‘All or nothing’: finding a balance between work and life


Jobs take precedence over lifestyle for majority of British Columbians, according to poll

If you’re hoping that B.C.’s newly minted Family Day is going to make a significant change in the way your work-life balance teeters or totters, think again.

One day, however lovely, will not solve this vexing issue. Even trying to resolve it can be stress-inducing, a matter of trade-offs or sacrifices. Family or work? Mental health or a healthy bank account? Success or children?

A new poll released by Insights West just ahead of this statutory holiday reveals that for a majority of British Columbians, work takes precedence over lifestyle. Pollsters talked to 541 employed adults in B.C. and looked at respondents by age group. Work comes first for 55 per cent of workers, whether it be Boomers, gen-Xers or gen-Ys.

The conundrum, of course, is that if there’s no work, there’s not going to be much “lifestyle.” In an expensive city like Vancouver, scaling back on the work hours just might mean packing up and leaving, or at least packing up that dream of home ownership.

Work is most consuming to the youngest workers. Generation Y, those born between 1982 and 2004, stay late at work most often and miss more social engagements due to work, with gen-Xers (around 1965 to early 1980s) and Baby Boomers (roughly 1946 to 1964) close behind, according to the results. Younger workers tend to toil over more weekends and regularly answer emails and cellphone calls when with family and friends. One in four Boomers (26 per cent) did not have to do any of these things. Only 10 per cent of gen-Xers and 7 per cent of gen-Ys are free of work that follows them home.

Sylvia Fuller (a gen-Xer) an associate professor in sociology at University of B.C. who specializes in work, labour and social policy, doesn’t have to cite research to open the conversation. She’s living the work-life balance challenge. The mother of a three-year-old knows she can’t have it all. Her professional success depends on her level of commitment, her presence and her ongoing research and publications.
“There is no second track,” she explains. “It’s all or nothing. If you have spent years of your life preparing for something, it’s hard to pull back. You can choose to work 75 per cent of the time, but you will find yourself marginalized.”

Fuller points out that for shift workers and those in the service industry, the problems are even more challenging. Shift workers often don’t know their schedules in advance, blue collar workers face high expectations of unscheduled overtime and retail workers are scheduled for work during what used to be leisure and family time: evenings and weekends.

“Unstable work and not knowing if you are going to have enough work or when you are going to get called in means you may not be able to have regular child care,” says Fuller.Men feel the conflict too. Family and parental responsibility pressures no longer fall primarily on women. “Expectations on men have increased. I have much higher expectations on my partner than my mother did on my father, and men want to be involved with their families. At the same time men feel pressure to conform to a traditional breadwinner role. Often men increase their hours of work to compensate economically for their partner’s lower earnings during maternity leave.”

“There is a downside to working people too hard,” says Fuller. “We learned this during the Industrial Revolution. High-performance work environments are not sweatshops but expectations have been ratcheted up, and expectations of the way we are supposed to be involved with our families has ratcheted up too. The result is really difficult for people.”

The high-test, career track first appeared to offer Masa Takei the life he wanted. But the glow eventually wore off.

Born in Japan and raised in Canada, Takei’s MBA from McGill set him into the corporate world as a management consultant in Tokyo, Montreal and Vancouver. Hired by companies that wanted to solve a problem or pursue a business opportunity, his work included everything from arranging financing for international waterways to wind energy implementation plans for countries.

His closet was full of fashionable suits.

But along the way, he lost interest in what he was doing. It got so bad that on Sundays, he often dreaded going to work on Mondays. He was in his mid-30s and wondered if his future could be different.

“I thought: ‘If I do this for another 30 years, will I be happy how I spent that part of my life?’”

The answer was no. He decided to become a freelance writer – something he had been thinking about for years.

Initially, it was tough living on poverty-level wages. But eventually he started to write for magazines, and now makes a decent living at what he wants to do.

He was, as he said, “looking down the barrel of 40” when asked himself what was important to him. He always wanted to build a cabin by himself, so that’s what he did. He moved to the northern edge of Haida Gwaii, built a cabin with a chainsaw and hammer, lived off the grid, and learned to how to hunt and surf. Takei said he had a great time.

After two years of roughing it, Takei is now back in Vancouver. He doesn’t feel like he has yet achieved the best balance between work and life. As a freelance writer, he is always working to meet deadlines and taking on work simply to make money.

“Having said that, I feel really lucky to live the way I do,” said Takei, now 42.

“In theory, I could pick and choose the way I spend my time. I feel privileged to be able to live this kind of lifestyle (and) be so flexible that I could go up to Haida Gwaii and dedicate a couple of years to living in a way that most people down here who are locked into a career would really never have the opportunity to do.”

For most of us stuck in the conventional work work, new challenges to the work-life juggle are driven by new technologies — smartphones, tablets and iPads mean we are connected to our work in ways that we never were before.

Lawyer Catherine Sas (a Boomer) — a partner with Miller Thomson, parent of two teens and former chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s work-life balance committee — says a work-life balance has long been the No. 1 thing members of her profession have identified they want. “It’s not making partner, not bigger billings.”

