The issue of work-life balance has recently been highlighted in a number of global health discussions. For example, earlier this year, the Wellcome Trust quite publicly explored whether to introduce a 4-day working week (but decided against this). The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation introduced a 52-week paid parental leave (but then halved this again). Employers are increasingly concerned about their ability to recruit, retain and support (the productivity of) employees – including by taking into account their mental and physical health.
In this Q&A blog, Pragati Hebbar (a public health professional and mother of a four-year old in Bengaluru, India), Katri Bertram (working in global health and mother of four children in Berlin, Germany), Shehnaz Munshi (a public health professional from South Africa) and Guillermo Hegel (a public health professional, head of the Health Department of the municipality of Villa Nueva Guatemala, and father of a 12-year old boy) offer four different regional perspectives on the issue of work-life balance based on their personal experiences working in global health. They have framed the issue not just as finding a balance between work vs. e.g. childcare. By using a concept of work-life joy they also unpack structural barriers to work-life joy. Whereas work-life balance is often defined by employers as a way to ensure employee productivity and satisfaction, work-life joy also addresses issues such as fulfillment, quality and purposefulness. The authors call for increased public discussion on this important issue by both employers and people working in global health, and have initiated a call to action using the hashtag #worklifejoy.
We hope you all weigh in on this important issue, by sharing some of your own experiences and ‘good practices’ (as well as perhaps not so good practices) in this regard.
Is there such a thing as #worklifejoy and how would you define it?
Pragati: To me #worklifejoy is an ideal state of mind when work and life co-exist and neither impinges on the other. It is possible but one needs to be constantly aware and strive to strike the right balance. With growth in professional and personal tracks, achieving and maintaining this ‘ideal state’ gets all the more challenging.
Katri: #Worklifejoy for me means finding not only a healthy balance between the time and energy I spend on work vs. “the rest of life”, but also spending this time as a whole in a way that is fulfilling. It’s easier to give an example of a week or month that is not #worklifejoy: extremely long, hectic work weeks that do not allow for much time for anything else (even enough sleep) and do not lead to any results, combined with managing the logistics of a household with four children during what should be my sleep hours.
Shehnaz: South Africa is a complex context shaped by our histories and diverse lived experiences. The experiences of women of colour working in academia (and in South African schools of public health) are mediated by the historical hangover of the past where academic spaces were not designed for us (see here ). Instead, apartheid structurally discriminated against the majority black population and people of colour in favour of those who are from the white minority settler group. Furthermore, work spaces in South Africa favour men over other genders as they function within oppressive patriarchal norms. Twenty-five years after the fall of political Apartheid, women of colour who occupy positions of leadership often experience “imposter syndrome”, where our very presence is a disruption to the norm. ( see here ) Many of us are required to work double or triple hard to achieve similar gains as those historically advantaged. There is a feeling that the playing field is not level, especially when the standards by which success is measured functions on a global stage, in the form of publications, tenured positions at university, conference attendance, publications and proximity to those who hold positions of power. Given the complex context in South Africa, the debate shifts away from individuals striving towards work-life balance. Instead, we need to embrace the complexities of multiple demands at work and at home that require difficult choices and compromises. In this context, ideas of fulfilment, quality, and purposefulness become significant and essential factors that contribute towards productivity and satisfaction.
Guillermo: I do believe #worklifejoy is possible, nevertheless it is important to identify what work means, what life is about and how it is linked to what we understand by joy. As prescribed by mainstream occidental culture, work is an essential activity or effort put in to achieve a purpose or result; this often involves a reward such as a monetary payment. From my point of view, work is also an opportunity to fulfill your purpose in life. When it is possible to merge these two ideas, then it is feasible to enjoy work. Motivation, purpose, impact and the feeling of success while working, is key to enjoy work. Is it possible to define it? Probably only when you have discussed what work means and how to pursue joy while working. Being aware of the importance of enjoying what you do, is a relevant step forward and could help to shape your environment positively.
Why is it important for an employer to be thinking of these issues?
Guillermo: Coincidentally this blog started around the same time as the performance evaluation we did in the health department of Villa Nueva. One of the questions asked to the staff during these feedback sessions was: ‘How can the municipality and the health department support you better to be happier while performing your job?’ At the beginning I thought that in a “scarce” environment like a municipal department, such a question would be considered as too idealistic or disruptive, but after deeper conversations with the staff, many arguments were raised and it turned out they had a positive attitude towards the question, in general. The need of stability at work, payment on time, better infrastructure, sufficient supplies, and even better procedures and protocols to support the staff were mentioned. Lastly, it seems this kind of question also helps to humanize the employment relations within the public administration, improving the interaction and consequently increasing the interest of both parties towards better performance.
