Millions of dollars are spent each year in organisations seeking advice on achieving work life balance for its employees. Some of the courses run and the projects commissioned and implemented are very good. Some leaders without the need for advice from third parties have been exceptional at restoring work life balance for employees.

However, it would appear from what I have seen and heard in interacting with colleagues, family, clients and acquaintances, most organisations must be wasting their money and most leaders are not “getting it”.

Life, it seems, is a series of ever increasing stresses as people try to make daily decisions about completing work activities, meeting family responsibilities and taking part in family activities as well as participating in social activities and in some cases, just finding time to think on one’s own.

The approaches taken by individuals and organisations to combat a perceived imbalance between work and life are quite varied.

The most improbable solution is the edict. The edict comes from a management team or a committee of some kind that work life balance is important. Improving work life balance will improve morale and thereby productivity and staff retention. Every manager and supervisor is instructed that work life balance must be a consideration of every new project.

Some managers exhort their subordinates to drive work life balance. They even worry about individuals who perceive that long hours equal a good reputation and career progression. Many times of course, the exhortation comes via email at ten o’clock at night whilst the manager works at home for a few hours in the evening to catch up. Sometimes, posters are put up in lunch rooms telling people to have better work life balance.

The edict always fails. It fails for one simple reason. Nothing has really changed about the nature of the work, the culture of the organisation, the skills of the employees and it is done pretty much as do as I say, not do as I do. Whilst some initial flurry of rebalancing occurs, it does not last as normal service resumes.

Training people in work life balance issues has some merit. Independent of the training given, the simple raising of conscious thought about work life balance helps individuals and departments within an organisation to contemplate their balance. Sometimes, positive action comes from this contemplation.

Raising the awareness of the issue and training people in some skills such as critical decision making, time management, strategy development and implementation, information management, project management and meeting management has even more merit.

It is even better to train people in some of these skills and orchestrate events and projects so that opportunities are presented to practice the skills. Going further, to evaluate their capacity to absorb and use the skills and adjust the training/coaching programme is best.

Providing escapes from work such as gym memberships, social clubs and team activities works for those who want to go to a gym or join a social club. For those who don’t, the compunction to attend or being seen as “Having no work life balance” only compounds their ability to spend time on what they would prefer to be doing.

Sometimes what people prefer to do is to work. Their work life balance is tipped in favour of work. It is their source of self esteem. It is what they feel they do best of all. Or it is what they need at this time for financial reasons, and their family supports them in having the balance they have.

Sometimes what people prefer to do is to enjoy their home life. They have changed circumstances such as a new family or a new relationship or it is just the way they were brought up. In some situations this balance does not match the needs of the organisation and their career may be at risk. However, their families support them in taking that risk.

Sometimes organisations need to have people work incredibly long hours to meet deadlines or to grow or simply just to beat the competition. Sometimes an organisation can afford to allow flexible hours and working from home systems.

To have a reasonable chance of success work life balance programmes should:

  • raise awareness of work life balance as an issue
  • build skills to increase self control over use of time
  • increase flexibility of working location and time as the business needs dictate
  • allow and encourage the work life balance to swing due to circumstance.

Developing programmes to improve work life balance which insist on an arbitrary value of balance dictated by policy or an overzealous leader will fail as the choice of what balance means is ours.