Reorienting towards balance

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When I wrote the first blog entry for 2020, declaring it to be the year we rethink how we balance work with the rest of life, I was unaware of how prescient that post would be. I doubt anyone foresaw the upheaval and change this year would bring.

Most people’s lives are made up of brief periods of major change that intersperse longer periods of stability. We’re familiar with these transition periods: leaving education to enter the adult world or becoming parents, for example. We anticipate and prepare for these changes, experiencing a period of disorientation as we navigate our way towards the next stage of our lives. For most of us 2020 has been different. We’ve had little choice but to face unprecedented change to both the way we live and work; and the way we think about combining these two.

When it comes to rethinking work-life balance we’ve made a few gains; and experienced some losses. On the plus side many more employers found that remote working was possible. The evidence is mounting and can no longer be refuted. There’s also growing interest among employees to continue with a hybrid arrangement that allows some remote working once the pandemic is over. On the minus side we’ve come to understand how precarious current work-life balance arrangements are; particularly for working mothers. Without a rethink by employers women’s progress in the workplace will continue to suffer major setbacks. Supporting those employers to upgrade working practices will be a prime focus for me in 2021.

Approaching the end of 2020 we have a further opportunity to rethink our work-life balance and build on the lessons learnt this year. When I review this year’s blog posts I feel that at the moment I’ve nothing new to add. I’ve said it all already; particularly when I:

I trust my guidance has been helpful in 2020; and wish you a more fulfilling and balanced 2021.

I’ll be spending the next few days reviewing and reconsidering how I want my life anc work to look next year. I’m planning some changes for this blog; and I’ll be shring those in January.

Lessons in work-life balance #2

Beautiful Multi-ethnic Kids And Their Parents Family Portrait

Last month I reflected on the lessons our children can teach us about work-life balance. In this blog I consider the other side of the coin; the lessons we are teaching them.

What we subconsciously learn from our parents as children can have an enduring impact on how we ourselves approach work-life balance according to Ioana Lupu. By the time we enter the workforce our beliefs and expectations about work-life balance have already been shaped by parental behaviour and attitudes.

The men participating in Professor Lupu’s research typically had a similar work-life balance to their fathers; being the only or primary family breadwinner. They had internalised the behaviour of the same sex parent; and it seems they found it hard to break the pattern, even when they wanted to.

The behaviour model was so strong for these men they found it difficult to even conceive of a different pattern.

Some of the women studied had embraced full-time working without guilt; as this was the pattern they had seen their parents model. Others, however, did not see their working mothers in a positive light. They resented the fact that long working hours impacted negatively on their relationship with their children. But even though they wanted a different work-life balance arrangement they somehow found themselves unable to deviate from that of their parents. It seems rational decisions only play a part in how we structure our work-life balance. Deeply embedded, unconscious tendencies also play a role.

The options and possibilities open to working mothers have been redefined dramatically in the past fifty years. Both women’s own expectations and those of society have changed. Our attention has turned to the lack of women in senior roles; and the vital contribution they can make in shaping all areas of our lives when they hold such roles. To remedy this we must rethink both how we structure work in our lives; and what choices we offer individual families.

In recent years our focus has also been shifting to the changing expectations of fathers. Evidence of the benefits of paternal involvement in family life is mounting. And there’s increasing effort on the part of bodies such as EHRC to encourage men to take up the family leave to which they are entitled.

2020 has presented us with the opportunity to reconsider both the parental and workplace roles we assign to mothers and fathers. And it’s also highlighted some of the deeply embedded biases that continue: to the detriment of both men and women.

Rather than simply waiting for corporate cultures to change, we have a chance to act; and to redefine the choices for future generations. Back in the 1970s Crosby Stills Nash & Young urged us: Teach your children well. When it comes to work-life balance are you doing that?

Get some sleep

Boy Sleeping On A Blanket Outdoor. Child Resting In The Garden O

This week those of us in the northern hemisphere gain an extra hour as clocks go back and we prepare for winter. The best thing many of us could do with that hour is to sleep.

According to Matthew Walker we fail to understand the importance and complexity of the role of sleep in our lives. It will make us live longer, enhance memory, keep us slim, lower food cravings, protect us from cancers and dementia and help us ward off colds and flu. It also lowers our risk of heart attacks, stroke and diabetes as well as making us feel happier.

It would seem that having less than seven hours sleep on a regular basis is as risky as a smoking or heavy drinking habit. Unfortunately people who are sleep deprived often fail to realise this is the case; accepting a low level of exhaustion as normal. In his TEDx talk Professor Walker stresses that sleep is not an optional lifestyle luxury but a biological necessity. Unfortunately our 21st Century lifestyles and connected devices get in the way of this necessity.

