Solving the work-life dilemma

Mary HuntBalance. It's a nice word but the reality is hard to pin down. According to management professional Mary Hunt, it may not even put us on the right track in our 21st century quest for fulfilment and happiness. At a seminar in New York recently she preferred to talk about the integration of work and family life, beginning not with the workplace and the employer's role in sorting things out, but with the person and her priorities.

Mary Hunt is a Professor of Business and Management at Lexington College in Chicago. She is also the president and co-founder of Home Advantage Plus, a training and consulting firm that offers home management solutions for blending work and personal life. In this interview with MercatorNet she outlines a person-centred approach to work-life issues.

MercatorNet: What do people mean when they talk about work-life balance?

Mary Hunt:
Generally they mean the challenge of managing their family commitment when they've got children, while juggling the demands of a career. That's the traditional focus, but the concept has evolved quite a bit. There are now many younger people in the workforce, in their late 20s and early 30s, who may not even have children but they want a sense of balance in their life.

MercatorNet: Do people know what they mean by "balance"?

Mary Hunt:
No, I don't think so. Often they are thinking of some sort of perfection, where nothing is out of place, there's no stress, and this of course is unrealistic. It automatically means a trade-off between work and life. If I give more time to my family I won't be able to do my job properly, or if I spend more time on the job my family will suffer. Yet I want to be able to have it all, to do it all, right now.

I prefer to talk about integration, which means bringing the various pieces of our lives into a cohesive whole. We each have many roles, goals, responsibilities and life plans, but in the end we are only one person and we can't compartmentalise our lives. We have to get it together. I'm attracted to the idea of finding ways to bring life into a unity that will give us the harmony and happiness we seek.

MercatorNet: Work-life conflict is a problem we have heard about only in the past 15 to 20 years, since the working patterns of women changed. Yet men have also had trouble balancing their lives.

Mary Hunt: Certainly men have always had the problem of giving enough time to their family, but, because we are talking about it more today, men have a much healthier sense of their need to be involved in the family. And because women spend more time in the workforce, men do have more responsibilities at home and they have to strive for balance as much as women do.

Arlie Hochschild in her book The Time Bind said people -- and especially men admitted to this -- stayed at work longer rather than go home, because there was just too much facing them at home, family problems, more work. So we have to take that into consideration too.

MercatorNet: Women have brought the issue to light because they simply can't ignore home?

Mary Hunt: No, they can't. It is always their first responsibility. People often ask how many men and how many women come to the Home Advantage seminars, and of course, it's always more women than men. But about 20 per cent of participants are men, which is better than we thought it would be. And their reasons are very interesting.

When I ask at the beginning of the seminar why people are there, the men invariably say, “Well, I'm getting married soon and I really want to be able to help out at home.” Or, “my wife just had a baby and I really want to be able to do more around the house so I can help her.” And all the women in the room turn round and say, “Oh, isn't that great!” But the interesting thing is that phrase, "helping" at home. The men want to help at home but the women feel responsible. And, no, there's nothing wrong with that, nothing at all.

MercatorNet: What sort of people succeed best at balancing their lives?

Mary Hunt: People who have very clear priorities and their own clear definition of success. They know what's most important in their lives. These are people who can say, before it happens: If I have to make a choice, if work and family come head to head, I know what my biggest priority is.

They are people who realise they may have to slow their career for a period of time, perhaps while a child is younger, and have a less demanding job so they can have more time at home. And they can be at peace with that, because their definition of success is not necessarily the one that society tells them.

The mistake is to just go through life and let the new promotion or the new demands of the job dictate what you do, to feel you don't have a choice. You need to stop and reflect, communicate more with your husband, your wife, your manager at work, and basically be more pro-active.

MercatorNet: The tendency is to look for solutions from the business community, in the form of family-friendly policies like flexi-time and child care. How important are workplace policies in work-life balance?

