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Work-life balance – the impossible dream!

Is it possible to have happy and fulfilling work and personal lives without bending the laws of physics?

It’s the holy grail for every knight of the rectangular desk. In offices, boardrooms and co-working spaces across the globe, everyone is searching for that elusive prize – the perfect balance between your career and your home life. We want to “have it all” – the high-flying corporate job, the precious time with the family, the perfectly Instagrammable social life, and lots of “me” time so we can work on our personal development goals. And, of course, we need to slot in time in between all that to save the planet, rid the world of poverty and write that epic novel that’ll knock Harry Potter off his broomstick. Sounds doable.

Click onto any wellness website, and you’ll find no end of articles designed to help you achieve the perfect work-life balance. They’ll advise setting stricter boundaries between work time and home life, delegating tasks so you can free up your time for more rewarding pursuits, and regulating your social media use so you’re not “always-on”. The overarching message from these articles is that yes, you can get the perfect work-life balance, but the underlying inference is that if you can’t get the balance right, then there must be something wrong with you.

But are we chasing an impossible dream? Some people are beginning to wonder if that much sought-after work-life balance is a myth, and if the constant pursuit of this chimera is causing us even more stress and frustration. There’s a growing school of thought that says we should forget about the pursuit of work-life balance and concentrate instead on work-life “integration”.

It’s not a crackpot concept – Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post and now a life-management guru through her wellbeing website Thrive Global, has spent a lot of time helping people balance their work life with their “real” life, and has seen people putting too much pressure on themselves to “have it all”.


No magic formula

Her advice? Recognise that there’s no magic formula for getting the balance right and concentrate instead on getting an overall equilibrium in your life.

Her website, thriveglobal.com, is filled with tips and ideas to help you work and play more efficiently and maximise the time you have without trying to bend the laws of physics.

Many executives will already be familiar with the “four burners” theory, which was first sparked a New Yorker article by David Sedaris back in 2009. The concept goes something like this: picture your life as a gas stove with four burners. Each burner represents a facet of your life: family, friends, health and work. The theory goes that in order to be successful, you have to turn off one of your burners, So if you want to go to the top in your career, the “family” burner is going to have to be turned off. And if you want to prioritise your health and home life, then your “friends” burner will have to be turned down to two. Trying to keep all four burners going at maximum heat will eventually lead to burnout, goes the theory. Everything in life is a trade-off, so the trick is to decide when to turn one burner off, and when to turn another one back on, and which burners to turn down and turn up as circumstances change.

For instance, you may have to knock off the family burner while you work on that important project, but after it’s been handed in, you can then turn off the work burner and put the family burner back on full.

That all sounds very neat and squared-off, but in reality our lives are nothing like an old-fashioned four-ring gas stove. Our lives have become so complex, with differing demands on our time and energy, that your granny’s Aga is hardly an adequate analogy. For many people, modern life is more like trying to keep a dozen drones in the air, each one following a completely different flight path, and all in danger of crashing into the ground, or a tree, or into each other.

Companies are also recognising the complexity of their employees’ lives, and realising that although they may not be able to provide a perfectly symmetrical work-life balance, they can still help their staff to integrate their lives in and outside work and get the best out of both worlds.

“I think work-life balance is achievable, but not necessarily every day,” says Rosemary Garth, director of communications and corporate affairs with Irish Distillers.

“You have to look at it in the round. Some days work takes over, other days family life takes over. But in the round, you try to get it right. You do what’s right for you as an individual, depending on your lifestyle and circumstances.”

Garth believes that work shouldn’t be decoupled from the other sides of your life, because it’s so much a part of who you are.

‘A cliché’

“I think work-life balance has become a sort of a cliché – it’s really just life. And for a big portion of your life you’re going to be at work, so if an employer can help you improve your life, it will be benefit everybody.

“We look at the whole person, not just the person who turns up for work in the morning. That’s who we get involved with and that’s who we care about. And if you can have a better life outside of your work then you’re probably going to be better in work, so it makes a lot of business sense for companies to look and see how they can support the whole person.

