The eternal quest for the perfect work-life balance

Work-life balance is a challenge for all of us

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Balance. It's the modern-day holy grail. Whether it's emotional balance, brain-body balance, a balanced diet, work-life balance or a balanced exercise regime, equilibrium (in one form or another) is being touted as the answer to most 21st-century ills.

On our eternal quest to lead more harmonious lives, we buy cookbooks brimming with healthy recipes, books that proceed to gather dust on the kitchen counter (guilty); we travel to exotic destinations for wellness holidays and then spend most of our time checking work emails (guilty); we attempt to meditate or be more mindful but, for the most part, fail miserably (guilty); we try endless yoga classes, but just become frustrated about the sorry state of our asanas (guilty); and we buy adult colouring books that just end up feeling a little, well, pointless (yup, guilty again).

Work-life balance is the ultimate goal – the lifestyle jackpot, so to speak. Because our attitudes to work are becoming increasingly unsustainable. “Work is our religion and it’s failing us,” a Huffington Post headline shouted out last week. “No previous age has been so enthralled, or longed for more, rather than less, work to do. No other people have imagined nothing better for their posterity than the eternal creation of more work,” suggested the author, Benjamin Hunnicutt.

As a professor of leisure studies at the University of Iowa and author of Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream, Hunnicutt knows a thing or two about this subject. As he sees it, our jobs are now where we find success, meaning, purpose and identity. Our self-worth has become inextricably linked to our professional performance – and that's not a particularly healthy state of being.

Work-life balance is a challenge for those of us in the UAE, as the latest Expat Insider survey from InterNations revealed this week. In a ranking of destinations offering the best work-life balance for expats, the UAE came in at number 52. Out of 65. The UAE has always prided itself on its work-hard-play-hard mentality, but it seems that most of us are doing more of the working hard than the playing hard.

People in Bahrain and Oman are far more well-rounded in their approach to life, it seems. Of the 10 countries that recorded the best work-life balance, Bahrain came in at number 2, with 69 per cent of respondents expressing satisfaction with their work-life balance and 72 per cent saying they were satisfied with their working hours. Oman came in at number 9. Norway, the Czech Republic, New Zealand, Sweden, Costa Rica, The Netherlands and Malta also featured in the top 10, with Denmark taking the number one spot. No big surprises there – those guys work 39.7 hours a week.

What was most telling about the results (which were based on insights from about 13,000 expat workers from 188 countries and territories) was that there was no direct correlation between the number of hours worked per week and satisfaction levels. For example, expats in the Czech Republic spend more time at work than the global average, but still have great work-life balance. It appears that the holy grail isn't so much about how long your working week is but a matter of what you do with all those other hours.

I sometimes wonder if we spend so much time worrying about how to achieve balance, and our abject failure to do so, that the whole idea becomes a source of stress in itself. I spend a significant amount of time wondering how I can squeeze more into my week, and it’s entirely counterproductive.

Barbara Corcoran, who is one of the investors on the long-running US television show Shark Tank and a mother of two children, has just come out to say that work-life balance might as well be a unicorn. "Stop striving for work-life balance; it just doesn't exist," she boldly announced on a radio podcast.

Those who do still think it is possible say the only way to achieve a balanced existence is to completely compartmentalise the various parts of your life. Work; family; parenting; friends; exercise, and so on. You know the drill… if you are with your family, put your phone to one side; those work emails can probably wait. If you are at work, try and focus completely on the task at hand – the more productive you are, the quicker you’ll be done with it. Figure out what your priorities are and be completely realistic about what can be achieved and what cannot.

The trick, I think, is to remember to leave a little bit of time for yourself. The eternal pursuit of the unicorn can wait.

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