Why Work-Life Balance Is Bollocks

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It’s no great mystery either, writes Nelly Thomas.

Many of the world’s problems are so incredibly complex that we can’t wrap our heads around them. They seem intractable, desperate and unfathomable – and sometimes they actually are.

More often than not though, we do actually know the solution to our problems, we just don’t like it.

Poverty could be solved by the rich giving to the poor. Homelessness could be solved by building more houses. Racism and sexism could be solved by those with power ceding some. Hunger could be solved by all-you-can-eat buffets in every village. (As an aside, this could be made possible from preventing food wastage alone.)

There’s plenty to go around, and if those with a lot gave to those very little, we’d all have enough. We just don’t want to.

The same applies to work-life balance: we can have it, but some people would have to work less and others would have to work more. (I’m here all week, try the veal.)

I am often asked to speak at conferences and events on health and well-being. I have a long history of combining health promotion with my comedic skills and the areas I’m most often asked to speak on are those that people find uncomfortable – sex, mental health, weight, exercise and even family violence. If it’s done right, comedy is good for hard topics and one thing comedians are good at is opening up taboos. Our work does not allow for shame.

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By far the most common subject I’m asked to speak on is work-life balance.

It has become the “go to” topic for organisations that want to be “proactive” about employee “health and well-being”, especially during Mental Health Week.

I willingly accept these offers. But on the condition that I can say the whole idea is bullshit.

In its purest sense, work-life balance as an idea, is great. It essentially means that individuals have an equitable distribution between the time and energy they spend on their work and the rest of their life. This is good for their health, wellbeing, family and even their productivity.

This understanding of work-life balance recognises that workers are also human who have other things to do like washing, tennis, Minecraft, baking, parasailing and visiting people in hospital (I’m now at that age).

In short – and ironies abound here – it’s kind of the traditional union mantra of 8 hours work, 8 hours rest, 8 hours Netflix.

The problem is that the whole concept has been hollowed from the inside out. Businesses – and other organisations like NGOs that should know better – now use “work-life balance” as short-hand for “manage your own time”. The original intent of achieving balance through society being structured to allow workers time with their families and to pursue other interests, has been replaced by the idea that if individuals over-work they only really have themselves to blame.

Over-worked executives are sent on training courses to learn how to diarise. Under-paid assistants are doing courses about limiting screen time. Academics with classrooms bursting at the seams are being sent on time-management PD Days.

All the while their employers are telling them to work more, with less support. The math just doesn’t add up.

Workers everywhere and, at all levels, are constantly being forced to gain efficiencies after downsizing.

Individuals who feel squeezed or overwhelmed are sent to counselling or on a team building retreat instead of to HR to ask for a pay rise and some time off.

People are staying at work longer, they’re taking work home with them (phones have really screwed us on this front) and many of us are expected to be accessible 24/7, 52 weeks a year.

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When I go away on our yearly family holiday I leave my phone home and put a “GONE FISHING” notice on my email. I come home to literally 100s of emails and voicemails – increasing in desperation – asking where I am and why we can’t talk for a few minutes.

I’m a comedian. There is no joke so urgent that it can’t wait for my return from Ubud, but still, it feels to others like a catastrophic event to have to wait. I can only imagine how hard it must be for those of you who work in real jobs with actual consequences.

Have we all gone mad? Do we not realise that humans need to power-down? Can we not see that while some Australians are working the longest hours in the OECD, others haven’t got enough hours to make ends meet?

Can we heed the warnings about how much illness this is causing?

For all the high-moral-ground about smoking and obesity (and all the other human failings costing the health system) we can’t seem to comprehend the effects of over-work on our hearts (literally) as well as our heads. And that’s to say nothing of our nearest and dearest, including our kids.

Over-work and under-work are destroying us, and work-life balance (as we currently understand it) will help us naught.

I was thinking the other day about my buddy Griffin. He’s a teenager now but when he was a little fella we were at a barbecue with his parents and he walked straight up to his dad and punched him in the nuts. No metaphor – smacked him right in the crown jewels.

At first we all thought he was being naughty but when his dad asked him why he’d hit him, he replied, “I wanted time out.” Griffin was finding the party a bit overwhelming and wanted some time to himself. What he didn’t know (then) was that you can ask for time out; that it doesn’t have to be a punishment.

The same can’t be said for many workers in modern Australia. How many would be well received if they went to their boss and asked for a shorter working day?

What about an extra week of annual leave or some time off to care for a relative?

Hell, most workers aren’t even allowed to LEAVE WORK ON TIME. Who among us hasn’t been in a workplace where those who dare to leave at 5pm are mocked and derided?

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Indeed, some of us are so over-worked that we’ve secretly fantasised about getting sick and going to hospital for a “rest”. Or Prison! And not just for a night with Frankie Doyle, but the thought of a room of one’s own to read, lay down and rest (in between getting shivved in the shower).

That the reality of hospital and prison is, to put it mildly, unpleasant is not the point – the desire for forced (guilt-free) time-out is very real for a lot of people. Meanwhile, there’s a whole bunch of kids wanting to get into the party and being told there’s not enough cake to go around.

Is over-work bad for us? Absolutely. Is un and under-employment at crisis proportions in Australia? Yes.

Is the solution learning how to “prioritise” with post-it notes and Air Tasker? No.

We need to distribute work better and more fairly. Structurally, legally and culturally.

Those over-working need to work less. Those who don’t have enough work need to work more.

But to achieve this we’d have to make rules about who can work when and for how long. We’d have to tell companies they can’t ask people to work at night and have their emails on their phones. We might even have to contemplate the idea of a four day week and/or Universal Basic Income (here’s a little something Nelly prepared earlier – Ed).

Individuals might have to give up being able to buy more stuff and businesses might have to rethink efficiency.

We might even have to collectively bargain. STONE THE BLOODY CROWS.

We know how to get work-life balance but it involves sacrifice for some, gains for others and a whole lot of change.

I can live with us not being prepared to do that, but sweet jesus, can we please stop pretending we don’t know how.

We have the answers, we just don’t like them.

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Nelly Thomas

Nelly Thomas has been described as one of Australia’s most natural comedians. An award-winning performer, she was listed as one of Australia’s “most innovative thinkers” in The Age Newspaper’s, The Zone and was featured on the ABC’s Big Ideas: The Smartest Stuff on TV, Radio and Online. Nelly is a regular guest on ABC Radio and writes extensively in the print and online media. In 2012 she published her first book. Nelly has performed in over sixteen festivals and directed shows by the likes of Maria Bamford and Stella Young. She’s also grown two humans of her own.

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