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Work Life Balance

"Work life balance"... "family friendly focus".."downshifting" .. these are the buzz words of the twenty first century. That workers want these and employers consider them shouldn't be surprising, given most published statistics show that those of us who are working, are doing so longer and harder than ever before.

In the first of a four part series, Karalyn Brown of Interview IQ examines work life balance – some signs you need it – your workable options - how to negotiate them - and what's the experience (both good and bad) of some former frantic employees, who've made the transition.

Australians today are working harder

If you're frustrated with your long hours and thinking you have less and less time for things you used to enjoy, then you're not alone. According to the 2003 Australian Bureau Statistics survey Working Arrangements, Australia, 37% of all employees worked overtime in November 2003, up from 33% three years previously. And if you're employed in an office, there's a very good chance you'll be putting in the hours along with your colleagues. That same survey revealed 63% of managers and administrators and 51% of professionals had worked this overtime on a regular basis.

It's a trend that hasn't improved over the years. In 1974 one in 18 males worked more than 11 hours a day. Move forward to 1997 and that figure was up to one in 8. For females, one in 6 reported feeling rushed in 1974. Compare that to the seven out of eight women saying life had become more frantic in 1997.

So it's not surprising then that some workplace consultants are saying that attaining a work life balance has become the holy-grail for workers of the new millennium. And it seems a few employers are recognizing it as well. Visit the career websites of Australia's top companies and you'll see "flexible work practices" and "family friendly" focus topping the pages of employee benefits.

So how do you know if you've been too long on the treadmill?

Not an easy question, particularly if you love your job as so many of us do. Much of our self worth is tied up with what we do, how much we earn, who we work for and where we are heading. Couple that with an affluent lifestyle our parents couldn't conceive, throw in a mortgage or two, and perhaps a concern with how your peers may judge you if you take a step down - it's easy to resist, even ignore, those first nagging thoughts that you might be overdoing it.

But if you keep having thoughts of "Why am I doing this?" or ""Why do I put up with that?" you may need some time out. Most experts agree that the first essential step to answering these questions is to take a short break – to remove you from work and engage in some honest self reflection - perhaps ask a partner or trusted friend, even seek out a qualified counsellor. And as work stretches well into our everyday living, you'll need to examine other things well beyond your job.

The list of questions below is not exhaustive so use them as a sign post for paths to explore. While the questions are simple the answers may be not. If you do find asking them more than slightly confronting, then it could be the right time to start considering your choices.

About your work

  • How many hours do you regularly put in at work?
  • Do you spend too much time at work?
  • Do you need to spend that much time at work?
  • Do you still enjoy what you do?
  • How much of your work do you enjoy?
  • Can you see yourself doing this for another five years?
  • Is your job stretching you enough?
  • Is your job stretching you too much?
  • Do you bring work home?
  • How much work do you take home?

And your relationships

  • How much time do you spend with your family and friends?
  • What is the quality of the time you spend with family and friends?
  • Are you still mentally "at the office" when you're at home?
  • Is personal time interrupted with work?

And your mental and physical health

  • Are you healthy?
  • Are you constantly tired?
  • Do you have any recurring stress ailments, colds and the like?
  • Do you get easily irritated even angry?
  • Is it a chore to get out of bed?
  • Do you blame things on other people?
  • Do you drink too much, or take other drugs?
  • Do you skip meals at work, even after work?
  • Are you a compulsive eater?
  • Do you still have a sense of humour?

And finally your personal time

  • When did you last learn to do something new that did not involve work?
  • What was the last relaxing thing you did for yourself?

A brief word about your options

As appealing as it sounds, shifting your focus is not necessarily a move to the beach or a job based at home. There are less drastic changes you can make. You could keep your weekends free or work fewer hours. Perhaps take a brief sabbatical. But whatever you decide, to make it sustainable, you'll need to make choices mindful of your personal situation – that is, can you afford it, is it right for your family, and what about the long term.

Another brief word on whether you'll get support

If you're thinking once you've made the lifestyle choice you'll get the automatic blessing and good wishes of your employer, revisit the statistics above. The same ABS study found that most overtime hours were worked without recompense. And despite the promises on career websites, there's little legislated support. In fact, research by ACIIRT in 1998 found that only one in ten Enterprise Agreements contained family friendly measures. So it may well be left up to you to negotiate your options.

Where to from here

There are many choices you can make and a number of ways to negotiate them successfully with your employer. We'll discuss these, the way to achieve them and importantly examine the experience of a number of people who have, over the coming few weeks.

About Karalyn Brown

Karalyn has over 10 years experience as a decision maker in recruitment, in a consultancy and in corporate HR. Karalyn owns and runs Interview IQ who provide personalised interview coaching and job search advice. For more information visit www.interviewiq.com.au.

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