Is work-life bal­ance a sham?

Women's Health Australia - - NOVEMBER 2017 - By Anna Bres­law

How to make say­ing ‘no’ and ask­ing for a lit­tle help your new best friends

Pipe down there, per­fec­tion­ists at the back – no one’s say­ing you can’t have it all (OK, we kind of are). But it may be time to ac­cept that you can’t do ev­ery­thing you want, per­fectly, all the time. Take a poll of pretty much any group of women and chances are there’s one thing they’ll all have in com­mon, re­gard­less of age, life stage or ca­reer: they’ll all be jug­glers. Of meet­ings, work dead­lines, so­cial events, child­care, date nights and In­sta­gram up­dates. And the re­sult of trying to keep these fig­u­ra­tive balls fly­ing high with seem­ingly stress­free flair? They’re to­tally ex­hausted.

“Most women are deeply anx­ious about the concept of ‘bal­ance’,” says

Ann Shoket, au­thor of The Big

Life. In the book, she stud­ies the evolv­ing val­ues of young women seek­ing a new idea of how re­la­tion­ships and fam­ily fit around ca­reer am­bi­tions. “My take is that it’s all life all the time – and all work all the time,” she ex­plains. “This search for work-life bal­ance is leav­ing women hob­bled with guilt and anx­i­ety.” Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent US Women's

Health sur­vey of nearly 1000 women, 43 per cent said they feel they’ve achieved work-life bal­ance, yet 75 per cent felt guilty about not suc­cess­fully balanc­ing work and life. Er...? Turns out even when we think we’ve cre­ated the best pos­si­ble bal­ance, we still feel as if it’s not good enough. (FYI, 72 per cent felt drained, ex­hausted or anx­ious at the end of the day.) Not exactly the sign of a healthy, happy life.

“I’ve learnt to avoid that guilt by em­brac­ing the mess,” says Shoket. “When you let go of the idea that you must find bal­ance, it’s eas­ier to see your mess for what it re­ally is – the mo­men­tum driv­ing you closer to your ver­sion of suc­cess, whether you’re work­ing your arse off trying to prove your­self, find love and pay the rent, or build­ing your fam­ily and ca­reer at once,” she ex­plains.

“For me, the en­er­getic rush of work, life and love makes me feel like I’m in it. I don’t feel guilty about not be­ing with my hus­band and kids when I’m work­ing, or about not work­ing when I’m fo­cused on my fam­ily. Ul­ti­mately, the fam­ily gets loved and the job gets done.”

But what about when those balls start to drop? “Yes, things do some­times bub­ble over – I lose stuff: an ear­ring I took off to make a call, a credit card whipped out for a cof­fee run,” says Shoket. “I wake in the mid­dle of the night and re­alise it’s been weeks since I looked at bills or my eye­brows saw a tweezer.

But that’s a small price to pay for a life that feels big and sat­is­fy­ing.”


Shoket isn’t the only one ad­vo­cat­ing a more fluid ap­proach to bal­ance. Ma­mamia creative di­rec­tor Mia Freed­man’s new book Work Strife

Bal­ance ar­gues that work-life bal­ance is an im­pos­si­ble pres­sure that women put them­selves un­der. And last year, shortly after the oneyear an­niver­sary of her hus­band’s death, Face­book COO Sh­eryl Sand­berg ac­knowl­edged that she’d un­der­es­ti­mated the chal­lenges faced by work­ing women when she’d writ­ten Lean In. “Be­fore, I did not re­ally get how hard it is to suc­ceed at work when you are over­whelmed at home,” she wrote. Lau­ren Smith Brody, au­thor of The

Fifth Trimester, a guide for new moth­ers re­turn­ing to work, takes it one step fur­ther. “Frankly, I find the whole concept of work-life bal­ance anti-fem­i­nist,” she says. Men are so­cialised to con­sider work to be a part of life, but women get the mes­sage that they’re mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive. “Of­ten, when women choose to work, the im­pli­ca­tion is that they’re miss­ing out on the rest of their lives,” says Brody.

Adding in­sult to in­jury, women have to work doubly hard to prove them­selves on the job. “Women have to push to get their voice heard in meet­ings, but are some­times ex­pected to man­age a heav­ier work­load. On a daily ba­sis, it’s drain­ing and ex­haust­ing,” says Dr Mar­i­anne Cooper, a so­ci­ol­o­gist at The Clay­man In­sti­tute for Gen­der Re­search at Stan­ford Univer­sity. What do they get for their trou­bles? Less pay and fewer pro­mo­tions (women hold 26 per cent of se­nior man­age­ment roles, ac­cord­ing to the Aus­tralian Bureau of Sta­tis­tics, while a re­port by work­place con­sul­tant Con­rad Liveris re­vealed that Aussie CEOS and chairs were 40 per cent more likely to be called Peter or John than to be fe­male).

