Work-Life Balance

How to achieve work-life balance seems to be the most pressing question for women in the workplace today but should it really be?  Shouldn't our concern be how to be high performers at work, or how to live more fulfilling lives?  

High performers seem to have fewer issues that most women when it comes to work-life balance.  Some of them will even claim that they have never experienced discrimination at work.  Why is this?

I believe it is because the question working women seem to ask is “how can I prove my worth at work while still having quality of life outside work?”

Whereas, high performing women having already proved their worth at work, can make the choice of combining their work with quality of life without damaging their career progression, or sacrificing quality of life for accolades of high position.

Whenever I am asked about work-life balance, I mention something a senior HR colleague called Ted Theodore once said to a group of us during a talk.  He stated that “women can have it all, they just can’t have it all at the same time”.  I took that advice to heart.


Let me use my own experiences.  I started work in formal employment at a bank straight out of university, first as a Youth Corper then later as a full-time employee.   Work-life balance was a non-issue.  I had to be at work by 7:30am and I could not leave before 4:30pm.  I had an hour for lunch that I spent eating outside the office with friends and later with my fiancé.  After work, on those days that work commitments did not keep me in the office late, I would spend time with friends and family eating, watching films, or just talking.  I did not have any choices to make with regards to work-life balance so I didn't make any.  If there was a work event in the evening or at the weekend that clashed with my social life, my social life took a back seat.  It was not an issue for me, for my family or for my friends.  It was simply not an option.  I would travel when I needed to for work and I would take time off when work permitted me to do so for official leave, and that was that. 

When I reached middle management level, I worked in an Oil and Gas company.  There, work-life balance became an issue.  By that time I had twin girls under the age of ten.  I had a husband who demanded my time and a household to run. My social life consisted less of people and places I saw for enjoyment, and more of social obligations.  I was caught between the expectations of society and the demands of work.  Even if staying late at work was not an issue for me, it clashed with the expectations of people who I ‘needed’ to please.  So what did I do? 

The first thing I did was to ensure that I was a classified as a PERFORMER.  I did my work well. I got my work reviewed by others before submitting it. I did my work fast.  I found new and better ways of doing my work.  I found ways to do my work inside the office and out of it.  I did some of my boss’ work to make him look good.  I did more work than I was asked to do.  I volunteered. I met all my deadlines.  I delivered AHEAD of my deadlines.  I helped my colleagues meet their own deadlines.  I stayed late whenever necessary and was flexible whenever work demanded it.  

In return, I asked for, and argued for, and negotiated for, and begged for FLEXIBILITY.   I had proved my worth, my dependability, my sense of responsibility.  So, if my child had a performance at school early in the morning, I would ask for time off and show how I would make that time back up.  Or I would work overnight the night before to get my deliverable for the next day done; THEN ask for the time off, able to show that the team would not suffer by my absence. 

If my child was sick and I needed to stay in the hospital, I would ask to be excused from the office but not from work.  I would persuade my boss that I could do my work from wherever I was using my laptop and still be able to submit it on time. 

I would swap work assignments with my colleagues.  I would do their work if they attended the meeting I would miss on my behalf.  If I absolutely had to be there myself, I would see if I could possible re-schedule to another convenient date. 

Of course, this didn't always work.  Very often I would be forced to rely on my husband, another parent at my child’s school, or a supportive family member to step in for me when I could not be there for the children.

With my husband, I would make arrangements for his meals when I was away and then phone or email for chats several times a day about the house, our children, our friends, our work, ourselves etcetera so that we kept the communication lines open between us and stayed close. 

I do know that I refused to ‘sneak’ around.  To creep in late to the office, or guiltily step out ‘early’ – meaning ‘on time’.  When you are a performer, even if the culture in your office is to stay past closing time or until your boss leaves, you are generally ‘forgiven’ for leaving on time if you deliver results.  This is not always the case, but where you have discussed your pattern of work and habits openly with your supervisors and those people who have a say in progressing your career at work, you tend not to suffer.  Organisations value and reward performers. 

Putting your personal life and romantic relationships on hold while at work is a mistake, just as refusing to think about work while at home is unwise.  There isn’t a clear-cut division between the two.  Work is part of your personal life; it influences it greatly.  It enhances your personal life or blights it.  It affects how you are viewed or treated in your personal life, even by your partner; certainly by your social circle.  Why would you seek to drive a wedge between the two?  Think about it. While at work are you not making arrangements for responsibilities you have to take care of outside the office? Do you not have conversations with friends and family, suppliers and artisans during office hours?  On weekends when you are shopping, do you not also look for things that will improve your situation at work? Do you not engage in learning outside work to develop your work skills?  Do you not seek advice from non-work colleagues about how to handle politics at work? They are intermingled. 

The concern for me is the effect of an imbalance in your life as a whole. STRESS.  INORDINATE STRESS.  There is normal stress at work.  There is usual stress at home. In trying to maximise and optimise our total lives, both work and non-work, women especially but also men, put themselves under extreme stress.  There is only one of you to go around.  There are only 24 hours in a day; and if you don’t know how to delegate, or have people you trust to delegate to….you can burn yourself out, get high blood pressure, break down, or have a heart attack. 

In the context of health, work-life balance is about only taking on as much as you can comfortably handle.  If you only have your own resources to draw on and a limited time to do it, you can’t handle much.  You can be smarter and quicker but you are limited. Take on as much as you can and stop there. Don’t be greedy.  If you have a support system at home, you can handle more.  If you have a support system at work, you can handle a lot more.  And if you have set up a 3rd party system; if you have coached, trained, employed other bodies to effectively delegate responsibilities to, then the sky is the limit.  Your limit is the amount of resources you can deploy to serve your ends. Your personal assistant at home; your executive assistant at work; responsible subordinates, trusted contractors, reliable suppliers, efficient artisans, effective staff.

The formal workplace and enlightened governments have made it easier for employees and entrepreneurs to increase their capacity by offering tools, resources and flexibility with time according to where you are in your life cycle.  For women, workplace provisions & guiltless flexibility are offered for nursing mothers and those with responsibility for young children. 

With smart phones and mobile technology the 21st century has expanded the time available to get our work done and carry on non-work interactions to almost all the working hours in a day.  Before we had 8-12 hours for productive work either at home or at work.  Now that has been increased to up to 18 hours a day depending on the amount of sleep you need at night.

Most importantly, I agree with what Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook stated controversially on and in her book ‘Lean in’ about women ‘leaving’ work mentally before they actually leave work whether for a career change, a break, or for maternity leave.  Stay fully in the game until you leave the field.  That is when you can relax.  You will be remembered for your vigour and talent, and you will have practiced your skills until they are honed and sharp.  Whether you choose to re-enter the workplace or to direct your attentions elsewhere you will be at the top of your game, and more able to dictate how well you live and what kind of balance you have in your life.

Aluta continua.  The struggle continues…..but it is worth it!

Habiba Balogun

April 2013 for Oye Dynamix Conference Journal