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Our most recent City Women event has focused on “Work-life balance or imbalance?”. There’s been a lot of response to this event from the network, confirming that this is a live issue for many of us. Thanks to Patricia Wright and Amy Tabari from Gowling WLG for leading our discussion as well as hosting our meeting. Trish is an Associate in the commercial property team at Gowlings, where she has worked for 13 years; Amy has been with Gowlings for 8 years, first as a Senior Associate in the commercial property team and now as Corporate Responsibility Manager, focusing on community investment.

Some people challenge the phrase “work-life balance”, preferring “life-work balance” or “work-life integration”. When we talk about balance, it’s easy to think of scales – If there’s imbalance, take a little bit off this side and add it to the other side. But for most of us, it’s not quite as simple as two elements – “work” on the one hand and “life” on the other. We may we have a range of demands/responsibilities alongside our work. And it’ll be different for each of us.

What else is in the mix and important to you, alongside work at this stage of life?  What are the key demands and responsibilities that you shoulder at this stage?

For Trish, the mix includes quiet time with God, church commitments as a pastoral care deacon, two sons aged 20 and 13 and her parents – and she aims to fit in a bit of singing and exercise for herself too. Amy’s two children are just 5 and 3; and for her, it’s also important to make time for God, to carve out some time with her husband who works long hours and to keep in touch with family who are at a distance, as well as to have some time for exercise.

For each of us, it will be a different blend of responsibilities – it’s not “one size fits all” and there are no “right” patterns. But it’s important for us all to acknowledge that there are other things that matter alongside our work – and to look at what this means for work-life balance.

How does work-life balance look for you on a good day? And on a bad day?

For Trish, a good day will involve 6-7 hours sleep, knowing what she’s cooking for the family meal in the evening, getting through a realistic action list at work and being able to leave on time so that she can honour any evening commitments she’s made.

Amy moved from a fee-earning role to a business support role. For her, as a Senior Associate in the Commercial Property team and a mother of two, she realised that on a good day she was working to maximum capacity, without flex – so she couldn’t take the normal levels of stress. As she began to recognise that she was overstretched, she had to take a step back and evaluate her priorities. She spoke to a Life Coach, who encouraged her to map out the perfect day/week/month/year. She realised that this involved friends, family, doing well at work and having time for some exercise – and it felt realistic, rather than a pipe dream. So Amy had to evaluate honestly the impact on salary and time, status in being a solicitor and career expectations, knowing that she did not want to end up “dabbling” at work. She was fortunate to have the opportunity of a 12 month secondment, to test out the fit of a move to a Corporate Responsibility role.

It’s important to be able to step back and recognise the signs of being overstretched. If things feel unsustainable, it may be important to step back and review/evaluate. What are the things we are in control of and can change? Sometimes changes are significant; and sometimes a small change can make a big difference.

What makes for a sustainable work-life balance?

For Trish, the only way is to put God first – and then everything else will fall into place. It’s possible to be busy doing things for God, without putting God first. Her prayer life and walk with God comes first – that’s central; family life comes next; and if both of those are in order, she can concentrate on her work.

For Amy, one important element is managing her phone and emails to maintain proper space when it’s a non-working day – and that’s helped by her job-share, which means someone else is available on days when she is not working. Another element is having trusted space to step back and notice the balance, recognising what’s helpful and what increases stress. And it’s also important to know yourself and acknowledge your own tolerances: other people can engage creatively with a pattern which may not work for me.

What other elements are important? Our discussions named various factors, including:
• Sleep
• Being willing to ask for help – at work or elsewhere
• Trusted communication, at work and beyond.
• Flexibility and a willingness to make changes, recognising that patterns may need to change over time.
• “Agency”, recognising the choices we can make and the things we can change.

There’s no single right way – we’re all different – and we need to know ourselves and listen to the heartbeat of our own lives. What’s been creative and sustainable in the past may need to change, in big or small ways, as life move on.

And for anyone interested in a Christian framework which has been used over the centuries to stand back and review the day, at the end of each day, here’s the information on the “Examen” or “Examination Prayer”. 

Work-Life Balance Blessing
Bless us in balancing our work
and our other commitments and responsibilities in life.
When competing demands leave us feeling overstretched,
bless us in discerning the path forwards,
and in rediscovering a sustainable balance.
Bless us with space to face the honest reality of
our work and life today and as we journey forwards,
noticing the flow of life and love
at work and beyond.