Katri: Staff that are only given space to work will at some point burn out, especially if work repeatedly eats into sleep or recuperation time. And at some point in their careers and lives, most people want to or simply have to find time for their families, friends, hobbies or civic engagement. An employer that does not support that space and enable that balance will find staff walking with their feat – to another employer who does. What is equally important for employers is to ensure staff retain their joy in working. It’s not only about enabling “the rest of life” to provide energy and joy for work, but making sure that work itself is rewarding and provides energy in return. Anyone with childcare or political engagement knows those areas of life are hard work too, and require support.
Pragati: Employees, their passion and commitment is the greatest resource an employer can have. To ensure that people are able to cope with work and life, employers can try big and small measures depending on their contexts. Supportive measures can go a long way in motivating employees to give their best at work while enjoying a fulfilling life beyond work. The improved morale in the personal and professional tracks can complement and feed into each other.
Shehnaz: Employers in post-colonial contexts need to understand that employees face unique challenges. Some of these challenges stem from historical trauma, internalized oppression current financial hardship and challenging social contexts. Given that South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, inequities continue to exist along racial lines, gender, income, rural vs urban, language, education, land ownership and many other factors. These factors influence the opportunities people have access to, and they influence the different opportunities people have the means to take advantage off. Employees need to invest resources towards the creation of a supportive work environment, taking into account differing levels of marginality and barriers. On a practical level, this means changing systems and structure that result in: nurturing a safe space for honest conversations, creating growth and training opportunities especially for those previously disadvantaged, ensuring that employees have access to the resources to be productive. Employees need to addressing inequities such as the gender wage gap. Employees need to be fairly remunerated, especially in a context where those who earn often have many who rely on them for financial support. Women carry the bulk of child care responsibilities and employees need to respect people’s lives outside work – by creating flexible working hours and realistic key performance targets. Employers need to constantly evaluate the needs of employees to reach their full potential and to increase their productivity and satisfaction.
Is this issue relevant to having impact in public / global health? How?
Pragati: Work-life balance is definitely going to have a huge impact, and more so in public health as the days get longer and demands unending; a burnout is often far closer than it may seem. In fact the field of public health is best placed to recognize, prioritize and mobilize some action toward elevating the status of (the issue of) work-life balance.
Katri: The issue is definitely not prioritized in the SDGs. The only SDG3 (health) target on work relates to training and retaining the health workforce (3.9), although work-life balance and in particular burnout could fall under promotion of mental health and wellbeing (3.4). SDG8 (work) targets do not refer to work-life balance, and SDG5 (gender) includes shared domestic responsibilities (5.4), a key factor why women in many societies are still affected disproportionately by double shifts (employment and childcare/household). However, a poor work-life balance resulting in burnout or exiting our sector means we have less productive people working in global and public health in all countries – no matter what income level.
Shehnaz: There are mental health implications to consider if the health and wellness of people are not considered. Work life takes up a large portion of people’s lives and influences stress and anxiety. Healthy and supportive work environments are critical to our overall well-being.
Guillermo: I believe it depends on the point of view from which you are looking at the work-life balance. On the one hand, we can consider only numbers of performance or the achievement of goals and results; conversely, the aim would be to find out which are the issues affecting the performance of the staff and why they do so, leading to a more human discussion and seeking for answers to self-determination, growth and reflection. Different scenarios can be put forward in which the staff could perform better and find better solutions.
What have been some of your experiences that supported you in ensuring a work-life balance?
