Work-life balance in a culture that fetishises work

Contemporary work culture has become paradoxical and slanted towards irony.

Technological advancement is such that we’re able to automate production, treat a laptop or a smartphone in a café as an office, sell/buy all over the world at the click of a button, and publish pictures of breakfasts to a global audience of ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ via social media.

On the one hand we celebrate these advancements, yet we also worry about their pace and our ability to keep up. We’re concerned about ‘innovation’ – usually such an aspirational word – eroding employment. We’re not sure how to fit in to an environment that at once seemingly ultra-visible, can easily appear murky, monitored and isolating.

Theoretically, as the robots do all the work, we should have more time to adapt our human facets of creativity, vision and reason to the new age, or simply to enjoy more free time with friends and family.

Yet we have fetishised our ‘always on’ work environment, which equates ambition and hard work to constant connectedness, as opposed to quantifiable productivity and creativity. The flashing light or bleep of incoming notifications on our smartphones, often provided by a company, act more like dog whistles summoning us, making us twitchy and unconsciously dependent.

Being ‘always on’ is prolific, says Nimita Shah, a director, and business and coaching psychologist at The Career Psychologist. ‘I see it in our clients and even in my friends, who often talk about being constantly on. To some degree it feels like the new normal, which sounds horrendous, feeling you’ve got to be constantly switched on for work. This means even when you try to switch off or do things that aren’t work related, you’re still checking your phone.

‘There’s a real addiction to checking phones, always having them nearby. Sometimes it feels like it has passed over from the conscious into the unconscious, so we’re not even aware we’re doing it until someone points it out, or we realise we’ve missed something, a point in a conversation [or] a scene in a TV programme.’

It’s true that some of us fetishise work and the reasons vary depending on the individual and their situation,’ Lisa LaRue is a registered career coach at CareerWorx with over 18 years’ experience. ‘In a competitive job market some workers can tend to fetishise work as a way to get ahead in their careers. Those who eat lunch at their desks or make themselves available all hours seek to be seen harder working than those who don’t.’

In such a culture, has work-life balance become a dirty word, or a weak notion? It doesn’t have to be, says Lisa. ‘We need to redefine what we mean by work-life balance in today’s terms. Think about what work-life balance means to you and the rest of your team. In some instances, it could be as simple as refining work processes, skills development or improved workplace relations. Other successful work-life balance policies include flexible working hours, working from home days or time off to participate in charity work under a corporate social responsibility program for example.’

For Nimita, striking a good work life balance means, firstly, being aware of behaviours, some that have often become habitual, that may be limiting your ability to switch off. Secondly, being in control of your environment, and not the other way round.

It’s important to experiment with monitoring or tracking your habits, says Nimita. ‘How much are you aware of the call to the red light on your Blackberry, the one that summons you, like a dog being called back to its owner? Can you monitor how many times in a day you’re a slave to these features of being called upon?’

‘Then look at the evidence – how many times did you check emails or were called upon outside work? Where were your boundaries? Psychologists often say it’s your environment, are there toxic elements that aren’t helping. A good example of this is eating and weight loss: is your environment set up to help you? Because willpower alone isn’t enough. If you have sabotage features in your environment, then it’s game over already. It helps to be really clear on when this is actually happening. Sometimes people have a pattern of when they’re likely to be summoned.’

Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.

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