The Reality of Work-Life Imbalance – Part 1: The Model

An email arrived in my Inbox last week – “Come and hear about how to improve your work / life balance at our meeting next week…spaces available”. I couldn’t help laughing as I commented to my colleague “I would love to go, but I’m too busy!” My job demands virtually all of my available energy, after the family and work there is very little to give to anything or anyone else. Many of my friends are in the same position, with young families and high pressure jobs, often with long commutes &/or travel.Work-Life-Balance

As I thought about how my life has changed over recent years, I realised that very rarely in life do you achieve a real balance between work and life. As someone once said “we should work to live, not live to work”…agreed, but what if you find yourself in a job where work is (almost) your life? Did God intend me to this busy? To have so little time to give to a social life, hobbies, involvement in church…the list goes on. Does the fact that I enjoy my job so much and believe that God  made me in such a way as to thrive in this job justify the sacrifices that I make?

How do the rewards (and I’m not thinking financial) we get from our jobs compensate for the demands those jobs place on us? Is it ever possible to have Work vs Family / Friends / Church in perfect balance? I tried for a long time to carve out more time away from work to make time for Christian ministry (in particular evangelism), but at each turn God shut the door and only increased the demands and responsibility of my job.

The workplace has changed dramatically in the last 20 years, with increasing mobile communication eliminating the boundaries of the office and encroaching into family time. There is, I believe, more pressure, more travel and less certainty than there ever has been. In an age of global and instant commmunications it is harder than ever to leave work at work. There is an expectation in many jobs to always be “on”. In some jobs there simply isn’t the option to let things slide for another day. Those outside may tell us to sort out our priorities and be more disciplined and say no…and there is a time to draw the line. But simple solutions are often given by those with little experience of the pressures of not delivering.

So, in true consultant style, I created a 2×2 matrix to try and understand the modern workplace.  I know every job is different, but broadly speaking I think they can be grouped into four categories depending on the Rewards / Demand balance:

work life balance.bmp-001Where would you put yourself on the matrix? I realise it probably changes day by day (even within the same day!), but there are probably general trends which play out over the year. Let me ask you, where would you prefer to be? When I was in jobs on the left hand side I longed for more responsibility and greater exposure…now that I’m on the right hand side I remember (almost) what it was like to have free time!ext

I have come to realise that ultimately we are not in control of the rewards / demands tradeoff. We might like to think that by changing jobs things would automatically improve, that we can navigate a less stressful life, but life is not that simple. As The Bridges of Madison County reminds us “We are the choices that we have made“, but we cannot ultimately control the consequences of those choices. As someone who spends most of their time in the top right hand quadrant, I have come to accept this is my life…for now. For all the stress and exhaustion, I now realise that I am tremendously fortunate. I wrote about this to a colleague at work recently:

I think a lot about why we work and the purpose and value of work. I think at the most basic level it is about providing for our families and this provision spilling over into the less advantaged in our communities. At the next level it is the opportunity to do this while contributing something tangible to society (sometimes the corporate connection to society is hard to see in some jobs). For a very small number  of people they get both these aspects in a job where they get the opportunity to do what they do best every day. I count myself very fortunate to be in this small group. At whatever level we find ourselves though, I personally believe there is a higher purpose to what we do that we don’t always see and can’t measure, that comes from not just what we acheive but how we treat those around us.”

In Part 2 I’ll start to unpack what I believe the implications of each of these quadrants are for our churches…

Other posts on work life balance can be found here.

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