Shehnaz: What is essential for women of colour to recognise, is that our experiences are not “self imposed” but rather, they operate within a system. South African has faced a scourge of experiences of gender based violence within social justice NGOs, reflecting the reality that women in South Africa cannot assume that work spaces are safe for them. Instead, women need to understand how power, especially the hidden powers operates to prop certain people up and keep others down. Particularly in South Africa this requires an examination of the nexus of gender, race and class as key drivers of inequity, and how these intersect with mental health and labour practices. We need to acknowledge that a common feeling of disempowerment exists and that a large amount of emotional work is required to cope with it. Understanding these dynamics also allows women of colour an opportunity to resist, push back in order to claim space, and assert our opinions. On a personal level, understanding these dynamics has helped me make sense of my experiences and protect myself from harmful experiences. Sometimes, these lessons have come through difficult experiences. I love this quote by Audre Lorde who helped me realise that self care is not a luxury, it is essential for survival. She says: “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”. This statement required me to examine deeper questions about meaning, purpose and values. I believe that women of colour need to embark on a deliberate process of unlearning – unlearning the imposed social constructs that define us and create unrealistic measures of success. In this way, feelings of anxiety, stress, burnout can be can be understood from a structural level and strategies to cope with them can be found. On a practical level, what does this means for women of colour? We need to recreate a personal idea of what success looks like in ways that are achievable, and acknowledge your many identities and life roles. (see feminist killjoys ). We need to be patient and kind to ourselves and recognise our achievements. We need to listen to our internal narrative, and recognise when we put ourselves down. We need to recognise that feeling of guilt and shame often serve to harm ourselves. We need create boundaries (for example, no work on weekends, and taking lunch breaks).
Katri: I have to admit that I rarely thought about work-life balance until I was in my 30s. When I had my third child, I suddenly became unsure whether any employer would even support me balancing my life with three children under the age of 5 with work. A supportive employer (and direct manager) has been absolutely key. And as my career picked up pace, with increasing responsibility and workload, having a partner who covers our children when my job needed it has been critical. But even that is not enough for #worklifejoy. The third critical aspect has been flexibility, both within my job and outside, so that I can decide when I can catch up on simple necessities such as sleep, and when I may also need some time outside of work and childcare.
Pragati: With a four-year old child managing work and life has been an interesting journey. Pre- and post-maternity, my workplace has been extremely supportive including with a modification in my responsibilities when needed. This included among others reduced travel time, a 6-month paid maternity leave, and a maternity transition policy to ensure that when a new parent returns to work, transition is smooth. The flexible ‘work from home’ option has also been extremely helpful in managing the changing demands of parenthood. Although in our context grandparents and extended families play a significant role in helping raise kids, these days with more nuclear families in cities the support system can be a challenge. Fortunately enough for me an extremely supportive partner and parents have helped manage the personal front so that I could continue my professional roles. But then being the first working mother in my family it was not an easy decision to continue work post maternity. The constant self-doubt and sometimes even guilt was very disturbing in the initial months. Open conversations at work and home helped resolve these apprehensions.
Guillermo: Many times I have found myself and my team working late after office hours with the intention of achieving an important milestone. It is difficult to provide a rationale for these situations. It would be easy to argue that family time is important, and too many late working hours are not productive anymore. Probably, my point of view takes into account the intensity of work in the longer term and what type of work is being done. For example, it is not the same to work in the administrative department of an institution or to work in the management or strategic department. Intensity varies and results expected also have a different timing. While the administrative side tries to assure that the organisation keeps running (smoothly), the strategic side of the operation is committed to improving and scaling (up) the organisation.
What are some of the challenges you have faced in your journey so far and how did you cope?
Pragati: The constant self-doubt/ guilt of ‘Am I doing the right thing by working full time?’ when many of my women friends and relatives in similar life stages are focusing exclusively on their children giving up on their careers has been a big challenge. The tendency to overcompensate at home or work eating into personal and sleep time has been another issue. I try these days to compartmentalize my thoughts and focus only on the task at hand – when at work about work and when at home about the household as much as possible.
Katri: I sometimes think I am my own main challenge! I am quite a high-energy person, and want to get lots done fast, both at work and in my private life. Especially at work this becomes a challenge if I, as a result, constantly get tasked with even more work. Both at work and in my private life, I have had to learn to ask for support to cope with peak periods – sometimes simply another pair of hands in a team or in the household. I also have quite regular periods every few years to try to rebalance and reflect on what I am doing, and what I need to stay healthy and productive.
Shehnaz: Finding supportive colleagues and friends who understand the dynamic of imposter syndrome, and the struggle for self worth, has helped me to cope. The deliberate creation of space for women of colour to gather, to share their experiences and nurture support groups is also critical. Acknowledging painful experiences of injustice and expressing them are essential starting points to disrupt the system of oppression. This helps reclaim a sense of power and highlight levers for positive transformation. Seeking guidance, mentors and consistent psychological support are all critical. Maintaining good physical health (swimming, hiking, gym) and eating healthy reduces my stress and anxiety levels, and aids in a good night’s rest.
