Walking the Work-Life Tightrope

Many, if not all, of us are constantly trying to attain work-life balance, but in this day and age we all have so many things to juggle.

In addition to work we have relationships to tend to, side projects to amuse and challenge us, and the extra hours of sleep we wish we were getting.

We think a work-life balance will fix all of our problems, but try as we may, it often seems impossible to attain the balance we desire.

On Tuesday September 27, Dr. Dawna Ballard gave a talk entitled “Talk About Time: Why we Fail at Work-Life Balance,” which offered some insight into how we can take steps to achieve this elusive state. Ballard, an Associate Professor in the Moody College of Communications at the University of Texas, Austin, studies time as it is bound to human communication, otherwise known as chronemics.

“Time [is] part of every culture’s silent language… There [are] rules that people understood, but couldn’t articulate, and it was part of these very deep, hidden assumptions” Ballard told audiences, citing the work of anthropologist Edward Hall.

“In a day and age when the stresses associated with time are felt so deeply, the challenge with having hidden assumptions is: one, we confuse what is a hidden assumption as truth because we haven’t interrogated it, we haven’t had a conversation about it.”

Thus one of the reasons it may be difficult to achieve work-life balance is because we assume certain things about time, and treat time in a particular way.

“We go through a lot to make time all look the same, but from a chronemic standpoint let’s think about that. If you receive a call from you parent at 2 p.m. versus 2 a.m. [what] is the meaning of that call when you see their name on your caller ID on your phone? That’s not the same, right?” Ballard explained.

“All times literally are not the same in terms of their meaning for us, they might be on a clock, there both times of the day, but in terms of what happens it’s a really big difference.”

While a consistent, objective view of time may have been a good model for management in factories during the industrial revolution, Ballard believes the way we work has changed greatly.

Today our work unfolds more through the events and people around us, again supporting the notion that all times are not the same. Less and less people are on assembly lines. My weeks are defined by the meetings, classes, seminars, and lab work I do as well as the people who are present or absent for these events.

After laying this foundation, Ballard went on to present a study she conducted in which she interviewed low wage earners, middle wage earners, and high wage earners of differing genders and ages.

She reported that many low wage workers hadn’t even heard the term work-life balance before, and those who had said it was something “just for managers.”

Middle and high wage earners, on the other hand, said they went through a lot to try to achieve work life balance, but never felt as though they had fully achieved it.

“The kinds of messages that [the term work life balance] sends is kind of problematic.

“We know that it’s really from an industrial model and that it’s not this emancipatory discourse that’s helping every one because if it was it would be talked about for everyone.”

Ballard went on to say, “This whole idea I think about balance that’s also challenging is that since no one knew what in the world it was no one knew exactly how to achieve it.”

Instead of thinking about balance, Ballard suggests we think in terms of alignment. To her “balance” represents something that is mechanistic and binary, but the concept of alignment is more dynamic. Instead of balancing work and life on scales and trying to make them completely equal, she suggests we think about being on a tightrope.

As you move across the rope sometimes you are balanced and sometimes you are unsteady, but you’re always moving forward. And what’s important to keeping your balance is listening to your body and aligning it with the rope.

This scenario helps convey the concept that you’re not always in alignment and that’s okay, but in the long term (walking across the whole tightrope) you will need to achieve alignment again otherwise you will fall.

With this image firmly planted in our minds, Ballard came back to her point that all times are not the same, stressing that there are different practices and tools you will need to use to help support or realign you at different times.

Additionally, these tools will be different for different people. When the audience was asked what practices they use to support themselves during a time of commotion, for instance, the answers ranged from just breathing, to drinking coffee, to listening to five minutes of music.

Several parts of Ballard’s talk really resonated with me. It was reassuring to hear that it truly is okay not to be balanced or aligned all the time.

The belief that you can juggle everything going on in your life perfectly is unrealistic, and yet it is a fantasy we are often fed. Now I feel comfortable with the thought that I will wobble on the tightrope sometimes because if I listen to my body, eventually I will become realigned.

This talk also reiterated that it’s okay to not always be in control. You can make a to-do list and communicate about what you need to complete these tasks, but ultimately you can’t control the people and events around you.

For me this may mean being kinder to myself when an experiment fails and recognizing that, although not on my to-do list, troubleshooting is part of the process.

Ballard’s talk also offered some useful tools for helping you stay aligned or realign. The one that was most useful for me was considering events on different time scales. For example, I’d like to be running three times a week, but when I have a heavy workload I have to re-prioritize.

If I focus on the fact that I am not running as often as I would like, I will just end up feeling frustrated. But if instead I change the time scale to a month and set a number of runs to do in that time — going more often when my workload is lighter and not feeling guilty about not going when my workload is heavy — then I’ve created a more attainable goal.

While Ballard’s talk offered new perspectives and tools I can use personally for in-the-moment relief, the talk lacked solutions for changing the broader institutional culture surrounding work-life balance.

While UCSF appears to support balance amongst students, staff, and faculty through sponsoring talks like this one and emphasizing the existence of work-life balance resources, there are definitely some mixed messages.

“There is no 9 to 5 when it comes to advancing health" proclaims an ad adorning the side of several of UCSF’s shuttles. The picture accompanying the text is a through-the-window shot of a woman working alone in lab at night, giving off the impression that UCSF is surreptitiously spying on her.

While to others this ad may convey UCSF’s great dedication to advancing health, to me it suggests that I should be working “into the wee hours” (as the ad also states) to advance health, although potentially at the detriment of my own.

“When you say your work has work-life friendly policies everyone says, ‘Oh, great!’” said Ballard.

“But if they [the institutions] were really interested they would talk about their time polices, the details. Because work-life policies are never used. Most people don’t take advantage of their vacation time or their leave time or their sick time.

“[So the policies] are there as a message to say we care because we know what this means and everyone loves that term, but if you really were to say let’s just look at the time, how many hours does the average person work here. That would be a better measure. That and do people take vacation time.”