After 25 years in the legal profession, Sas says little has changed. If anything, the new technology has made it more challenging. A Friday night phone call can’t be returned Monday morning. “If you don’t get back to a client in 24 hours they are screaming at you,” she says with good humour.

Sas took a 2 ½-week holiday last summer. “Never again.”

The work she had to do on the front end and the back end of that holiday was too much. “It was too stressful. I said I was going to put away my BlackBerry. I didn’t so I wouldn’t have several thousand to deal with when I got back.”Sociologists have begun to coin new terms, if only because work-life “balance” seems, well, an impossibly futile pursuit. “Work-life effectiveness” and “work-life flow” are two new ways of defining solutions to an old problem.

Christine Riordan, writing in the Harvard Business Review, suggests that “we should put everything in the same container and create a coherent narrative — doing so can reduce work-life separation” and also reduce “negative spillover.”

If you stop fantasizing about separating your work and life, you may have fewer resentments, less burnout and a more integrated sense of your life.

It’s a strategy that Sas employs. She ran her own firm for 20 years and brought her babies to work with her. “It’s about tailoring something that fits for you.” If she had to go to a meeting in Ottawa, she took her kids and the nanny and made it into a holiday. Long hours on planes became quality time.

Companies such as Best Buy have tried innovative strategies to help encourage this kind of crossover, with mixed success. The innovative human resources scheme dubbed the “Results Only Work Environment” focused on “performance, not presence,” no schedules and no mandatory meetings as long as the returns and results were good. Introduced in 2005 and lauded as a new way of empowering employees and encouraging employee engagement, you could attend a meeting from a beach in Hawaii via your smartphone. The program was kiboshed in 2013 when business began to suffer. All hands were called to the deck.For Global News Edmonton’s meteorologist Nicola Crosbie (generation X), it’s all about flow. “My life and my work have become one. Because I have a public job on television, my job exists in the grocery store, at the gym, in my kids’ school. I am an ambassador for the company I work for and a personal point person for the weather.”

A single mother of two girls, aged 10 and 11, Crosbie starts her day at 6 a.m. She broadcasts weather on the radio from home while getting the girls fed, clothed and out the door to the school bus. She starts at the television station at 11 a.m. and doesn’t get home until 7 p.m. A part-time nanny helps.

“What I miss most is family time,” she says. “Having quiet, pleasurable activities that I don’t feel pressured to do. I very rarely just while away a day.”

Compared to her parents, however, Crosbie sees improvement. “My mother worked seven days a week because they owned a restaurant. I never saw her have down time. I’m only 12 years away from the age she was when she died. I feel scared that I don’t allow myself the quiet pleasures, but no one is making me do what I’m doing. I’m driving myself.”

Crosbie says she has the energy to work hard now. “I want to make hay while the sun shines.”

Still, Crosbie has made changes both professionally and personally to make it work, including a move from Vancouver to Edmonton, where she gets more bang for her buck in the real estate market. She has also, reluctantly, given up the pleasures of hands-on greengrocer foodie shopping in favour of a once-a-month Big Box grocery shop. “I take the girls, they pick their things for lunches, and we make it a family outing.”

It’s a compromise, and she’s making it work.

Crosbie is working in what Fuller calls “an all-or-nothing job,” the kind of profession that you can’t do part-time. Although it may look better than being underemployed, this type of profession has its drawbacks.

“For people in the all-or-nothing jobs you can’t just say, ‘I’m going to take half my salary and work half-time.’ If you want to maintain your standing in your profession, you have to be there.”

Emergency room physician Michael Holloway also has an all-or-nothing job. The demands of shift work creep into his off-days as his sleep work schedule is disrupted. Holloway says one of the trade-offs may be having a shorter career. “Shift work kills you.” Holloway, who has no kids, says he practices moderation in his spending. He’s not shackled to a mortgage and he doesn’t drive a luxury car.

“If you want to have better life balance and work less, you’re going to earn less,” he says. “It doesn’t have to mean lower expectations. It’s just different expectations.”

Holloway, like Crosbie, is “making hay while the sun shines,” illustrating a point that UBC sociologist Phyllis Johnson makes. “People often interpret work-life balance as something they should have on a regular basis. It’s better to think of it over a long term (rather) than on a day-to-day basis.”

There will be times when employers, or our own families, will make inflexible demands.

“If you think about fairness, try to see it as balancing out overtime, like housework. It’s unrealistic to try and measure it as 50/50.”
Fifty-fifty may be impossible to achieve, but Christian Codrington of the BC Human Resources Management Association says employers are deeply concerned about their employees’ work-life balance. “There is pressure on the old-school management to change.”

Demographics are in play: Old ways used by longtime managers are being phasing out through retirement and younger workers have more complex needs.

“We have a generation different than before, being more involved in elder care and child care while still working. It’s not Don Draper (of TV series Mad Men) with a wife sitting at home prepared to make him a martini when he walks in the door.”

Codrington says change is driven by the need companies have to thrive. “It’s not about happy employees. In order to be successful they need their staff to be at their best,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s about success for the company. It’s about creating a context where people can do their best.”


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Photograph: Jason Payne, VANCOUVER SUN