It’s fair to say that for many people this year has brought enormous challenges in disconnecting from work. But the pandemic and enforced homeworking have only accelerated a trend that was, arguably, already out of control. Since the turn of the century more and more of us had been falling prey to #AlwaysOn working. Often it’s a combination of unclear objectives (we simply don’t know when we’ve done enough work for the day and should switch off) and the fear of missing out. And the latter has been exacerbated by or distance from work colleagues.

For working parents all of this has been overlaid with the further challenge of balancing caring (and sometimes education) with carrying out work tasks. Under these circumstances it’s not surprising that our sleep has suffered. But crucially we need sufficient sleep to perform well both at work and in our parenting roles.

One of the first high profile figures to endorse this view was Arianna Huffington. Having experienced the devastating effects of sleep deprivation at first hand she went on to write a book that argues it’s impossible to thrive if you’re sleep deprived. In the last few years Ms Huffington has become something of a ‘sleep evangelist’.

In her book she writes about the importance of sleep as the gateway to a more productive, inspired and joyful life. She also shares her own experience of finding she was less reactive and critical; and more productive when she was well slept.

There’s plenty of advice  around on how to get a good night’s sleep; and how to create the habits that facilitate it. I’ve no intention of repeating any of that here: it’s best you find solutions that work for you. But if winding down is your problem I recommend trying restorative yoga. Those of you who read my blog regularly know I’m a long term committed yogini. The benefits of yoga in my life have been considerable; and improved sleep is one of them.

Don’t just take my word for it. Harvard Medical School recently published an article noting that more than half of people doing yoga found it improved their sleep. In particular the article recommends a series of easy restorative poses of value when done just before bedtime.

Most of us are aware of the mounting evidence that getting enough sleep is essential. To quote Matthew Walker:

The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life.

So if you want to lead a happier, healthier and more productive life then do yourself a favour and make sure you get enough sleep.

Lessons in work-life balance

Children Leaving School For The Day

Over the course of this year fragile work-life balance arrangements have often been disrupted. A key factor for many has been the closure of schools and higher education institutions. And as a consequence parents have been spending more time with children; which many have considered a mixed blessing. On the plus side has been the joy of spending time in the company of young minds; and on the minus the stress of ensuring they continue to receive an adequate education while parents struggle to also carry out work related tasks.

When we remain mindful and present one of the key benefits of spending time with children is what they can teach us about life. Today I’m sharing some of my insights and trust they will resonate with you.

Children remind us that much of life is out of our control.

They come to us with their own personalities which may be markedly different from our own. Our challenge as parents is to nurture those personalities while bringing up people who will fit comfortably into society. As we support them to find their own path we come to realise how little is within our control. All of which should serve to remind us that life is often unpredictable. We cannot foretell the future. Our best choices are made when we focus on the single next step in front of us; and take the action that makes us feel most in balance.

Children make us question assumptions.

For most parents it feels like the question ‘why’ forms the biggest part of children’s vocabulary. They see the world differently; questioning our beliefs and expectations. Which can be good for us. As adults we tend to fall into the same routines and patterns of behaviour. But life is dynamic and we need to remain alert. We must question our assumptions about who we are as parents; and about what is possible for us in the workplace. Very often we find it is our children that provide us with compelling reasons to find better balance in our lives. So that we can spend precious time with them while also making our biggest contribution at work.

Children encourage us to play more and laugh more.

Adults reportedly laugh a lot less than do children. We fall into the trap of taking things very seriously; and we forget how to play. Both laughter and play are good for us. Laughter increases wellbeing, helps us cope in challenging times and lightens our mood and spirits. Play helps us prepare for the unknown, navigate our way into new circumstances and redefine who we might become as we grow and develop. And since both play and laughter are present moment activities they encourage us to live more mindfully.

Children help us develop new skills.

Whether it’s becoming more organised so we have more time for the things that matter, learning to negotiate with toddlers, or becoming more mindful so we enjoy the fleeting present and make happy memories, all of this is part of what we learn on becoming a parent. As our outlook in life changes we may also push ourselves more; wanting to be better role models and to contribute to creating a better world.

I’m aware not everyone reading this blog will be a parent. But if you do have children in your life take a moment this week to stop and reflect on how that experience has enriched you; and where you still need to adjust your balance to get the best of both worlds.

Celebrating work-life balance

Work Life Balance Take Time Off Words Scale 3d Illustration

It’s National Work Life Week in the UK. Since the week was instigated by the charity Working Families in 2010 I have seen a number of changes to the work-life balance debate. This week’s blog is about two of them: the changing role of fathers and the search for balance in senior roles.

