heenan does not give any indication of the basis of his selection and why he went mainly for contemporary personalities rather than from the long list of lives long expired but of arguably equal and greater achievements.

Not that he is not aware of them. In fact, in the first and thorough chapter of the book titled The case for a Double Life he refers to the achievements of Jacques Cousteau, sailor/explorer/environmentalist/writer; Ron Bass, lawyer turned Oscar-winning screenwriter; Leonardo Da Vinci who excelled in painting including the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, science, architecture, engineering and sculpture; Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. And the Foreword by Warren Bennis refers to Wallace Stevens, "arguably the greatest American poet who spent his days as an insurance executive," and Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate, outstanding physicist, writer and popular lecturer.

Not unusual or surprising for an American, Heenan puts the book in the context of 9/11 and the realisation by New Yorkers and the rest of America that many of the paradigms which they had assumed had shaped their lives no longer applied, and that they needed to "rethink their priorities, seek greater flexibility and control over their lives."

This new way of looking at the world involves risks and takes courage, sometimes requiring the sacrifice of money and security for dreams and life's passions. It takes courage, especially in the absence of job security accelerated by technological advances, the exporting of jobs increasing competition, and what Heenan describes as "the mounting disloyalty of the institutions that once provided lifetime security for employees."

Double lives

Dr Heenan notes, perhaps not quite convincingly, that Double Lives "is not confined to high-profile geniuses" and has one overriding point of view; anyone can craft a double life - all he or she needs to scale new heights are imagination and drive and some helpful tools to aid the process. If only it were that simple! Balancing work and life is a challenge which few have mastered, not least because it is not always entirely within one's control or resources. The measure of the challenge has been recognised not only among individuals, employers, employees and in homes, but also within countries, and two notable efforts at promoting work-life balance at the national level have been made in Canada and the United Kingdom.

Benefits

Work-life balance is now seen as critical to employees' morale, health and productivity, employers' profitability and performance, and countries' competitiveness. In the UK, the Department of Trade and Industry sees employers benefiting from having a more productive, loyal and less-stressed workforce, as well as maximizing available labour, making employees feel valued, attracting a wider range of candidates, increasing productivity, reducing absenteeism and earning the reputation of being an employer of choice.

Employees benefit from being happier at work and at home, as well as having greater responsibility and a sense of ownership, better relations with the management, improved self-esteem, health, concentration and confidence, loyalty and commitment, less inclination to bring problems at home to work and vice versa, the time to focus more on life outside work and greater control of their working lives.

Relationships

Canada has done considerable research on the question of work-life balance, and independent studies have been done to obtain the views of the country's workers. The findings are quite instructive and relevant to us in Guyana where the brain drain impacts adversely at every level in every organisation. The study by Dr Linda Duxbury and Dr Christopher Higgins found that personal relationships suffer for those who work 'long hours,' inhibiting even such basic and necessary activities as holding a conversation, maintaining regular contact with spouse and children, who according to respondents complained that they don't see enough of the parent.

Contentious issues

The survey found that 56% of 'long hours' workers say that they have dedicated too much of their life to work, 40% of those working more than 48 hours per week reported that working long hours has resulted in arguments with their spouse or partner in the last year and the same proportion feel guilty that they are failing to pull their weight on the domestic front. Among the other findings and conclusions of the report are some less contentious but not necessarily simple issues such as: work-life balance is a complex phenomenon; many factors contribute to high work-life conflict; work and life are not separate domains.

No-win situation

Many Canadians are having difficulties balancing work and family because organizations are not taking the issue seriously and are not treating it as a business issue; some Canadians are having problems balancing work and family because of conditions at home; work-life conflict may be impairing the health of many Canadians and creating problems within the family. The culture of the organisation, which is set by the behaviour at the top, can sabotage the best attempts by organisations to help employees balance work and family. Many Canadians feel that they are in a no-win situation with respect to balance - advance in their career or have a meaningful life outside of work; temporary and part-time work has made balance more problematic for many. People who are not financially self-sufficient have more problems balancing work and family.

Troubling findings

These findings are particularly troubling in a country that is consistently among the leaders in the UNDP Human Development Report which ranks countries by a set of economic and social indicators. While it is better that the USA where about 80% of the workforce are not happy with their current jobs, there is enough dissatisfaction among employees about the impact of work on their personal lives. No doubt employers will take a somewhat different view from the findings of a study of employees only and given human nature, it is not altogether surprising that for every Canadian whose personal or family circumstances are interfering with performance at work, there are five Canadians whose work and work circumstances are seen by the workers as interfering with their family and their life.

Conclusion

There are some interesting lessons to be learnt from the Canadian study, not only because it seems to be a country of choice for migration by Guyanese, but because of the relevance of some of the findings. Tell any local worker whether in agriculture, commerce or the public sector, all of whom are earning salaries that are barely adequate to meet the cost of living; tell the manager who as a result of migration is forced to operate well beyond his capacity; tell the employer who is barely managing to meet his debt obligations to avoid what he considers to be the 'tough decisions,' and one is hardly likely to be taken seriously. They will probably conclude that work-life balance is a first-world issue not relevant to Guyana.

The truth is, however, far more complex, and will inevitably lead into the proverbial chicken and egg discussion. Work-life balance is a human resource issue with implications that reverberate well beyond the worker or the employer, affecting the entire country. However, with falling trade union membership, economic difficulties at the firm and national levels and a culture that sees human-resource issues as being the softer side of the entity merely serving to enhance the bottom line, it would be difficult for work-life balance to arouse much interest. Yet if we want even to dream about David Heenan's Double Lives, it is important that our employers, the Private Sector Commission and perhaps CAGI, our trade unions and the government address the issue as critical to both our personal and economic well-being.

   (Back to top)