In the Balance ~ When Work Takes Over Life

June 16, 2010

The Great Wall of China at Mutianyu
Image via Wikipedia

“China?” My friend’s face dropped a notch. His company was sending him on a six-month stint to the coldest part of China starting September. He knew his career depended on it. His wife seemed philosophical.

“I’ve always wanted to visit The Great Wall,” she smiled.

And so he went with a tear in his eye while he left his wife and kids to fend for themselves.

Project work can be stressful. If you work for a project-oriented organization as my friend does, work-life balance is an Ivory Tower term. It sounds great, but doesn’t exist. While I advocate words such as ‘alignment’ and ‘life’s purpose’, we all know what is meant by the work-life analogy. Work is a part of life. It’s not everything.

Rodney Turner, Martina Huemann and Anne Keegan reported on the challenges of work-life balance for project-based organizations in the International Journal of Project Management 26 (2008) 577-585. They concluded that project managers are self-selecting (meaning they really do like the diversity project-based work brings and therefore choose their projects as they wish). The greatest challenge is with shorter term projects, such as the one my friend had to lead. Budgets are made well in advance so you risk not having the resources to carry out your job. You also have a high level of intensity the entire time due to tight timelines. Larger projects are more foreseeable. You can pace yourself better and spend time with family in between.

“The ideal project-oriented organization,” the authors claim, “has a specific management culture expressed in the empowerment of employees, process-orientation and team work, continuous and discontinuous organizational change, customer-orientation and networking with clients and suppliers.”

In other words, they have more time to be human.

Interviewing over 50 managers in 15 organizations throughout Europe and the US, the authors inquired as to the ethical treatment of the employees. Many of the employees opted to work 60 to 70 hours per week simply because they enjoyed the work. As any consultant will tell you, we enjoy the feast before the famine. And contractors are under pressure to bid the lowest while still building in a profit margin to get the work done under budget.

“For companies undertaking large proejcts, the work environment is less dynamic, less frenetic and so tehre is greater cope for balancing the work load.”

If you find yourself in a hectic work environment, ask yourself if it’s really worth it. In the case of my friend, he had no choice if he wanted to remain employed. And the kicker? He wants to go back to China every now and then to check in with his former team. Somehow, despite all the hardship he learned a lot and realized his potential in ways he never imagined.

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