“It’s not about the hours you spend at your desk or when you turn up or when you leave – it’s about what you produce in that time. Nobody wants to see presenteeism, with someone just putting the jacket behind the chair. People want to come in, do their job and and enjoy it, have fun and embrace it, but also be able to do those other things that they want to do. Everybody has commitments and interests outside of work, and employers should embrace that.”

As part of embracing employees’ outside lives, Irish Distillers introduced smart working, where office-based staff can work from home one day a week. The company has also introduced flexible hours for staff working in its distillery and bottling plants, such as shorter summer hours so they can get out and enjoy the weather and can leave early on Fridays so they can enjoy their social lives.

The company has also introduced a wellbeing policy called Thrive, whereby staff have access to dental care, GP care, flu jabs and subsidised fitness classes. The company also runs an “own your own career” week featuring talks and seminars on a range of life and career issues, including mindfulness and stress management.

One activity which has proven popular across the whole company is volunteering, says Garth. “We have a policy whereby all employees can take two days off a year to go and volunteer in a project or charity of their choice.” The company also runs its own volunteer programme every year, which brings the workforce together for an intensive day of doing good for others less fortunate than themselves. Just recently, 300 Irish Distillers’ employees spent a day working at Lakers in Bray, Co Wicklow, a sports social and recreational club for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

“It’s just about giving something back, and I’ll tell you, it’s one of our most popular days of the year. People just love it and they feel they really doing something very meaningful that has a lasting impact. It’s created a huge feel-good factor – you’re working with people you don’t work with every day, and we have a barbecue at the end of it. It’s physically demanding, and you’re wrecked at the end of it, but you’re on a high. People come back the next day tired but invigorated.”


The company also facilitates employees at the various stages of starting and bringing up a family. “We’re a pretty flexible organisation and we try to be understanding of people and their whole lives,” says Garth. She recalls when she was first offered the job by then chief executive Alexandre Ricard, she informed him she was expecting her first child and would be taking the full nine months’ maternity leave. “I’ll never forget what he said. He told me, ‘I’ll wait for you’. I thought, this is the type of company I want to work for.”

Irish Distillers’ culture of work-life integration is nothing new, says Garth, but has been part of the company’s ethos since before it was formed from a merger of three historic Irish whiskey distillers. During the Easter Rising in Dublin, when some workers couldn’t get to the Bow Street Distillery because of the fighting, they were still paid by the company, says Garth.

“I’m not saying we’ve got all the answers. We’re on a journey. We’re listening to people and trying to come up with innovative ways to support people in their lives.”

Deloitte Ireland is also continuously striving to find new ways to help its employees get one step closer to that elusive work-life balance and maximise their personal and professional development.

“We’re such a global economy, working across different time zones, that it’s hard to draw a line in the sand at 5pm. People need more flexibility around their working hours, their days off and their annual leave,” says Eimear McCarthy, audit partner and respect and inclusion lead in Deloitte.

“What we’ve tried to do is identify the barriers to work-life balance that people face every day and try to address those through our work policies.”

To help facilitate agile working and help employees juggle the demands of their career and personal lives, Deloitte has developed the ‘Time Out’ programme, which allows permanent staff members to take one month’s unpaid leave every year.

“You can do whatever you want with that four weeks’ leave – go on a cycling trip, write a book or achieve any other personal goal,” says Torunn Dahl, head of employee relations, engagement, respect and inclusion at Deloitte.

“When you ask people what their biggest issue is in terms of work-life balance, lack of time is the one that comes up,” says McCarthy. “People are feeling stretched, running from one thing to the next thing. And the slightest glitch – a sick child, for instance – can throw everything out of kilter. We’re trying to create a space for people to find the time to do things in their life.”?

Time-enrichment initiatives include annual leave that rises with length of service, a compressed working week during the summer, and flexible start and finish times. The company also has an “unplugged” initiative that encourages staff to free themselves from the always-on culture by minimising their use of emails, texts and other technology that might keep them tied to the workplace.

“It can be difficult for people to just turn off,” says Dahl, “but the Unplugged initiative will help them manage the everyday demands of technology and get it under control.”

“Professional services is a very high-performance business,” says McCarthy, “and nobody is going to give their best if they’re stressed out or feeling overwhelmed.”