Get Work-Life Balance with One Short Question

work and life balanceHow’s the resolution going, the one about getting a good work-life balance? Thought so. But you’re not alone. It happens to most of us.

We start out with the firm intention of keeping work demands in check so we can have a personal life that is worth the name, but before we know it, we are overwhelmed with the relentless claims of the workplace.

And so we get hooked right back in to arriving early, staying late, being on call 24/7, constantly shooting out and replying to emails, struggling with excessive workloads and unrealistic deadlines and all the other practices and activities that take us over and make a meaningful personal life at best difficult to maintain.

Here’s one two-word expression you could use to put a brake on excessive work activities. It’s a Latin phrase (just one of the many Things The Romans Did For Us) which is used in legal contexts:

  • Cui bono

This nifty little phrase means

  • Who benefits?

  • Who stands to gain?

Ask yourself this question before you automatically engage in behaviour which you know has adverse effects on your life, but which you feel you ‘have’ to do.

For example, before you respond to or initiate work messages at unsocial hours, ask yourself: Who is gaining from this? You’ll realise immediately that whoever is benefiting, it certainly ain’t you — and it probably isn’t many other people either.

What does your colleague or boss gain from, for example, contacting you in the evening or weekend or at holiday times?

Maybe they gain the satisfaction of getting something off their mind. Maybe they like the (deluded) feeling of power or control. Maybe it makes them feel important. But whatever their motives, it isn’t your job to ruin your life in order to satisfy their needs.

Sometimes we are led into harmful behaviours by our perception that it’s expected, that we will be seen as uncooperative or uncommitted or not a team player if we switch off when we’re at home, or say we aren’t willing to work late hours.

Perhaps you get a feeling of security by showing that you are always in touch, always on the case, always ready to ‘go the extra mile’. (And, of course, you would never rock the boat by questioning, even to yourself, our automatic use of that expression which has been filched from the Sermon On The Mount in the New Testament — not a text much invoked in the workplace — and mangled into a tool for applying pressure.) Perhaps you are under the impression that accepting every demand will enhance your professional reputation.

To a certain extent, you may be right. But any such gains are short-lived. At most, they get you breathing space until the next demand. All you are doing is putting in more and more time and energy into maintaining a status quo which is damaging your well-being.

Cui bono? You don’t benefit, so who does? If we trace the chain of involvement to its source, as far as possible, we might conclude that in the end we are accepting a stressful, unsatisfying way of life for the ultimate profit of people or organisations who are remote and beyond our sphere.

In the nicest possible way, when it comes to the line at the very bottom, it’s for people who probably don’t know you and who probably don’t really care about your life.

When work demands become overwhelming and when we feel the balance shifting, it’s difficult to maintain perspective. Applying the little phrase is a way of making us pause and think about what we are doing. Use it as a buffer between the demand and your response. The very least it will do is stop your automatic plunge into activity.

At the same time, you might find it useful to ask the associated question:

  • Who loses?

The answers jump up immediately. You lose. You lose your well-being, your sense of proportion, your capacity for enjoyment and all the other markers of a balanced life. People close to you suffer, as you neglect relationships. People who look to you as a role model or for guidance lose out, as you present them with a flawed model of behaviour.

There may well be a neat Latin phrase for ‘who loses’, but if there is, it was presented at the point in Mother Dominic’s Latin class when my attention wandered to doodling on my exercise book, or something equally important…

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by Mary Hartley