The bias doesn’t end at the of­fice. Even the most suc­cess­ful women can take on the brunt of house­work and child rear­ing, some­thing so­ci­ol­o­gists re­fer to as ‘the sec­ond shift’. Compared with men, women spend al­most an ex­tra hour each day on house­hold ac­tiv­i­ties such as cook­ing and clean­ing, re­ports the US Bureau of La­bor Sta­tis­tics. No won­der more than half of the women in the USWH sur­vey said they had zero time for them­selves.


So, if the idea of bal­ance is such a bum deal, why do we chase it so fiercely? Well, partly be­cause we con­stantly see women who make liv­ing a full life look ef­fort­less. While the link be­tween so­cial me­dia and men­tal health is com­plex, one 2016 study by the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh found peo­ple who spend the most time ogling oth­ers’ care­fully cu­rated on­line lives feel more de­pressed; an­other poll by US pro­gram To­day found 42 per cent of moth­ers felt

in­fe­rior after vis­it­ing Pin­ter­est.

Set­ting the bar so high may also be in our metaphor­i­cal DNA, says Melody Wild­ing, a so­cial worker who spe­cialises in help­ing women deal with work-life chal­lenges. “Check­ing things off a to-do list can help us feel more in con­trol,” she ex­plains. “But with so much on our plates, in­vari­ably, there will be some­thing we can’t get to or com­plete flaw­lessly. And when that hap­pens, it of­ten af­firms an un­der­ly­ing be­lief that we’re not good enough.”

This un­palat­able combo of in­equal­ity and feel­ings of in­ad­e­quacy of­ten cul­mi­nates in burnout, says Cooper. Our so­cial lives fal­ter (56 per cent of women in the USWH sur­vey say work stress has neg­a­tively af­fected their per­sonal re­la­tion­ships), and our health suf­fers. Re­search by Ohio State Univer­sity shows that women who work 41–50 hours a week (the case for 42 per cent of the sur­vey re­spon­dents) have el­e­vated risks for con­di­tions such as heart dis­ease, arthri­tis and di­a­betes. All much higher num­bers than risks found in men who work the same amount. Why? Jug­gling a ca­reer and those sec­ond-shift re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in­creases stress, which is linked to these chronic ill­nesses.


It can be a hard pill to swal­low but, if bal­ance is the aim, you’re going to have to give some stuff up – or at least the idea of do­ing it all per­fectly. “We’re ex­pected to be avail­able to work 24/7, but you can still set lim­its,” says Wild­ing.

“If an­swer­ing late-night emails is part of your work­place cul­ture, send a brief re­sponse that won’t tie you up all night but in­di­cates that you re­ceived the mes­sage (eg,

‘I’d like to think about this, I’ll get back to you in the morn­ing’).” Even bet­ter, use that al­ways-on notion to your ad­van­tage. “Ap­proach your boss with a plan about how you can work from home a day or two a week,” sug­gests Brody.

Then the big one: ask for help. Nearly a quar­ter of the women in the USWH sur­vey try to do it all – all by them­selves. So, or­der take­away more of­ten (like you needed an ex­cuse), ask your sis­ter to watch the kids for an af­ter­noon, or tell your hus­band to toss in a load of laun­dry so you can read your Kin­dle or put in a few ex­tra hours at work. Yep, that’s right – we just said put in more time at work. Be­cause there’s not a right or wrong place to spend your en­ergy. Am­bi­tion isn’t a dirty word (in fact, more women in the sur­vey said they’d rather make more money and work longer hours than take a pay cut and work less). And the choices you make to­day aren’t set in stone. If you have a health cri­sis, need to care for an age­ing par­ent or just want to take a step back and re­assess, you can. The state of things is ever-shift­ing.

The one thing you should make a con­stant, though? Self-care. Women are no­to­ri­ously bad at do­ing so. “There’s a mis­con­cep­tion that self-care has to be ac­tive like yoga, or ex­pen­sive like a spa day,” says Wild­ing. But it can also be about mak­ing your re­spon­si­bil­i­ties a bit more en­joy­able, such as lis­ten­ing to Lorde while you do your bills. Or writ­ing that re­port from home in your PJS. And if one of those balls ac­ci­den­tally gets dropped? Shrug it off and try again. Jug­gling, after all, is sup­posed to be fun.



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