Over my career I have pondered on this notion of work life balance and what it means for me. The privilege given to women to be who they want to be and to do whatever work they desire is tricky. It is not as simple as it seems and it means making constant choices about how you spend your time. And women are not alone in this. Many men who wish to spend more time with their children or who want to pursue personal goals struggle too.
I started my career in the Royal Australian Air Force in 1983. I married in 1986 and had my first child in 1992. My husband and I had a mortgage at the time and I needed to go back to work when my daughter was three months old. It was tough but I managed. Then my son came along four years later. We were posted to Newcastle and I left the Air Force and joined the public service.
Since then life has just got busier and more challenging. But I decided I didn’t want to be ‘that’ person. You know the one, the person who is always too busy and wears it as a badge of honour.
Trying to be everything to everybody
Early on I tried to be everything to everybody. Suit by day, frilly apron by night. That was a slippery slope to exhaustion and it is not conducive to good health or valuable productivity at work. I am vigilant at making sure I don’t do this to myself but I slip into older ways occasionally. Only recently I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue. My naturopath said, “Doris your adrenal glands have left the building”. The advice she gave me was that if I was to expend energy then I also needed to find ways to recover. This was a wake-up call. She gave me all sorts of fabulous potions to keep me on my feet but the bulk of recovery to get me back to normal adrenal function was up to me.
Let me share some of my tried and tested strategies. I make it my business to be highly organised. I have a favourite saying: ‘Be efficient with things so you can be effective with people’. I use technology and my diary to be efficient. I have a rule that things do not stay in my in tray for more than two days. If you hold things up people cannot get on with their work. I only touch an email once. I either read it and file it, delegate it, action it or put an appointment in my diary to do something like a meeting or phone call. I rarely have more than half a dozen emails in my inbox. This all frees me up to talk to staff, do presentations and do the strategic thinking that is expected of a senior executive.
You may wonder what this has to do with work life balance. It has a lot to do with it because I use my diary to organise my whole life. Time with my hairdresser or remedial massage therapist is as important as a work meeting (unless it is with a Minister of course!). Making time for yourself regardless of its nature ensures that all activities are equally important.
As I have become more senior and the demands on my time increases, these strategies have kept me in good stead. I like to call my approach work-life blending. I only blend when I need to but because I love my job, I don’t necessarily feel like I am working. For instance, I was heading to Sydney on a personal matter and because my husband likes to drive I read two large reports on the way there and the way back. I was only going to be staring out of the window anyhow.
I am not saying work-life balance is not important, but balance just may be the wrong way of describing what we are trying to achieve.
Doris Gibb will be speaking on ‘Resilient leadership: tips on surviving the journey’ at the Public Sector Women in Leadership conference, taking place in Canberra this June. Book soon to secure early bird rates!