Photo by Andrew Leddy
Before trying to balance work with life, you should consider this question. (Photo by Andrew Leddy)

It seems that work-life balance is something more and more people are striving for these days. I recently attended a “work-life balance” seminar especially aimed towards women, which was given by a government-supported agency. I was hoping to learn another expert’s view on this. Unfortunately, the expert failed to ask an essential question before tackling how to achieve this balance.

The workshop centred around a case study of a woman called “Jody” who had given birth and was returning to her full-time job at a bank. Her husband was not making any effort to help care for the baby and also was working full-time. After one week of relying on her parents and in-laws to care for her child, even they stated they were unequipped and unwilling to help out any further with childcare and demanded she make alternative arrangements as soon as possible. To make matters worse, she was under tremendous stress at work and was working extra hours in anticipation of a promotion. This crisis was taking a toll on Jody’s health and her relationship with her husband was deteriorating, as they were quarreling nearly every evening. So what did the expert say was the solution?

The expert had 3 recommendations for Jody:

  1. Talk to her boss about flexi-hours and the possibility of working from home once or twice a week.
  2. Talk to her husband in a loving way, perhaps on a date-night, and gently ask him to help out with the care of their baby (the expert emphasised the sweet approach rather than the “fire the husband” approach). If the husband objects,…
  3. Get a maid to take care of the baby.

So what was the work-life balance question that the expert failed to ask that very few people ever asks themselves? The question is,

What are you working for?” or “What are your priorities?”

If Jody’s answer is “I’m working for my family” in the context of caring for their well-being and hoping to provide them a better life, then the expert’s recommendations may not be ideal for Jody because they do not explicitly require her to change her current priorities. Career seems to be at the top of Jody’s priorities, while her health, baby, and husband are taking a back seat. Work-life balance is balancing the roles each of us have. In Jody’s case, it is balancing the roles of spouse, mother, employee, and self. One of the main ways in which we assign importance to a role is the time and energy we put into it.

Flexi-hours or working from home will still require Jody to commit the same amount of time to her job, so it doesn’t reflect her family as being her first priority. Hiring a maid to care for the baby, or spending time with her husband just for the purpose of convincing him to care for the baby (as opposed to spending time to strengthening their relationship) are both inconsistent with her top priority, which is her family. Few would argue that a parent, not a maid, is the ideal person to care for their own flesh and blood. A maid could be extremely helpful in taking care of household tasks and non-parental duties, but too many times, I will see parents outsource the care of their child, the nourishing of their family, and the building, bonding, and strengthening of their relationships by hiring a maid to “do it all”.

Jody needs to come to the realisation that time (not money) is the true limited resource, and because of this, she must prioritise things and know what are the tradeoffs. For example, if she desperately wants the promotion, the tradeoff is that she will likely need to work harder or longer hours, which may lead to undesirable consequences for her health and her relationship with her family. There are always tradeoffs because everything requires time and time is limited; some things will ultimately have to be neglected or abandoned altogether.

The proper work-life balance doesn’t necessarily mean 50-50; it will depend on Jody’s priorities, environment, and circumstances. Many, like Jody, will over time gravitate toward placing too much emphasis on work because of the income, recognition, and instant gratification it provides. But the tradeoffs resulting from putting money and careers first are often under-appreciated, unrecognised and forgotten until much later into the future, often when it’s too late. A Straits Times article on 19 July, 2015 cited that more singles are putting their energy and focus on their careers and being “self-sufficient” instead of seeking a partner and starting a family. As someone who has been married for more than a decade, I feel that this is a shame. Cultivating a strong relationship and choosing a partner is a decision that will probably have the greatest impact on your life (greater than your career or education), will impact how financially free you are, and will have a great impact on the state of your general well-being. Having lived among and worked with elderly seniors, I can tell you that many of them at the end of their life think about and reflect upon the people they love and not the things they had, how much money they made, or how far up the corporate ladder they climbed.