In the past ten years there has been increasing discussion about the role of fathers and the need to support them both at home and at work. Expectations among younger men are changing. Research by Working Families discovered one in ten had compromised their career in order to spend more time with children. This might mean downshifting a job, moving employer or putting a promotion on hold. And among millennial parents it would appear more fathers than mothers are planning on reducing hours or downshifting over the next few years.

Many countries have introduced new paternal leave rights and in the UK efforts are being made to encourage more men to take these up. It’s not easy. Incumbent corporate cultures still expect men to prioritise work and fathers feel the pressure to provide for their families. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has produced guidelines for employers on how best to support male employees in the months leading up to fatherhood. There’s a case to be made for encouraging expectant fathers to start the leave planning process early: and employers have a part to play here.

Another group increasingly supporting fathers as their expectations change is the growing army of ‘daddybloggers’. (Yes, it is a thing and if you’re curious take a look, for example, at the award winning site musicfootballfatherhood.com which the BBC called “mumsnet for dads”.)

The second major development has been the increasing expectation – backed up by solid evidence – that work-life balance should be accessible in senior roles.

The Timewise Foundation started their annual Power List in 2012. Each year since then they’ve conducted a search for people who are successfully working senior roles on a flexible basis. There are now more than four hundred names on the list; and that’s the tip of the iceberg since many more will be working flexibly under the radar. The result is a growing portfolio of evidence on how to succeed at senior levels while living a more balanced life. At the same time academics have continued to research the mechanics for structuring and supporting reduced hours work at senior levels: adding to our overall expertise in this area.

Increasing interest in reduced hours at senior levels has prompted a matching rise in interest in job-share. The overall number of job-shares is small compared with other types of flexible working, but the arrangement is one of the easiest to sell to employers since it is relatively straightforward to understand. As a consequence an increasing number of intermediaries is emerging offering support to employers with implementing job-share arrangements. At the time of writing I have a curated list of eighteen on my twitter profile; including the UK civil service job-share network. The latter is an online database accessible by all employees who want to work more flexibly.

These shifts in expectations should serve as a wake-up call to those employers doggedly maintaining traditional working practices. Being an employer of choice increasingly means recognising that everyone has a life outside of work and supporting that.

Quick ways to improve your work-life balance

Street Sign The Direction Way To Better Versus Worse

In the US October has traditionally been designated work-family month; while in the UK National Work Life week is almost here. 2020 has been a challenging year for work-life balance so this week I’m sharing three quick tips to improve your balance quickly.

  1. Ditch the parent guilt

Lockdown led to the collapse of already fragile childcare structures. Schools closed and grandparents self-isolated. Women carry out the bulk of unpaid (and often invisible) caring and household work so this created a huge challenge for working mothers. While fathers in dual parent households felt under pressure to prioritise paid work mothers have struggled to cope combining work and care; and with the attendant mental load. As schools reopen the worries and uncertainty have not gone away. The pressure on working parents remains.

Many women have been beating themselves up this year for not being good enough mothers. In reality if your children are fed and happy you’re doing fine. Every other mother is in the same boat. So who – other than you – is judging you?

  1. Ignore imposter syndrome

There’s no shortage of online advice on how to tackle Imposter Syndrome. Often conflated with poor self-esteem and ‘inner critic’ true imposter syndrome is rare. But it’s quite possible to feel like an imposter without suffering from imposter syndrome; and current circumstances have left many of us feeling this way.

We’ve been doing our best to appear competent in our professional roles while navigating a new, sudden and unexpected landscape filled with unfamiliar technology. Adding to the problem has been the lack of clarity on what’s expected from us; and the fact we’re comparing ourselves to colleagues whose circumstances may be very different from our own. We’ve taken on the expectations of others and tried to live up to them. It’s time to redefine what professional looks like in these circumstances; and to agree with our employer the key outputs to be delivered; rather than fretting about the number of hours we should be working.

Research has shown that feeling like an imposter can lead to emotional exhaustion. A consequence of increased work role demands is that playing our family role can become harder. We all possess finite physical and mental resources. When we feel like an imposter we are likely to expend more of these resources trying to do a good job, leaving us depleted during family time.

  1. Be more assertive

I’ve blogged a lot about the importance of work-life boundaries and without good assertiveness skills these become impossible to maintain. Being assertive begins with having clarity about what we need and confidence that we have every right to ask for it. It’s about quiet persistence. If your requests continue to fall on deaf ears try switching to questions that get others involved. For example, instead of saying “I need an hour of undivided time to review and discuss this report with my boss” try “what can we all do to make sure I get an hour of undivided time to review and discuss this report?” When others offer solutions they’re more likely to help carry them out.

