Is work-life balance a sham?
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.”
BUSIER THAN EVER
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.
MAKE PEACE WIUTH THE MESS
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.
BLOW UP THE GUILT, FOR GOOD