Don't impose work-life balance ideals, expert warns
Published on 27th June 2012
What constitutes work-life balance for one worker won't be balance for another, according to author and doctor Adam Fraser, who says that imposing a generic idea of balance on employees will only make them feel judged.
"We forget that balance is personal," Fraser says in his new book, The Third Space.
A single person's view of balance will be very different to that of someone with a partner and kids, or elderly parents to care for, he says, adding that working mothers in particular often feel "hugely judged and persecuted" by imposed views of balance.
Employees should determine their own path when it comes to achieving balance, and avoid bowing to the opinions of others, he says.
Those who "march to their own beat" - assessing what works for them and applying their own theory of balance - are happiest.
Another common mistake people make in this area is expecting to just "get" work-life balance, Fraser says.
"Balance is not something that creeps up behind you and jumps on your back so you then have it for life," he says.
"Our lives are constantly in a state of flux. Sometimes we need to focus more on home, other times we need to spend more time at work.
"Balance is something we will always be juggling with and something that we must review and check often."
Employees must create boundaries
It's in a organisation's interest to support and facilitate balance, but it's not the employer's responsibility to give people balance, Fraser points out.
Employees need to create physical and mental boundaries between work and home so they don't take the stresses of work home with them.
However, the average employee is not doing this, he says.
After surveying more than 600 professionals from various industries to ascertain the thoughts, emotions and behaviours they arrived home from work with, Fraser found 73 per cent had negative responses, citing feelings such as fatigue, frustration, anger, despair, sadness, relief and resentment.
"We struggle to effectively transition between work and home. We often bring the stress of the day home with us or take the stress of home to work. The result is that we are not present or engaged in either environment," he says.
Fraser's solution is for employees to create a "third space" between work and home, where they can process the events of the day and leave "negative baggage" behind. For some, this will be a long drive home, for others it will be a workout at the gym. The trick is to "reflect, rest and reset" before re-entering home life.
A study Fraser conducted in conjunction with AHRI supported his theory. Participants were asked to describe and rate their current transition from work to home. They then attended a one-hour presentation on creating and using "the third space". Two weeks later, follow-up surveys found the number of people arriving home in a positive state of mind had risen from 26 to 43 per cent.
Just as employees should avoid letting negative thoughts and feelings spill from their work life to their home life and vice versa, they should retain those that are positive, Fraser says.
"When we carry positive experiences from work into the home environment, it leads to better behaviour at home.
"If we bring home the good experiences of the day, our mood and interactions will greatly improve," he says.
Do you celebrate or criticise?
A key thing employees should reflect on while in the third space is "what went well", Fraser says, as this leads to positive emotions.
Focusing on what went well is also something managers should do in the workplace, he says.
Citing research from the University of Michigan's Dr Marcial Losada, Fraser notes that for a corporate team to shift into high-performance mode, it needs to have a positive-to-negative interaction ratio of 3:1 (three positive interactions for each negative one).
Positive emotions help employees to be creative and innovative, whereas teams with low positivity ratios tend to be very internally focussed, Fraser says.
"They spend most of their time looking at the internal problems of the team and defending their actions and ideas, while being heavily critical of other people's actions and ideas. Teams with a low positivity ratio do not focus externally on innovation.
"In contrast, highly positive teams are constantly challenging the status quo and devising new ways to do things. They are constantly looking externally to see how they can innovate and keep up with new trends."
Fraser says far too many managers use fear and guilt to manage their teams, which only decreases overall performance.
"Some teams I work with find it foreign and unusual to [run though] 'what went well', which just shows us why there is so much unhappiness and dysfunction in their workplace.
"Without positivity you will be left behind," he says.