Even in challenging circumstance the efforts you make to improve your work-life balance will reap rewards in the shape of better physical and emotional wellbeing. And the skills you develop will serve you in good stead both at work and at home.

Managing uncertainty

Question Mark - Questions Whose Answers Are Considered Basic In

We’re repeatedly told we live in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) world. Little has been more VUCA than the pandemic and responses to it. Our brains struggle with complexity but they also hate uncertainty. So how do we manage the current circumstances? Here are four things you can do:

  1. Don’t catastrophize. Our brains are hard-wired to keep us safe by anticipating worst case scenarios. The problem is that these worst case scenarios rarely occur but always add to present moment stress. We’re all familiar with the negative impacts of stress on our wellbeing. The ‘fight, flight or freeze’ reaction also results in more limited thinking where we close down our options; and is likely to lead to poorer decision making. The reality is that none of us can predict the future: very few of us saw the pandemic coming. And, as Dan Gardner so clearly demonstrated in his book ‘Future Babble’, even those who make a living based on predicting the future rarely get it right.
  2. To the best of your ability aim to live mindfully in the present moment. Cultivate positive emotions. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has demonstrated that these enable us to ‘broaden and build’. By this she means that positivity supports our creativity. And in uncertain times we need to let go of old responses and find new, creative solutions. Staying positive in the present will generate more energy to support you in navigating the complexities you currently face.
  3. Focus on the things that are within your control; and establish contingency plans where possible. For example, can you use what you learnt from the last lockdown to be better prepared if another comes? If you have children, what can you put in place to support their education if schools close, while also supporting you to work more effectively?
  4. Recognise that life is always changing in small and big ways. Undoubtedly we’ve all faced big changes in 2020; but many of us will already have faced big changes earlier in our lives. What was the last big change you experienced? Perhaps it was leaving home to study in a different city; or undergoing the breakup of an important relationship. Or perhaps it was becoming a parent; which is a big change that sets of a whole lifetime of smaller changes. How did you manage those past changes? What inner and outer resources did you draw upon? What skills and strengths do you possess that can support you now? Where can you turn for help or support?

The reality is that life is always uncertain; although our brains try hard to persuade us otherwise. But it’s in that uncertainty that we get the opportunities to grow; to be more creative and develop new skills; and to learn where our strengths lie.

Learning to listen

Beautiful kid girl with curly hair wearing casual clothes smilin

We live in a world that’s overcrowded with information. Every time I check my social media I’m inundated with people speaking at me: mostly trying to sell me things or influence my opinions. In a world where there’s so much talking there’s also a lot to be said for developing the skill of listening.

Are you a good listener? Many of us think we are, but often we’re listening for the wrong reasons. It doesn’t serve us or those to whom we’re listening.

Over the years I’ve learnt to spot those people who truly listen to understand. They’re slow to jump in when I finish a sentence. And when they speak it’s often to ask a follow up question or ask me to clarify something I’ve said. Such people are rare. Most of us listen to hear when it’s our turn to speak.

Being good at listening is a skill that serves us well. When we listen we learn more. And learning more can help us navigate life’s complexities.

How often do you listen without an agenda? Without a story about what the other person is saying or where the conversation is leading you? To do so requires us to cultivate present moment mindfulness. It’s a skill I chose to learn many years ago when I was working in a high pressure recruitment role. I realised that I would not be doing my best by my interviewees if I was not fully present to them. If I was not actively listening while they told me their career histories.

Learning to listen in this way was not easy for me. There were so many times when I found my attention wandering. To the lengthy to do list on my desk. To what needed doing at home. Each time I caught myself I made an effort to return to the present moment. I still don’t find it easy but it is becoming easier.

Learning to listen means getting comfortable with silence. Not feeling the need to respond as soon as the other person stops talking. It means being at ease while your mind processes what’s just been said. Noticing what’s important; and what’s been left unsaid.

When we listen in this way, and ask genuine follow up questions we get a better insight into the minds of those with whom we’re talking. By understanding what’s important to them we can connect more effectively; and find win-win solutions to difficult issues. Asking questions also helps us influence the direction of other people’s thinking.

When we learn to listen to others we also get better at listening to ourselves. Women often spend their time focussing on others. We can lose the connection with our own feelings and desires. Stopping and listening more deeply will help us reconnect. And when we do we find our wisdom is always there to guide us in the best direction.

This week I want to encourage you to get better at listening. You may be surpised at the benefits it brings into your life.

