The term work-life balance is such a clique. To ensue our wellbeing we are all encouraged to ‘get the balance right’. But when a colleague was bold enough to say that the whole notion is a myth it really resonated with me. What exactly is a ‘work-life balance’ anyway?
I have been a principal for 17 years. My typical day starts at 6:30am. I check my emails and Twitter account. I then have breakfast while reading the news. I get into the office at 7:30am. Each day is different, but most days are filled with appointments. I haven’t had a lunch break in all of those 17 years, I work through. I usually leave the office at 5pm. Have dinner with my family and then might put in another hour or two before relaxing. I find myself checking emails until 10pm, but that is a bad habit.
Being an independent school principal I am out for work, on average, three nights a week on top of Saturday sport. Some weeks it is up to six nights a week. I try to have Saturday afternoon to Sunday afternoon off but settle in for a few hours of work on a Sunday afternoon. Most weekends I am reading for professional development. I would normally read a book a week.
A typical work week amounts to 60 to 70 hours. School holidays are a bit slower, my hours are more flexible. They are a time when I can catch up on work and there are no nights out, thankfully.
Being a Head is an extremely demanding job. There are studies that suggest that the role of Head of an independent school is amongst the top 10 most stressful jobs a person can take on. So work life balance, what does that look like for me? I certainly don’t have time for hobbies, and I struggle to make time for exercise.
“Do you live to work, or do you work to live,” is a question that does the rounds. “Is your life defined by who you are or what you do,” is another of those questions challenging you to think about work-life balance. For me, my purpose in life is encapsulated in what I do; and the benefit is that I get paid for it! I live to fulfil my purpose, and that purpose is to make a difference in the lives of those people I meet and the communities in which I work: schools.
Work-life balance will be different for everyone because we are all different. What works for me won’t necessary work for you. I certainly don’t endorse working as much as I do (and I know that there are others who put in far more hours than I do). So what exactly is it for me?
Work-life balance for me is about ensuring I look after myself and I look after the relationships that are important to me. If I don’t listen to my body when it tells me it is time for rest, or I work so much that I ignore the people who matter most to me (my wife and my family), then what do I have, and what will I become? Useless, no good to anyone.
Stress does weird things to my body. I have a whole range of physical symptoms ranging from terrible back pain to strange heart palpitations. When things like that are happening it is my body’s way of saying slow down, take a break.
I have come close to burn out once. I know my limits. I have been right to the edge of them a number of times and it isn’t a nice place to be. It is a dark place where I am ineffective and make poor decisions. However, I thrive under a certain level of stress and adrenaline; I work my best under a high degree of pressure.
Work-life balance for me is knowing the limits and making sure I listen to my body. It is about taking time each week to rest and switch off. I know I have to be disciplined to do this. My wife is a great help. The whole notion of a ‘sabbath day’ is a wise one.
Work-life balance is also about ensuring I take the time to foster and nourish the relationships that matter. I certainly don’t want to wake up one day to find my wife and children gone because I ignored them. No one goes to the grave wishing they worked harder.
For me getting the balance right is about ensuring I can fulfil my purpose in life in an effective way. And my lessons learned as I have sought a ‘life-balance’:
- discover your gifts and find your purpose, align your work with those gifts and purpose;
- learn to be content, no matter your circumstances, but particularly if your work doesn’t fulfil your purpose;
- know yourself, the conditions that help you thrive and where your limits are;
- take the time to care for yourself, rest and keep healthy; and,
- make the time to care for the people who matter to you.
Hobbies: one day it will be time to retire. I’ll need to get some hobbies before then.