Mary Hunt:
Employers certainly ought to respect families and put some things in place that help individuals achieve the balance they want. But the only way these policies will be effective is if individuals take personal responsibility for their work-life decisions, and communicate their own limits.

It's been proven, anyway, that employees oftentimes don't take advantage of the policies that are in place in many large corporations because they feel that their career may be hindered if they use flex time, for example. They feel they will be looked down on for that. So, ultimately, it's in the hands of the individual.

MercatorNet: "But I don't have time!" Do we just have too much to do today, or are we merely disorganised?

Mary Hunt: I think it's true that we have too much to do. Technology has changed things and made people accessible 24 hours a day, encroaching on the peaceful time people used to have. Even children are involved in many more activities that make demands on parents' time. Yet some things don't change. We still have 24 hours a day. We all have the same amount of time and how we use it comes down to a personal choice.

People are disorganised because they avoid that choice and try to do too much. But they may also lack confidence and be inefficient at what they do. Even a simple thing like, What are we going to have for dinner tonight? can become a huge job if we feel, Oh, I'm not a good cook, or, It takes me so long to do grocery shopping that I can't face it. Obviously, if you have the knowledge and skills to make it simpler than you're going to gain more time. This is what Home Advantage is built on -- using good systems to simplify daily tasks so you don't spend inordinate amounts of time on housework.

MercatorNet: So home has to be approached in a professional way as well?

Mary Hunt: That's right. Planning and other basic management skills have to be used at home. We're very organised in the workplace, we use time management there so well, and then we come home and just ride the waves, consuming ourselves with the latest problem that has cropped up or things that the children are asking for.

Presumably this is one reason why many women prefer going out to work to working at home.

Mary Hunt: Yes, although there's nothing wrong with wanting to go out to work. We do need multiple interests to enrich our lives and many times we have talents that we need to give to the workplace and to the world. But it is true that work on the job is often more attractive because it is more project-oriented and very linear, and at the end of that piece of work you get praise and a sense of accomplishment, whereas at home every day it's the same thing.

Human beings have certain basic needs that have to be taken care of every day, and although we can feel a sense of accomplishment that we have organised something at home, it's soon going to be dirtied again, or another meal is going to have to be put on the table. And this means changing your sense of where you get your satisfaction—not just from accomplishing the task or from the process of doing it, but from the motive. It's because you love your family, because they need you.

MercatorNet: There's a big push on for gender equity, having women and men so equal amounts of market work and home work, including caring roles. Is this an answer to work-life balance?

Mary Hunt:
No, I don't think so. You can't have complete parity in caring for the home, caring for the family. It certainly can be good to have the father more included, but in trying to delineate it very precisely something gets lost. Care is not something that can be broken into pieces. There's no way to legislate it, that's for sure.

MercatorNet: Still, women seem to be straining themselves to have great career options and at the same time a thriving family life. Can we really have it all?

Mary Hunt:
I think we probably can, but not all at once. Over your whole lifetime you could well have a very satisfying balance of work at home and in another career. There may be a certain period in your life where you are very fulfilled in your professional career, but while you are trying to raise children you may need to define "professional success" in a different way. What we've seen, in fact, is that the women who have been the most successful in their careers have chosen not to have so much of a family life. That's been the choice they've made, if they can accept it.

At the same time it would be wonderful if we could find ways for women to take up their careers again after raising children. This is where business and even government can play a role, in structuring the workplace in a way that women can come back into it and contribute again.

MercatorNet: Should employers be scared of people who want to take their home life seriously?

Mary Hunt:
Not at all. I think you have a happier employee if they are someone who is taking family life seriously. If they are very fulfilled in their personal life that positive sense of wanting to contribute will overflow into the workplace. It's also true that when you are very good at what you do and are respected professionally, you have many more opportunities to define non-traditional ways of making work and family duties compatible. People trust you when you want to take flexible time, or want to work from home for a while.

Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet.


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  • Sheila Liaugminas