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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 February 2015.

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 accessed here.

Grant gave this talk as the first of an occasional series of talks jointly run by the three organisations.

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 disintegrating.

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 it?

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 week!”

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 this:

  1. 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 are energised.

  2. 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".

  3. 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 and enjoyable.

Life is to be integrated.

There are three things which go to make a good pizza and which can be projected into work-life balance:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 think about.

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.




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