Making a life ... or a living?


AS I write this we are coming to the end of Work-Life Balance week. It has not made much of an impact on public consciousness, partly at least because there have been so many other things to demand people's attention: policy over Iraq, a crisis over the marking of `A' level examinations, the publication of details of an affair between John Major, the former Prime Minister, and Edwina Currie, the controversial former member of his government, and the party-going activities of Lord (Jeffrey) Archer, the former Conservative party big-wig and convicted perjurer being probably the most dramatic.

Work-Life balance, however, is a real issue, and one which people are taking with increasing seriousness, as the patterns of working and domestic life in Britain change. We dealt with some aspects of it in a seminar in Cambridge during the week, organised by a group which provides a chaplaincy service to people working in the area, and their employers. The theme of the seminar was Making a Life or Making a Living? and it dealt with some of the problems of integrating faith, life and work.

Since it was a seminar presented by the chaplaincy, the inclusion of faith in that trio was of course to be expected, but what quickly emerged from the introductory remarks and the discussion which followed them was that getting the balance right presents problems to people with strong faiths and with none. Many people can point to specific examples which illustrate the point. I think, for instance, of my godson, who works in a demanding London-based consultancy job, and whose working hours, and the pressure on him, have made it very difficult for him to enjoy any kind of social life.

His experience is by no means unique.

By chance there was another event during the week which illustrated the Work-Life balance question in a completely different way. It was the retirement party for the man who took over from me 10 years ago as director of the Cambridge University Careers Service. He is a friend of mine, whom I have known for 30 years so there were good intrinsic reasons for attending, quite apart from the wry satisfaction of seeing one's successor moving off into the employment sunset. The Work-Life balance point, however, lies in the fact that we had each, in our time, decided to retire well before the compulsory university retiring age. We had each worked for many years as university careers advisers, and had each enjoyed the privilege — and the pressures — of being in charge of a busy and well-regarded department. We had each decided to leave while the job was still enjoyable (and when, as I remarked to a former colleague, the expressions of regret at our departure were genuine) and we each had other things which we wanted to have time to do.

In short, we were both conscious of the attractions of doing a demanding job, and also of the importance of not letting it totally take over our lives. (In parenthesis, I suppose one could fairly argue that if a careers adviser cannot plan his own career in a rational and sensible way he will have, and deserve, no credibility.) Failure to get the balance between life and work right is clearly important for individuals, but it also has implications for society as a whole.

Organisations which expect their employees to devote themselves totally to their work are likely to turn those employees into dysfunctional human beings who will eventually become incapable of playing a sensible and constructive role in society. I know of many examples of firms (particularly, it has to be said, in the financial sector) where members of staff are made to feel that they are wimps if they do not work 14 hours a day, and take work home at the weekend. (Given the crises of judgment which have recently characterised much of the financial sector, the attitude does not seem to be good for the organisation any more than for the individuals in it.) There was a story told of the late Lord Castlerosse when he worked for a London evening paper and was criticised for arriving late to work each day.

Without hesitation he replied: "Ah, but see how early I go". Advocates of getting the Work-Life balance right would not argue for quite such a relaxed approach to the work element of the balance, but in its tongue in cheek way the story does serve as a good reminder of a genuinely serious issue.

The writer is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, U.K.. E-mail him at

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