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Work life balance: does it exist?

by Liz Marchant

The number of mums returning to work after having children has grown steadily over the past two decades. The percentage of Australian parent couples with children under 18 where both parents work has risen from 53 per cent in 1996 to 61 per cent in 2016.[1]

This is down to many factors: an increase in the number of women entering tertiary education; the rising cost of living and house prices that deem it necessary for many Australian households to have two incomes; and major advances in technology that let us work remotely.

Baby Boomers and many Generation Xers will still remember a time when they didn’t have a work email address, let alone a smart device or access to the cloud. Today, working from anywhere has become pretty standard for knowledge workers, meaning we can be just as productive from the dining room or study as we are in the boardroom or office.

This has meant that the focus for many mums has shifted from whether or not they can work to the desire to achieve so-called work-life balance.

Many women have mastered it but, as a recent article in The Australian proves, many of us have not, and many do not believe it’s even possible, judging from the hundreds of responses to that article from working mums.

After all, while technology lets us work flexibly, it also means that work follows us home. We’re always connected, contactable, accountable, and it’s hard to switch off. With this mind, here are a few ideas that might help you achieve more of a balance between work and family life:

Set strict boundaries
Once you get home, it’s tempting to check work emails, make a few last-minute phone calls or worry about something that happened during the day. Set some guidelines; ones that you know are sustainable. For some, that will mean no checking emails once you leave the office while for others it might mean no checking emails or taking calls between 5pm and 7.30pm. You can always check your emails once your children are asleep, so you be fully engaged while your children are awake.

Talk to your employer
If you feel like you could achieve a better balance by working flexibly (whether that means working from home or different/fewer hours), then have this conversation with your employer sooner rather than later. Do your research, then set out your proposed work schedule including how you will still be able to meet your employer’s objectives. At the same time, set boundaries and make it clear if you will not be contactable during certain hours. Many employers today are open to staff working flexibly.

Check out our article for further advice on ‘Understanding how to approach your employer about flexible work’.

Leave work at work
It’s not always easy but, wherever possible, try to leave work at work both physically and mentally. If you’re worrying about work, it will affect your ability to enjoy quality time with your family. Raising Children has some tips to help you put work to rest once you’re finished for the day. These include using public transport to wind down between work and home, and having a ritual such as changing out of work clothes to mark the move from worker to parent.

Having a ritual in place to mark the end of work and the start of family time is especially important if you work from home, as boundaries become more blurred.

Organise your day the night before
A common feeling for parents who are juggling work and raising a family is that everything is piling on top of them. Taking 10 minutes at the end of each day to plan your to-do list for tomorrow can go a surprisingly long way to making you feel more organised and in control. Likewise, try and get a few things for the family ready the night before (or if they are old enough engage them in getting themselves ready). If you can pack lunch boxes and school bags, and lay out clothes (for them and you) the night before, you will feel less stressed in the morning and start the day on a more positive note.

Stay connected
Do whatever you can to feel connected to your kids when you can. This could be as simple as looking at a photo or video, checking in with them via text, or a quick call once they finish school. For parents of little ones, most daycare centres now have apps and will upload photos and information regularly about what the children have been up to that day. This is helpful for connecting with them when you get home and asking about their day.

Banish guilt
It’s very common for parents to experience guilt.  If you’re constantly worrying about work when you’re with your family, and feeling guilty for not being with them when you’re working, it will be very difficult to achieve a sense of balance. Try to remind yourself of what benefit(s) your child will get from you working. This may be extra-curricular activities that they enjoy, a good education, or even just a saner parent who’s more grateful for family time than if she wasn’t working.

Work-life balance means something different for everyone. We hope these simple ideas go a little way to helping you find yours.

[1] https://aifs.gov.au/facts-and-figures/work-and-family