Navio Kwok is the vice-president of research and marketing at Kilberry Leadership Advisors, a firm of management psychologists based in Toronto and New York that specializes in executive assessments and C-level leadership advisory.
To improve work-life balance, companies are trying different tactics including workcations, working from anywhere and a four-day workweek. But as organizational policies, these arrangements can only improve balance if reinforced with individual strategies.
Let’s look to three professions outside the knowledge economy whose jobs demand all-in commitment – an Olympian, a police officer and a chef. People in these professions can teach all types of workers about how to improve balance.
There are very few jobs that are truly full-time. Being an elite athlete is often one of them. From training to recovery and everything in between, for many of them, there are no days off.
“Every single decision was based on being a better athlete, so if something wasn’t going to help my athletic career, then I wouldn’t do it,” said Christine Girard, the first Canadian female to win a medal in Olympic weightlifting, capturing gold at London in 2012 and bronze at Beijing in 2008.
The key to Ms. Girard’s well-being in her athletic life and second act as an occupational therapist and advocate for clean sport in various Canadian and international agencies, isn’t one of work-life balance, but rather occupational integrity.
While the former implies a mutually exclusive relationship between work and personal goals, the latter reflects the extent that individuals are living in ways aligned with their personal values and strengths, irrespective of whether there is commensurate attention focused on work and life.
“The goal shouldn’t be about balancing on a tightrope. It should be making sure that everything you’re doing is aligned with your values,” Ms. Girard said. “I was not balanced as an athlete, nor do I necessarily have balance right now, but I have such high occupational integrity that it doesn’t matter. I’m happy.”
Call to action: Consider the following exercise at the end of each day: Rate on a 10-point scale to what extent you agree that the way you spent your time and energy was aligned with your personal values and aspirations.
The police officer
A survey of RCMP officers conducted in late 2020 found that 76 per cent of respondents experience high levels of job stress that affect their home life.
To manage work-life balance, Corporal Walter Bailey, who was previously a front-line RCMP officer for nine years and is married to Ms. Girard, believes it is important to invest in something outside of work to complement the stresses of the job.
“During my time in contract policing, I was helping Christine prepare for the London Olympics. [I then became] president of the British Columbia Weightlifting Association, and then I had kids,” he said. “Having other things that I was fully passionate about helped rebalance the demands of the job.”
Having hobbies also improves psychological and physiological markers of well-being, including better mood and lower stress hormones.
Call to action: Ensure you are as invested in a hobby or other activity as you are with your job.
A 2019 survey by foodie magazine Fine Dining Lovers paints a harrowing picture of work-life balance among chefs. Sixty per cent of those surveyed work nine to 12 hours a day, the same number of respondents who have used painkillers to push through a shift. On scheduled days off, 82 per cent have gone in to help their team.
For Amy Cho, whose expansive culinary CV ranges from a two-Michelin star restaurant in Hong Kong to a farm-to-table caterer in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley, her approach to work-life balance is one of compartmentalizing, in which her experiences at work and in life were kept intentionally separate.
“I kind of trained my mind to push myself another day, and when I had a day off, I wouldn’t think about work at all,” said Ms. Cho, referring to her time in Hong Kong, where she had 14-hour shifts, six days a week.
Now as the owner of a compound-butters business that she launched when the restaurant industry was hit by the pandemic, Ms. Cho has had more time to reflect on the source of her work ethic.
“Growing up, I got to see my dad maybe six hours a week because he had two full-time jobs,” she said. “So, no matter how difficult my job is now, I know it will never equate to how long my dad’s hours were.”
On this latter point, research shows that individuals’ decisions around work-life balance are shaped by what they saw their parents do, with many (un)intentionally adopting their parents’ habits.
Call to action: Take stock of whether your work habits are subconsciously influenced by your upbringing. For parents, be aware that you are already setting the stage for how your children will approach their careers.
The bottom line
Work-life balance is a continuing process that requires hard work. Striving toward it begins with thoughtful introspection as to whether your day-to-day actions are aligned with your values, include passions outside of work, and are driven by subconscious influences. Ultimately, exercising such personal agency is foundational to psychological well-being.
This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.
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