Report on Chris Horne’s talk – Fostering Health in the Workplace
Life-work balance – 25 January 2008
We are most grateful to Shepherd and Wedderburn for hosting us. On a day of bad weather, it was super to come into their offices and enjoy their hospitality.
This theme is one which is relevant to all of us at all ages and stages of our career. It was therefore good to have a younger member of the business community giving the talk: someone who has seen the issues as an employee and also as a consultant specialising in HR issues and helping other companies recruit and retain staff.
Chris started with refreshing honesty in admitting up front that, despite standing up to talk on the subject, he did not always get it right when it came to his own life-work balance. He admitted to feeling short on theory but promised a goodly number of practical examples to help understanding. Most of these were centred on his own experience and we appreciated the openness and candour with which Chris shared instances of really quite personal difficult experiences. These started with his beard! The last few weeks had been rather a difficult time for Chris and his wife and he talked of how he had to reassess his priorities under time pressures; shaving dropped down the list – hence his new look. On a more serious note, our speaker highlighted just how much employers can help by being flexible at times such as the ones he has just been through. As a result of his own employer’s understanding and flexibility, Chris remained happy to go in to work and give in fact 110%.
Chris urged us to think about the broad-brush picture. Life-work balance, indeed life-life balance, affects us all as we try to juggle work, family, hobbies, sport, personal time, church connections and voluntary work. If we get it wrong, it can have real consequences for relationships both at work and at home and indeed can lead to mental and physical health issues. He introduced us to the idea of getting the “speech therapy” right – knowing when to say “yes” and when and how to say “no”. In an example from earlier in the week Chris highlighted how constantly saying yes can lead to leaving Edinburgh at 4pm to go to Whitburn for a meeting and thinking, wrongly, that a dinner appointment at 6.30pm back in the capital city should be feasible. He was late…
So how do we get it right? Our speaker asked us to identify our priorities, to understand them and to test them with the stakeholders in our life to see if they can be fulfilled. These stakeholders are our partners, friends, employers – those who know us and can see from outside how we are managing our time. Chris shared with us a period a few years ago when his life was speeding along at full throttle on many parallel tracks only, in his own words, “to come to a juddering halt”. This, he said, had been a salutary lesson to him and he was now very watchful of keeping the correct balance in his life. He also shared the example of how a close family member, terminally ill, taught him greatly how to identify the real priorities: time for a family holiday, time for renewing relationships, time for “kicking the leaves” as many of us did as children. We need to take the opportunities we have to slow down, to communicate, to find the good things in life and follow them up.
Chris outlined his way of working to achieve the correct life-work balance:
- Look at what is important for us. Part of many of our jobs is to generate project plans for others. Do we do that for our own lives? Do we know where we are going and how we are going to get there?
- Identify the compromises that we need to make in order to balance our priorities. If these compromises are not acceptable, then perhaps we should reassess whether the goal we have is correct. We need to revisit and review the goal and priorities regularly; things change all the time.
- Listen to the key stakeholders in our life: our partner, our friends, our colleagues. Listen to them even when we may not particularly like them.
- Recognise that the key to this is ownership. Phrases such as “If only HR didn’t produce procedures like these, life would be so much easier” are not reasons, but rather excuses. We need to take ownership / responsibility in the short and long term.
- Finally, learn our own triggers and, when they flag up a problem, take action and do it quickly.
What if we are managers or employers? If this is who we are, Chris stated that we cannot wash our hands of this life balance issue. Legislation such as the European Working Time Directive, although sometimes cumbersome, is there for a reason and reminds us of our responsibilities. So how do we set the scene and the standards for those who work for us?
- We do this by the policies we put in place and also by the example we ourselves set. So what kind of example are we in fact setting?
- He further challenged us about the expectations we place on our staff, to do with travel for example; is the amount of travel involved perhaps putting undue pressure on home life?
- How much do we feed back to, and get input from, our staff? Performance Review and Appraisal, rather than being an annual run through a list of misdemeanours, should note past performance but be much more about how our staff are doing, what their career development aspirations are (inside or outside our companies!), and how we can support them – incl in their life-work balance.
- Do our staff take their holidays so that they can unwind and then return to work refreshed and ready to contribute at a high level? We, as managers, should “enforce the positive” here and insist they take their quota of holidays.
Chris concluded by saying that life-work balance is not the same for everyone. We need to figure out what’s right for each of us as individuals, then think about this and review how our ever-changing world is affecting us. We have to recognise that some of us are not very good at policing ourselves effectively and so need to find someone we trust who can be open and honest with us – not judging us but calling us to account within our own boundaries. Finally, Chris said he had never tried this but wondered whether it might work to impose on ourselves a system of good or bad consequences – for instance, a week’s washing up vs. a bar of our favourite chocolate!
From the floor came this question: “How do you say ‘no’ to people when you feel this will be letting them down?” Chris suggested that if our natural way of working is by being a “relationship” person, then this can be very difficult. However, we should try to stop before we just say ‘yes’ and first work through the consequences of saying ‘no’. Often, applying this simple test allows us to realise that a refusal in a particular instance will result in nothing more than minor inconvenience for someone rather than a major problem.
A second question was asked: “If we see colleagues getting stressed, what should we do? Should we say anything or not?” Chris commented that, from an employee’s perspective, work may seemingly be a sanctuary, or they may feel they are coping – just – and thus may not welcome interest like that. Having said that, he noted that a stressed person often raises barriers to protect themselves, so really what we should do as a colleague and friend is to be there for the person and to signal this. Be interested, offer the opportunity to talk, do so in the correct sort of environment which allows someone to move beyond the standard response of “fine” when we ask how they are, and be ready to hear the reply. There is not one standard answer but getting to really know our colleagues helps immensely. “Be a friend,” stays in mind.
On that positive note it was our pleasure to thank Chris for giving of his time and effort to help us better understand the matter of life-work balance.
For two other angles on the same subject, we would recommend you look at the report on Antonia Swinson’s talk to us in 2007, and Ruth Walker’s talk in September 2008.
Consultant to business matters