Last week our Campus Leadership had a fascinating discussion about our assumptions around wellness, which is of concern right across the working world, but especially, of course, whenever children are involved.
Wellness is a complex construct, not least as there are ethical matters (is this an individual or group responsibility?), issues around individuality (different things support wellness for different people), and many competing ideas about how to pursue it (meditation, medication, reducing demands, mindfulness, increasing resilience…). One notion that came up a lot was the idea of balance as leading to wellness. It sounds so obvious that we need balance in our lives, but under scrutiny, things do not look so simple.
There are some obvious questions, such as over what time frame do we seek balance? As educators, I feel we do have a good balance over a year (I do not worry about balance in July), but certainly not at specific times when things are quite overwhelming (November and March in our High School are extremely intense).
But more importantly, underneath questions like these is an assumption about work-life balance that I would want to ask: Exactly what are we balancing? The work-life idea is an obvious candidate but if our work is more than just a job then it’s an important part of our lives - and it can actually be an avenue toward wellness for many people. So it's not the case that the more we have of one, the less we have of the other; that's just too simple. Of course, time is finite, but we would likely not use friend-life balance as a thinking tool, because friends are an integral part of our life. So too, for most of us lucky enough to work in professions that we believe to be important and meaningful. So if we are not balancing work and life, what are we balancing? Another possibility might be balancing the challenges we face with the resources we have, as I have written about previously. But that is not without it’s own problems (neither challenges nor resources may be in our control). So, I worry that balance is not up to the load we might put on it.
None of that it to deny that there is a problem. On the contrary, recognizing the confusion is the first step to thinking with more clarity, and to seek better conceptual tools. So what’s a better way to think about the issue of wellness?
Ed Batista argues that the whole concept of balance is the wrong lens through which to view the wellness issue, at least for many people. He argues that we should replace the idea of balance with the idea of boundaries because “while balance requires an unsteady equilibrium among the various demands on our time and energy, boundaries offer a sustainable means of keeping things in their proper place.” He identifies three types of boundaries that are worth exploring.
Temporal boundaries are the most visible signs that we can switch off; we can create and protect certain sacred times. The obvious things here are evenings, (portions of) weekends, Saturday nights out, putting the kids to bed, time exercising, family mealtimes, reading, or whatever it is that is important. Batista argues that the “amount of undisturbed time we preserve for certain activities will vary and may be quite small, but what matters is that we create and maintain a functional boundary around that time.” This seems wise to me; it shifts focus onto the things that are important to me, and that are likely within my control.
Physical boundaries are about preserving literal, not metaphorical distance from our workplaces. Technology makes this harder than it once was, as for many of us, our workplace is where our computer is; but even there, it must be possible to box work into a particular place at home; or to say that for 3 days a week we will leave the computer at work. For some it might working later and not taking work home at all. Batista notes again that “the question is not about balancing the two worlds, but establishing boundaries to create the needed separation.” Again, solutions are local, and can be down to individuals to find what works for them.
Cognitive boundaries might be the hardest ones to create and enforce. Driven folk are by definition often thinking about issues to solve, ideas to explore and so on. In these cases, the challenge is to “resist the temptation to think about work and [instead to] focus our attention on the people or activity at hand.” Once again, this is undermined by technology which is actively designed to capture our attention (various, alerts, messages, pop-us, bleeps etc). But there are ways to minimize these and once we recognize that our attention is our most precious asset and that control of it is a foundation of mental health, we might willing to put in the “persistent, dedicated effort” that it takes to train ourselves. The ability to mange this boundary is one of the major benefit of meditation, and explains the recent boom in interest in mindfulness.
None of these are magic bullets, and none of these remove the need for us to design reasonable workplaces. But identifying and enforcing these boundaries seems like a strong and worthwhile step.
Thanks to Gemma Dawson for sharing the Ed Batista article.
Batista, E (2016) Happy Workaholics Need Boundaries, Not Balance. Harvard Business Review
Dodge, R., Daly, A., Huyton, J., & Sanders, L. (2012). The challenge of defining wellbeing. International Journal of Wellbeing, 2(3), 222-235
Nicholas Alchin is a Sino-Celt who has been working in K-12 International Education for too long to remember. Father of three and wife of one; currently Deputy Head at UWCSEA in Singapore. Avid reader and traveller; keen and competent breadmaker; keen and incompetent uni-cycler.