Work-Life Balance: Your Work or Your Life

By Susan Cramm
Wed, June 01, 2005


If you want your life to be more than a series of meetings, e-mails and business trips, you are not alone. My objective in nearly every coaching relationship is to help my client find a balance between work responsibilities and personal life. Former GE grand pooh-bah Jack Welch has said in recent articles and interviews that he believes great managers don’t have work-life-balance issues because they have the necessary "systems" in place. This is a ridiculous comment, even for those with a stay-at-home spouse and legions of personal assistants. The only managers who don’t have work-life-balance issues are those who have already given up their lives to the company.

Welch says your boss wants to make "your job so exciting that your personal life becomes a less compelling draw." You may wish that your boss would embrace the whole you (and not view your children as competition), but most executives think of home and family as something to be dealt with—like a physical or emotional handicap. According to Welch, the typical boss is willing to "accommodate work-life-balance challenges if you have earned it with performance." In other words, you mortgage your life to the company in the present so that you can own it in some misty future.

Unfortunately, this strategy doesn’t really work because by the time you realize that your work and life are out of balance, your habits, expectations, responsibilities and relationships (or lack thereof) have hardened. You have created your own "system"—that is, the combination of your organization’s culture, your position and your work habits—which works as long as you put your job first and everything else second, third or not at all. This system is tuned for long hours away from home. Eventually, your spouse, children, church and community become accustomed to your absence and develop routines that require your funding but make your day-to-day involvement unnecessary.

It’s important to realize that balance is not about having more free time; it’s about living a fuller, richer life that is more enjoyable and more significant. It means putting work in perspective as one of the many things that you do and aspire to be great at, but not the thing that defines who you are. Balance doesn’t necessarily mean working fewer hours—everyone, including the CEO, works for others and responds to demands beyond their control—but balance does mean gaining control over when, where and how work is done.

If you are one of the many whose narrowed worldview consists primarily of work and sleep, the process of recalibrating your system to define yourself beyond your job is difficult. The key to gaining balance is making external commitments that appear on your calendar and treating them with the same level of dedication you give to your work. Welch speaks the truth when he says that within most companies, "work-life balance is your problem to solve" and that "people who publicly struggle [with it] get pigeonholed as ambivalent, entitled, uncommitted, incompetent." (For a sampling of how CIO readers manage it, see Inbox.)

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