Guillermo: The most challenging is the time spent after office hours. Discussion with partners to get them on the same page has been useful in this respect. Clarifying that the intensity of the work needn’t be permanent is important as well. Lastly, when one truly believes in the potential impact of the work that is being done, it helps to reduce tensions between staff members and their families. A good way to cope with these situations is forward planning; a second piece of advice is to have an open relationship with the staff to give them space to make their feelings, worries and goals explicit, especially when the actions being taken affect their personal life. Better relations will facilitate communication and reduce tensions.
Has there been a moment / experience that made you think differently about #worklifejoy?
Katri: I recently turned 40, and have been reflecting a lot on why I work so much, often too much. I love my work in global health, and see such an injustice and immediate and dire need – for example in child survival. But I have also learned that simply doing more, and adding hours to my work day (or night!) is not necessarily going to result in more impact. I have used this period to try to rebalance, and also to try to find pockets of time to read and learn, and connect with new people and old friends and colleagues. I am hoping this period will also help me re-energize and focus my work.
Pragati: For me, there have been not one but several such moments of late that made me reflect about #worklifejoy. For instance, taking a moment to savour small milestones at work to fuel yourself to do more, squeezing in that long pending call to an old friend in between work travel to nourish your soul, living in the ‘now’ each moment and cherishing the laughter and bond with your child, taking a few moments in a long day just for yourself and enjoy the stillness/ calm.
Shehnaz: I have lost many people who I loved dearly this year. These losses are significant and have helped me to continuously reflect on my purpose, values, and the quality of my relationships.
Guillermo: In general terms I think I manage to keep a relatively good work-life balance. However, it is obvious that particular moments in life can jeopardize this balance. Work instability or the lack of health insurance in a context where only less than 20% have access to public health insurance, witnessing how (lack of) financial protection can affect the entire family economy, … all remind you of the need to work, this however with the risk that work becomes just an activity without a specific purpose.
How are you trying to support young people in this area?
Katri: Talking with young people about work-life balance or balancing a career with having children is a bit like trying to discuss pension plans. It feels very distant for most young people, they are often burning to prove themselves and have energy to work hard. My take on this is that everyone needs to go through their own lessons, and some of these will be the hard way. What I do believe is our responsibility down the line, especially as managers, is to try to live by example. But even more importantly, when the time comes that a young staff member decides to pivot from 150% at work to having a baby, volunteer for an NGO, or just live out that skydiving training they always wanted to do, we are fully supportive. My own experience both as staff and as a manager is that the rewards in work are tenfold in the longer term.
Pragati: Coincidentally there are several new parents at our workplace and I try to reach out to them over lunch and coffee breaks to check if they are coping well and if there is anything they feel might help them. Sometimes a patient hearing is all that is required but in our busy schedules we may not realize that a colleague is stressed or brush aside difficult conversations hoping to do it ‘when we have more time!’ As a manager we need to be acutely aware and mindful of the journeys our colleagues are navigating; as a staff, in my experience, speaking up and voicing concerns before it is too late has been useful.
What type of support would you like from a manager or other people in this area?
Shehnaz: I believe that support needs to systematically redress the injustices of the past, and the university needs to create supportive environments in which women of colour like myself are able to benefit equitably. In this ideal case, individuals will thrive. However, South Africa has been far from ideal and students in South Africa brought universities to a standstill, disrupting the status quo until they were listened to by the management and the state. The #FeesMustFall movement and movement to decolonize our universities accelerated the need for transformation, leading to many initiatives that highlight the racialised and gendered experience of staff and students in universities. In my own school, initiatives include a transformation committee, PHD funding opportunities catering to previously disadvantaged and a mentorship program for young academics.
Guillermo: From my point of view one of the best skills is to listen to what the employee has to say. It’s crucial to have a superior and/or staff members who live and pursue a work-life balance, living and supporting a culture focused on performance rather than on hours spent at work.
How would you like others to contribute / engage to the discussion, and how?
We need to share good practices – big or small, personal ones as well as institutional ones – that worked as well as attempts that didn’t. This would help other individuals and workplaces to learn more about the topic. We often seek silver bullet solutions to balance (work week length, sabbaticals, emailing policies), but hearing diverse stories of what has worked and what remains a challenge, in their full diversity and richness, may actually be more helpful and more inspiring for those of us here who are still searching for better #worklifejoy. Promoting these types of discussions at work and documenting the results could help to find new ways to engage the tensions resulting from an unbalanced relation between work-life.
We hope that our blog will trigger others to comment, share their experiences, engage in discussion, and collectively move this issue forward.
Use the hashtag #worklifejoy via LinkedIn, Twitter, or other platforms.