Report on the “Beyond the
Work/Life Balance Myth” lunchtime CPD talk
given for OASIS Edinburgh, Work Place Chaplaincy
Scotland and business
matters by Grant MacLaughlan on 24th
OASIS Edinburgh, Work Place
Chaplaincy Scotland and
business matters are grateful to Anderson
Strathern for the use of their conference room for this
talk and for the lunch provided for those attending.
The slides that Grant used to
illustrate his talk are available
here and a (38 minute) recording can be
Grant gave this talk as the first
of an occasional series of talks jointly run by the
He started by suggesting that his
talk would be about some of the choices and changes that
we have to make if we are looking to have a better sense
of living an integrated life rather than one that we may
feel is disintegrating.
Recognising the power of
personalising things to increase their accessibility,
Grant drew a pen portrait of someone he had recently
met; for the purposes of the talk this person would go
by the name of “Duncan”. Duncan is a divorced father
with two children whom he is co-parenting. His job with
a large media company as a project manager, entails
working on many projects and managing a team of 15. In
his spare time he is putting together a business plan to
set out on an alternative career trajectory on his own
and he is also managing to be part of a befriending
project, reaching out to isolated older people within
his immediate community.
For much of Duncan’s life he has
been able to say “I feel fulfilled, I feel satisfied, I
am enjoying what I do”. But… just recently he is feeling
stretched. All the things he is involved with are
competing for his time and his energy. He finds himself
distracted and not really fully present for any of the
people in the various areas of his life. He finds
himself overwhelmed, discouraged and not feeling that he
is succeeding in any area.
Fragmented, exhausted and
Grant asked if those present could
relate to Duncan.
What would be our response to
Duncan; indeed what would be our response if we felt
like this ourselves?
It may be tempting to travel down
the well-trodden road of advocating a good dose of
“work-life balance” – the straightforward solution…or is
At the heart of the work-life
balance model lies the place to aim for; the “sweet
spot”. This is where work and life will find equilibrium
with everything fitting together perfectly.
Historically, it was proposed that the sweet spot could
be achieved using a mathematical model summed up by
“eight plus eight plus eight equals the good life”.
Eight hours at work, eight asleep and eight hours to fit
in whatever you wanted to do with the rest of your life.
Grant highlighted the process that
had taken place as it was realised that this model was
just a little too straightforward; moving to the use of
a pie chart where you had to portion up your life into
slices or wedges. Time for exercise, for work, for
mental stimulation, for your family and, and, and…
He asked us if, like him, we had
been encouraged to “colour in” our diary, with different
colours for different areas of our life – another
approach or perhaps “fad” in trying to achieve balance.
As Grant said, “no matter how colourful my diary was,
the problem was that people didn’t do what I had said I
was going to do when I coloured my diary in for the
Grant did achieve the “sweet spot”,
but only fleetingly and he described his normality as
“disequilibrium and chaos”, not dissimilar to many of
those present I suspect. He found himself spinning
plates and, rather than being helped by the methods for
achieving work-life balance, all they did was to add
another plate to the array, to further increase the
burden and sense of failure.
He outlined how he started to
question the model and ask if, perhaps,
work-life balance is actually a myth; an unhelpful idea.
He suggested three reasons for
- Work and life are not equal and opposite as though
on either ends of a balanced seesaw – they actually
belong together. Often the phrase “Work to live not
live to work” is used. Grant indicated that this is a
false dichotomy. Do we really want to view what we
spend most of our life doing as a “necessary evil” to
allow us to do “what we want to”? Work and life belong
together; we are designed to work. When we are engaged
in something purposeful, positive and meaningful we
- Life cannot be compartmentalised. We don’t live
our life like a pie chart. We cannot segment up our
time into “wedges” which are exclusively for family or
work or fitness or recreation. Life flows together. We
cannot be unaffected at work by a family bereavement
or unaffected at home by a work problem. They are not
little comfortable “sections".
- Work-life balance seems to imply compromise and
trading off certain things. If we aim for a flat
seesaw then Grant suggested that, just as this was
boring when a youngster in a play park, it is less
than the optimum for a fulfilling adult life. Often,
compromise leaves us feeling dissatisfied.
So what is the alternative? Grant
admitted that it is very easy to criticise what many
people have devoted much time and effort on developing.
Pizza – that’s the answer!
Grant was clear – he is a man who
likes pizza. He was not able to say who had first come
up with the idea of pizza; whoever it was, was a genius.
He thought it highly improbable that we would phone up
and ask for a plate of bread, some tomato sauce, some
cheese and some ham and be as satisfied with what was
delivered as with a pizza. Putting the constituent parts
together and baking them transforms the separate parts
into an extremely tasty and satisfying whole.
Grant suggested that, similarly,
when all the constituent parts of our life; family,
work, home, recreation are put together then what
results is greater than the sum of the parts. We need to
see work and life as different ingredients that blend
together to make something that is delicious, delightful
Life is to be integrated.
There are three things which go to
make a good pizza and which can be projected into
- The base. Whether it is deep pan
or thin and crispy it matters. So, in our lives, there
is a need for us to recognise the importance of our
personal values. Grant wondered, if he were to hand
out paper and ask each person to write down the five
key things in their life, what the answers would be.
Would they be the “normal, surface facts” that we so
often introduce ourselves with? Things like our job,
facts about our family, which football team we support
(or not)? We often interact “on the surface” but how
do we really define ourselves? He suggested that
work-life integration is not a diary issue but a
values issue. Not necessarily “ethics” or “morals” but
what we ourselves value. These values
lie at the core of who we are and how we function. We
need to invest time in discovering our own core
values. Think of your greatest sense of happiness and
satisfaction and focus on these things.
- The toppings. The choices we have
to make which work well together and we know we like,
for pizza and for our life. How do
our values shape our choices? Many situations can be
difficult and challenging but choices are there and
can be made. Often our progress in life and career can
happen “by accident” or because of others’
expectations. If we step back and think about our
values then we may find that what we are doing or who
we work for actually doesn’t align and fit well with
the values we know lead to happiness and fulfilment.
That can lead us to seriously big issues and
challenging possibilities. Grant shared an example of
someone he knows who moved from a job in corporate law
to a job in publishing, encouraging and nurturing
young authors – a huge career change but one which
massively increased her own satisfaction with an
integrated work-life balance.
- The eating experience. In
work-life terms, our accountability for our ongoing
activities. If, when we order pizza, we choose a
topping which we don’t like, then we can’t really
complain if we don’t enjoy the taste. In our work-life
experience we need to take accountability – avoid
pointing beyond ourselves and passing responsibility
on to others. We need to become reflective practioners
– a concept which some will be aware of but others may
not. We need to take the time to step back, reflect
and look at exactly the type of pizza, or work-life
balance, that we have ended up with. We need to do
this regularly and act on what we learn.
Finally, Grant revisited “Duncan”
and outlined how these principles affected the choices
that Duncan made – a useful example for all of us to
Grant opened the floor for
questions and a short but lively discussion time ensued.
People reflected positively on what had been said and
left, having benefited from this talk.