A sustainable work-life balance for future normal

The latest figures (June 2020) from the UK Office of National Statistics show that anxiety amongst parents has doubled since #lockdown, highlighting the stress of having to juggle work with homeschooling and childcare responsibilities.  Multitasking is overrated.  It might have been effective for the short term but is unsustainable as a long-term strategy.  And the ramifications of Covid-19 are here for the long-term.

It’s clear – we need to get better at creating healthy boundaries and a more sustainable work-life balance.  Employee wellbeing and productivity now depend on it.

But to do that, we will need to challenge the assumptions and cultures that stop us from asking for the things we need to create a healthier rhythm of work, home and life.  That’s the essence of what we call Habit #3, from The 4 habits of ALL Successful Relationships: Habit #3: ASK, don’t assume

Lurking beneath all the stress and anxiety are three big “asks”, desperate to be voiced but requiring the courage to challenge assumptions and expectations.   There is an ask of our bosses / colleagues, an ask of our partners / loved ones and an ask of ourselves. 

The “ask” of our bosses

Working from home under Covid-19 is not just about relocating work and replicating the same hours, or level of availability and productivity.  Many people now have to work around their partners, do home-schooling, childcare, look after vulnerable relatives or a combination of all of the above, manage more meals and more chores around the house and support everyone at home to cope with the stresses and trials of life together under one roof. 

Yet, without open honest conversations with their bosses and colleagues, there is a silent but very real pressure to perform at the same level they did in the office, to prove they still deserve the income and/or to be able to keep their job.  This means people try to juggle life and loved ones around their boss’s expectations, which quite likely are being fuelled by their own boss’s expectations and so on up the chain of command.  A pressure cooker of emotions and guilt.  Totally unsustainable.

Here is the ask of bosses and colleagues – can we get real?  Can we cut through this imaginary personal/ professional divide, talk about our individual home circumstances, own up to the fact that we have a life outside of work that needs our attention right now and renegotiate priorities, availability and expectations?  Could you model your own healthy boundaries and talk openly about the non-work aspects of your lives and empower everyone to do the same?

This level of openness and vulnerability will be a real challenge to the organisational culture and the management style of some team leaders and managers.  But those who are able to nurture relationships across distance and have these open honest conversations will win.  Even if they need to shoot for less ambitious targets for the moment and find new patterns of meeting-days and times, for example, companies and team leads will find that employees are more engaged and committed, simply because they feel cared for in the season they need it most.

In this time of uncertainty, it’s the quality of relationships that will deliver results.  When people feel heard and supported, relationships are strengthened and teams work to find ways to overcome any obstacle.  When people feel pressured and uncared for, relationships are broken and the very same people often become obstacles. We have to equip managers and team leads to shifting their management styles where necessary and open up these conversations.

The “ask” of partners / loved ones

For most parents with kids at home, lockdown means the usual routines went out the window while the volume of cooking, food shopping and household chores have gone through the roof!  Regardless of whose role it was to do what, the balance of roles and responsibilities have shifted and need to be renegotiated.

So here is the ask of partners and loved ones – can we talk about all the things that need to be done to keep the household fed, healthy and ticking over? Can we renegotiate roles and responsibilities based on capacity and ability so that we share the load and are mutually supportive of each other?

For some this will be a tough ask but no less necessary – probably long overdue.  Like it or not, conversations with professional female colleagues suggests there is still a gender imbalance in the home.  multiple surveys reveal that women have been moving into full-time work faster than men have been taking on childcare and household chores, so many women end up doing the day job while still carrying the lion’s share of home responsibilities – and home schooling can be a whole new level of stress! 

Many relationships will be under tension and strain because of building resentment around the perceived unfair split in shouldering responsibilities at home.  For some, this will challenge core beliefs and cultural expectations around what makes a good wife / mother / husband / father / partner.  After 15 years of running the home routine with Jon being the main bread winner in our household, we started our current business in relationship education working together from home.  This meant I was now back working full-time again, but we both continued with the same assumptions around household responsibilities.  I struggled with feeling resentful about the unbalanced load but also feeling guilty that I was not the “supermum” I thought I was.  It took a few goes at having “the conversation” before we found a new balance of chores that worked for us, but we got there… and so will you. 

Every time the season of life changes – and for families with kids, the seasons are typically pre kids, young kids, teen kids, empty nest – it’s important to check in and, if necessary, renegotiate who does what and what gets outsourced (like the ironing, in our household!).

More than the actual split of roles however, is the feeling of being mutually supportive and cared for.

Unless assumptions and expectations are brought out into the open and discussed, the warmth and intimacy in relationships will be replaced by bitterness and resentment.  This is the unspoken element of stress contributing to the increasing levels of anxiety among parents.  So there you go… I’ve said it.  Now it’s your turn to talk about it.

The “ask” of ourselves

In the old days pre internet and 24/7 mobile technology, we were at least able to switch off when we finally left the office and went home.  However, like a well-crafted stealth move, our lives have been taken over by technology.  Without resistance or question, we have suddenly become available to anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time of day – “always on”.

Now with work, home, school and life colliding under one roof through Covid-19, demands on our time and attention have grown exponentially and there is no escape.  We need to snap out of the mesmorising trance of technology, get back into the driving seat of our lives, push back on the incessant demands on our attention and availability and become intentional about creating healthy boundaries to protect the things that are important to us – like our health and our relationships.   This is not just a good idea, this is a matter of survival. 

It’s clear that the effects of Covid are not going away in a hurry.  But for all its ills, this lockdown offers the chance to reconnect with our core values, develop healthy boundaries around the people and things that matter to us and re-imagine a more sustainable work-life balance that gives time and space to the important, not just the urgent.

So here is the ask of ourselves – Who and what are really important to us?  What boundaries have been missing or destroyed? Where have we been living a life on the outside that contradicts our values on the inside? If we could design our ideal work/life balance, what would our weekly schedule look like?

If we take the time to ask ourselves these questions and come up with honest answers, we will identify the rhythm of life that allows us to pay attention to the things that matter most and still get proper work done. As we put the right boundaries in place and get more clarity, we will find the courage to ask for what we need to make life work better – like meeting-times that work around family pressure points, more help around the house so you can enjoy one-on-one time with your partner, personal time for self-care and refuelling etc.

Instead of multi-tasking and trying to shove our health or children or partners into nooks and crannies of time, we can be intentional about designing the life balance we desire. We can renegotiate availability and priorities with everyone and make space in the weekly schedule to be fully present for the people and things that matter in our lives, while working with more focus and peace.  And as we create healthier boundaries and balance, we create healthier relationships built on mutual trust and respect and better wellbeing.

As we come through this pandemic, we now all have an opportunity to make a real difference in our lived experience by creating healthier boundaries and designing a less stressed, more sustainable and more enjoyable rhythm of work, home and life.  If ever there is a time to get this right it is now.

Next Steps:

A) If you would like to create your own schedule that helps you put healthy boundaries around your core values, check out our blog on how to do it, here: Scheduling First Things First

B) If you’d like to help your colleagues/team/organisation create a culture of healthy boundaries and sustainable work/life balance, find out more about the corporate webinar we’ve developed to help with this, here: Pressing RESET: Redefining work/life balance for life during & after Covid-19

A pile of balancing pebbles next to the words "There is no balance... without healthy boundaries" in black font against a blue background.

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