Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Wellbeing & Work: The Work-Life Paradox



"Shake the Inverse's hand and the exact opposite of your life will flash before your eyes. When the Inverse shook Businessman's hand, Businessman saw himself as having a work and going to life. The experience was so intense that he retired the next day." - Taken from All My Friends Are Superheroes, by Andrew Kaufman.

In our pursuit for some answers when it comes to how to be well in the modern world, a lot of us have been known to use the phrase work-life balance; the elusive point at which the different intersections of our lives seem to make sense together; a point at which we have it down. It shines like a formula of grand design that means we get enough time to ourselves and our loved ones, but also work hard and fulfil our dreams, in seemingly equal measure. Across various conversations and attempts of my own to reach this kind of equilibrium, the question of whether a work-life balance can exist at all (beyond the instagram accounts of yoga instructors and food bloggers, perhaps) has begun to puzzle me. Like, a golden snitch of our day-to-day existence dancing just out of reach.

102,000,000 pages come up on google for the search term work-life balance, with top results being articles by the likes of Forbes, The Guardian and the Mental Health Foundation, with a TEDx talk thrown in there somewhere. This blog post is a little different from those and, as such, offers no practical advice on how to improve your work-life balance at all. I don't want to tell you to create boundaries around your work hours or your work space, or tell you to take up exercise or meditation (although those things are great), but I do want to share some of the directions in which my thoughts on this sort of topic have drifted towards. Here are some things I was thinking about last April(!) when I tried (and failed) to go to bed at midnight every night during lent - on just some of the limitations of work-life balance conversations and pursuits, at least some of which I think I still agree with.

1. Work is a part of life. In the most basic sense, the two strands in our work-life balance idea are not mutually exclusive. Life is not in opposition to work, but rather includes it, along with a host of other elements. By regarding it as a separate entity, work is seen as either a focal point of or a barrier to everything else that we'd like to do with our time, whereas it has the potential to be fun, fruitful, sociable and grow us as people in the same way as other life experiences. We spend a large portion of our lives working, so wishing it away and focusing on the time around it as our only time to live will no doubt make us feel unhappy, and as if life is passing us by.

2. Rebranding work. A few years back I realised how much I was starting to resent my neverending to-do list; a structure that transformed opportunities into obstacles. I had started to see commissions eclipsing time that I wanted to be drawing for my own projects on my own terms - completing the same action but inciting a very different attitude. Artwork vs. just... work. I think it's easy to get bogged down in what we think things labelled as work look and feel like; a toil, different to the fun and freedom of life, and - whilst tasks can be stressful when different factors are involved - what if we took steps back and really honed in on why we're doing them and why they do us good? Check out these linguistic tweaks by Bernard Roth, such as swapping 'have to' for 'want to'.

3. Work-Life or Your Life's Work? I think if you are to truly do your best work, and pursue your passion and make money and/or real change from it in ways that a lot of people express they wish to, you kind of have to live it. I can no longer truly identify what I'm doing for fun and what feeds into my practice because they overlap and interconnect. Recreational visits to events or exhibitions could equally be seen as networking opportunities and research. Blossoming friendships and potential collaborators are found in the same people. How I would choose to spend my time looks very similar to the stuff I get paid to do. We're often told this blend is a bad thing and that a determinable distinction between work and life is crucial to our happiness, but I'm realising it's okay if your general existence encompasses both of these ideas - enjoyable yet full of potential - because it shows that you're interested in things that stimulate good in you, and that your work makes the most of your values & interests.

4. Something has to give. The problem with making work-life balance a societal goal is that I think it implies that we can continue to do it all so long as we just find the right way to fit it all together like a wonderful jigsaw. I think the real point that we need to raise is that most of us have too many flippin' pieces. No matter how much we swap them around and try to wangle them together, something will have to give. We have to pay attention to and make decisions about what's most important to us and sometimes, frankly, what is necessary for our survival. Ideally a lot of us might want to do less working and more living, but the privilege associated with that is not something we should ignore in these conversations. Is work being used as shorthand for making money, and life a shorthand for spending it? How do we protect those who have little choice in their work to do?

5. Living isn't easy. Let's be straight about this, the life that we're trying to offset with our work is no picnic. Raising children, maintaining relationships, staying healthy; these things are damn hard work, and drain our energy resources in so much as the stuff that we might formally refer to as our work or the stuff that we actually get paid for, along with most all elements we need to consider to live a happy life. Perhaps rather than separating distinctions of work and non-work, instead we strive more broadly for a balance between our endeavours and a sense of peacefulness; or between our dreams and our actions; or between labour and unhindered joy.

What I think we should really be considering in conversations about wellbeing is not a work-life balance, but the importance of juggling our emotional, intellectual, and physical energy levels; being aware of what drains us and when we need to recharge, and how we and those around us better create space for that. That's what will allow us to make the most of every facet of our lives; the full spectrum of work, play, rest and everything in between.

Some of the most exceptional work I've ever done has also been made in a way that most people would consider my work-life balance to have been totally off, and the pull of deadlines and the 'stress' or care or energy I find to put into things absolutely makes my work better. The times when I really feel thrown off balance has been due to unexpectedly picking up the work and / or stresses of others, because it's like Newton's third law - for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction - so I also don't consider placing the onus on us as individuals is telling the whole story of balance, wellness and self-care either. It has to be a collective endeavour.

We all get a bit / a lot unbalanced sometimes, in so many different ways, for so many different reasons, and what's more important for me than keeping things level or neutral is rather accepting the peaks and troughs of - as the great Ronan Keating explains - our rollercoaster life, and considering how we address resetting, defragmenting or just leveling out again following deep energy expenditure(s), no matter what we spend it on.

But, that's just me. And I think one of the worst things we can do in these conversations is create absolutes. Absolute signs you are working too hard, or any absolute fixes discount our individual drivers, how we measure the quality of our life, what we hold dearest and also what we're struggling with the most and how it manifests.

This is an unofficial follow up post to the Scrambled Mess one I shared last year, which you can read here.

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