If Jody was my client or friend, I would give her the following recommendations:

  1. Make a list of priorities and alongside that list, put a time value to each priority. And don’t forget that time and money are closely linked. Be realistic about how much time each priority would take or how much time you are willing to give. While making that list, consider the Eight Forms of Capital. Taken originally from permaculture, the eight are:
  • Intellectual Capital
  • Spiritual Capital
  • Social Capital
  • Material Capital
  • Financial Capital
  • Living Capital
  • Cultural Capital, and
  • Experiential Capital.

Often people focus their entire lives on one or just a few of the eight, particularly financial and material capital, but a truly full, enriched, and fulfilling life involves developing and allocating enough time toward all the forms of capital.

  1. Make a list of what things you are willing to sacrifice or neglect. For example, you may need to forgo your intentions on having a spotless home, getting a promotion, taking annual luxury holidays, or going to your weekly facials. You have to decide which things you are willing to give up to free up more time.
  1. Become a team with your partner. Your partner and you must generally agree to the priorities list. With shared goals in mind, you and your partner must develop a team plan and allocate responsibilities that are also agreed upon. Cultivating a healthy and happy family begins with the parents. As the saying goes, loving your partner is the best thing you can do for your children. A relationship that starts out strong and healthy doesn’t just magically stay like that over the years. You have to allocate time for it, otherwise the relationship will be neglected and will deteriorate. A recent survey by Dr. Mark Lee revealed that the average time couples who’ve been married for 7+ years spend each week in meaningful private conversations is just 37 minutes. It’s no wonder why many couples “grow apart” and are “no longer in love with each other”. If your relationship with your partner is a high priority, then you must allocate enough time and energy for it.
  1. Examine your spending and see where you can make cuts. Saving money is usually easier than making money, as it is more in our control. Mark Discoll, author of “Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together,” says that it’s “wiser to downsize your lifestyle rather than to downsize the care of your child…” or to make “marriage a casualty in your pursuit of success.” In addition to downsizing her lifestyle, I would also recommend that Jody read this blog and choose to enjoy frugal and meaningful activities together with her family in order to create memories and bonds in a more sustainable way. By downsizing her life, she may realise that she doesn’t need a full-time second source of income, and can perhaps consider part-time work.
  1. Ask for help. While I personally believe that the parent should be the primary caretaker and not a maid, I do think a maid can help by doing all the “non-parental” things, like cleaning the house, doing the laundry, buying the groceries, etc. But, a word of caution. Make sure the help you get doesn’t violate your other priorities. For example, I’ve seen too many parents shift the parental responsibilities to their helpers rather than doing it themselves, and in the process inadvertently place their relationship with their children lower amongst their other priorities. I, myself, grew up with a negligent mother and an absent father, and sadly, as an adult, I have no real meaningful connection with either of them, though I wish I did. Your children will only have one chance at childhood, and the opportunity to develop a deep meaningful connection with them and have influence over them starts when they’re young.
  1. From time to time, Jody will need to re-examine her goals, priorities, and time management as life will inevitably change.
  1. Lastly, adopt a frugal lifestyle. Being frugal doesn’t mean being cheap; it means getting more value for the money, time, and energy you spend. To a frugal person, time, money, and energy are thought of as “investments” and frugal people will often ask “what am I getting in return for my investment?”. The answer to this question provides a clear sense of purpose and priority. In a deeper way, frugality also connotes sustainability, since it considers the best use of limited resources. Since adopting a frugal lifestyle results in needing less income while freeing up more time, balancing work and life becomes a bit easier. Being frugal also frees you from additional responsibilities and burdens in your life since ownership of more things means more maintenance, upkeep, space, attention, and/or time toward those things.

The big work-life questions, however, still remain the same:

What are you working for? What are you living for?”

I would love to hear your take on work-life balance by commenting below.

5 comments on “The Question Nobody Asks When it Comes to Work-Life Balance”

  1. This is excellent and thoughtful advice! How refreshing to find a voice that refuses cliches and same same thinking! I am devouring your blog with glee! 💗

    • Hi Anneli, Thank you so much for your kind words! They are very encouraging. Sometimes I wonder if I should end the blog (even well-intentioned blogs seem to attract negative trolls) as it does cost me time and my own money to keep it going. But every now and then, I receive a message such as yours that keeps me motivated.

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