Competent at work-life balance

Little Girl On Roller Skates At A Park. A Child Rides On Roller

A key learning from this year’s lockdown has been the importance of managing work-life balance; and the challenge of doing so when boundaries are eroded and support for caring becomes non-existent.

As we move into the ‘new normal’ commentators are acting as if the long term prognosis for work-life balance is good; but in my view we risk it becoming worse than ever. The fact that employers may be more open to allowing flexible working arrangements is not the same as providing guidance and support on how to manage work-life balance. As I’ve written previously, without clear policies flexible easily slips into #AlwaysOn with the attendant negative impacts on people’s lives.

In the past few years I have been considering the notion of approaching the management of work life balance as a competency. The value of this is that like other workplace competencies it becomes easier to identify the skills and behaviours needed; and to offer people ways to develop them.

Ellen Ernst Kossek is a leading expert in work-life balance. She has observed that as work becomes ever more boundaryless, being able to manage our boundaries effectively becomes essential to our ability to resolve the often conflicting demands of work and family. Indeed, as we consider the competencies needed to succeed in the 21st century workplace, being able to manage our work life balance becomes of prime importance.

How to become competent at work-life balance

Understanding why work life balance matters and having a sense of entitlement will give us the courage to ask. Asking develops both assertiveness and negotiating skills which are essential for maintaining balance.

There are also further skills we will need to enhance. In my first ever blog post I wrote about the 3 Cs: clarity, control and confidence. In my book I added a fourth: communication. Survey after survey confirms its importance. The ability to communicate our needs, our boundaries and our expectations clearly makes us more competent at the work-life juggle. .

I also wrote about cultivating mindfulness and self responsibility. And we must become skilled at managing and influencing stakeholders: managers, colleagues and clients or customers.

The skills we’re developing are not specialist but applicable to other situations in our lives. So by working on our work life balance competency we will gain further benefits that improve both our workplace and parenting skills.

And there’s another very important reason why we must become competent at work-life balance. Professor Ioana Lupu, writing in HBR explains that what we learn subconsciously about work-life balance from our parents influences our own decisions. What lessons will you provide for your children so they too can lead more balanced lives?

Speak up

This week’s blog post is inspired by a research article I’ve just been reading. The research was focused on the continuing barriers to women’s progression viewed through the experiences of those who started their careers in the 1970s and 1980s. Entering workplaces where career progression was dictated by masculine norms they spoke with masculine language. As a consequence they found themselves unable to verbalise alternative pathways to career success.

The article resonated with me since I started my own HR career at that time. And in my experience both women and employers are still struggling with making alternative career pathways a reality. While the situation is slowly improving, the lack of role models, enduring masculine career structures and women’s own feelings about what they can expect tend to get in the way.

Too often women look at the career pathways on offer and struggle to see how they can fit into these while also taking on responsibilities at home. They become disillusioned and they move themselves into ‘mommy track’ jobs or leave; seeking a compromise in mumpreneurship.

The reality is that unless we all speak up the situation will not change. The history of women’s progress at work has been one of speaking up. It was women who spoke up to ask for flexible arrangements such as job-share; offering it as a viable alternative for keeping a foot on the career ladder. So if we’re not satisfied with the way things are working for us, it’s important that we keep on speaking up. Otherwise we let employers off the hook. They can claim it was a personal choice and “there’s no problem here”.

How to speak up

  • First of all get very clear on the working arrangement you need; and how it will benefit both you and your employer. The prevailing myth continues that senior roles must be worked full-time and preferably at the office. But there’s also growing evidence that senior roles can often be worked successfully on less than full time hours. And that doing so offers other team members room for growth and development.

  • Look around for role models in your organisation, your sector or more widely in your profession. Pointing to someone who’s already successfully working the arrangement you want is a powerful endorsement of your request. It’s proof that alternative career pathways can succeed.

  • If you’re part of a women’s network find out whether other members face the same challenges. Get together and discuss how you might collectively influence your employer(s) to offer suitable alternatives.

  • Take a leaf out of my client Laura’s book and tackle your HR department. In her case she set about persuading them to establish a job-share register since her workplace was big enough for it to be viable. If your workplace is smaller a more appropriate conversation might be about how to offer senior roles on less than full time hours.

Above all, remember change is a negotiation that takes time. Many years ago I asked a colleague who’d recently succeeded in getting approval for a support programme for new fathers how he’d done it. He told me: “it’s the dripping tap effect. Say it often enough to enough people and things begin to register.” That organisation is now a world leader in parental support. While he cannot claim all the credit his voice contributed to the overall improvements.

You can do the same; and become part of the force that will eventually change working practices in your workplace or sector. So that future generations of women are able to access career pathways that support work-life balance.