The ultimate balance question … work and home

I couldn’t sleep and I am up at 4:30 am on a Sunday morning listening to Nigel Marsh : How to make work-life balance work on TED talk. Ironic.

He is brutally honest and insightful and does this with such compelling humour,that it is difficult to ignore the reality of what he says.

The way we have defined this ‘balance’ as a goal it self is quite interesting. Work Life Balance. Almost as if work isn’t life. It implies that working in someway takes away your life. I like to be more balanced about this and call it Work Home life balance. On the one hand we know in reality that just because we go to work in a professional capacity, we don’t leave our personal lives behind. If your child is sick, this worry comes in through the office doors with you. If you have had an argument with your partner, this is going to affect your mood. If you have had a hard at work, you are bound to take your anxiety home with you.

There has always been work – long before organizations came in to being.

Al Gini (1998) in his ‘Work, identity, Self’ defines work as the basic lever as “in its most benign sense work can be defined as: any activity we need or want to do in order to achieve the basic requirements of life and/or maintain a certain life-style” (a).

In this sense, the work of cooking, cleaning and growing food and looking after children and elders is work. And this is real life.

Of course this is a little more complicated now. We outsource the ‘basic work’ to either modern technology or to others, and then we ‘go to work’ – a place away from our homes and our gardens, mostly in big buildings or industrialized factories, or large farms.

Naturally this begs the question how do we balance how we spend our time and efforts in these two different places – work and home. Most of us ‘go to work’ in order to provide for our home. Some of us who are fortunate manage to make a work life doing what we like to do. Not all of us do though, and in my work as a Leadership Coach, this is a constant question that comes up. “How do I prioritize, balance, these two”.

Nigel Marsh addresses this perennial question in his TED talk and makes the following four observations.

1. Have a honest debate.
“Some jobs are fundamentally incompatible with being meaningfully engaged on a day to day basis with a young family”.

When work became organized it got organized around masculine agendas not around the realities of women. That is why today, we are trying to reinvent the ‘organized work place’ to include flex time, maternity leave. And as social roles change, where men are also involved in the raising of children, organizations are including paternal leave etc. In this context, I would like to go as far as to say that ‘organized commercial work places’ have not been designed for humans. What human really wants to and yearns to be stuck in a windowless office for 16 hours a day, 5 to 6 days a week, and then still not be ‘off’ work because you bring your office home in your laptop or your BlackBerry.

But this is the reality of organizations today.

2. Governments and corporations won’t solve the issue.
“Never put the quality of your life in the hands of a commercial enterprise … They are inherently designed to get as much as much out of you they they can get away with”

If we were to wait for the system to change it may not happen. We have to take the responsibility to do so. We have to review and prioritize how we spend our lives. We have to come in to positions of power and influence to campaign, advocate and implement change in these big systems. Eventually all of us make the system.

3. Be realistic about the time frame we choose to make the balance between work and home.

“we need to elongate the time frame upon which we judge the balance in our life”

The reality of today’s modern world is that in order to live, most of us have to engage in some form of organized work, working for others, so that we earn money to do the things we enjoy and are important in our life. We cant do everything in one day,  but neither can we wait to retire from ‘work’ in order to enjoy life. We will be too old and no one will be there to do it with.

4. Approach balance in a balanced way

This is how we balance according to Nigel. He shares the story of how he spent an afternoon with his son playing and feeding and putting his son to bed, and his son proclaimed it was the best day of his life.

It is possible that this was the best day in his life, because it was an unusual occurrence. But it goes to show that small things matter – in order to spend time with your son you don’t have to give up work altogether. But you can make time on a daily or weekly basis to do that. In order to enjoy a holiday you don’t have to work 16 hours a day for a year and then take 2 weeks off and call it a holiday. Create small oasis of holiday every month, whether it is for a day or even a couple of hours where you do something that you like.

He leaves us with the simple wisdom, that if enough people take responsibility for the well being of their own lives, it will transform society and the norms in which we currently live by, where success is defined by “the moronically simplistic notion that the person with the most money when he dies wins, to a more thoughtful and balanced definition of what a life well-lived looks like”.

On that note, I went back to sleep-in on a Sunday morning.

Wishing you beautiful balance in your life


P.S. You must watch Nigel Marsh on TED talks. He is witty and direct, and makes you think!

Nigel Marsh : How to make work-life balance work

(a) Gini, Al (1998), Work, identity and self : How we are formed by the work we do, Journal of Business Ethics 17 : 707-714,

Photo Credit – (CC) James Jordon –


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