Striking a balance

Striking a balance

More and more executives are finding it hard to juggle the conflicting demands of work and personal life. Darren Greenwood talks to a group of IT leaders on how they tackle the work/life conundrum.

After decades in IT management, Ed Saul finds he can work far more effectively if he spends time away from the office, going for a walk, or being with his family. "I am almost ashamed to say it was only recently that I discovered this," says the former Tower CIO. "Time management is the key and this comes more naturally to some people than others."

A few months ago, Saul quit Tower after 10 years and having built up three months of accumulated leave.

"I have recently reprioritised my own work pattern and now I make sure I make time for my family and for myself," says Saul, who is now consulting mainly in the area of IT strategy.

"In a management role, spending less time at a desk or at the office doesn't mean doing less work. In fact, managers need time to think to reflect on work, strategies and so on. I am finding that I think much more clearly if I go for a walk or a run than sitting at my desk. I have now got into that mindset."

Former Fonterra CIO Marcel van den Assum agrees. He left the dairy firm early this year and ended the frequent commutes between Wellington and Auckland.

"The commute compromises home and work. You are never at home, so you tend to work more, thinking you are there so you might as well carry on.

There is less time for family and more for work. Then there is the frustrating downtime, nothing time spent waiting at airports," says Van den Assum, who like Saul, is now doing consulting work in IS governance.

Saul says there comes a time when you realise you have got it wrong and you want to change something. "However, the trigger doesn't always come from self-realisation. Sometimes it comes from family pressure," he continues.

Home truths

Growing up in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s, often a government minister would resign to "spend more time with the family", when the real reason was some sex or finance scandal.

In New Zealand, however, family circumstances do seem to ring true. A former boss of mine recently quit to spend more time with his young daughter. Just after Election 2005, former IT minister Paul Swain left the government to be with his young family.

In the cases above, all were highly talented individuals who had brought much to their organisations. They weren't "quitters" but perhaps their employers made too many demands on these individuals. Or, they were too driven in their roles that they allowed or even encouraged this to happen. Consequently, their employers no longer have the talents of these people and are now missing out.

Both Hudson Recruitment and the Department of Labour claim work/life balance is a real issue for business, particularly as skill shortages bite and employers must do more to attract and retain staff.

"We believe it is now imperative that organisations look to embed work/life balance into the fabric of their corporate culture," comments Hudson's Australasian CEO Anne Hatton.

In a report, The Case for Work Life Balance: Closing the Gaps Between Policy and Practice, published online, the recruiter notes many individuals no longer have an equilibrium between their work and private lives.

Work/life conflict occurs as the pressures of one role make it hard to comply with the demands of the other. Individuals feel they don't have a good mix and have less control over work and non-work. Consequently, they are less satisfied with either, they are less committed and less productive and may even leave their jobs.

On the other hand, people with less conflict report higher job satisfaction and are typically more productive, Hudson notes in the report.

The Department of Labour (DOL) says work and home life is increasingly a juggling act. More and more women are working, there are more sole parents in the workforce, there is an ageing population, workers are putting in longer hours, and technology allows work to invade into the home space.

In April 2005, the DOL launched a three-year $1.8 million Work/Life Balance Project to research the issue. Following public consultation, workplace trials are taking place to see which tools are more effective in helping workers achieve such balance, such as flexible working, part-time working and telecommuting.

"The government believes that it can play an important role in helping people to overcome the barriers that prevent them from achieving balanced lives. The public consultation indicated that while the responsibility for work/life balance was seen as primarily an individual one by most individuals and organisations who made submissions, a number thought it desirable that both employers and the government take responsibility," says Heather McDonald, DOL policy manager for workplace practices.

At present, the government plans no specific legislation, seeing its role as raising the issue to encourage organisations to tackle it themselves.

DOL works with the Equal Employment Opportunities Trust, which has an annual Work & Life awards. This year's winner is power company Vector. Its VectorLife program includes flexible working hours, work from home, and generous leave, loans and grants when staff face unexpected hardship. CEO Mark Franklin says the policy has helped reduce staff turnover to below 5 per cent.

"I know that getting the balance wrong costs a business. You can see it when staff are not fulfilled; they're frustrated, unhappy, stressed and that impacts on performance, on judgement, on commitment, on the dynamics of the whole organisation," he says in a press statement.

Part of the job?

NZ Racing Board chief information officer Chris Corke can not recall any cases of imbalance causing "burnout" or similar issues at any of the firms he has worked for. Neither can Valerie Fogg, IS director at Simpson Grierson or Metservice Weatherscape director Marco Overdale. Overdale says the issue is a deeply personal one that tends to reflect an individual's whole life outlook.

However, Ed Saul recalls cases where staff, usually key individuals, "burn out" due to the pressure of project deadlines. He had witnessed how one highly committed individual was given too broad a role but too few resources to do the job. Such demands, he says, can lead to health complications.

Consequently, he observes companies bring in trainers for Pilates, stretch classes and yoga to help create happier, healthier and thus more productive, employees.

Van den Assum believes much of the problem stems from "incompatibility issues" - people not in the right job. Two companies he worked for - Fonterra and Unisys - are very keen in ensuring people have the right roles that motivated them. Thus, work pressures create adrenalin instead of pressure, so staff had the right motivation to work harder or faster, he states.

"If you are looking for work/life balance as a way out to reduce your workload, you are probably missing the point. It's about working hard on the things you are passionate about, so you are in a space where you can contribute 120 per cent."

Van den Assum further believes stress comes from not too much work, but rather neglecting other things like family. He likens the issue to an athlete who has run a few marathons and needs to wind down in preparation for the next big event. "Most people who are ambitious and driven are good at focussing and calling the shots, however, they might still be working when burnout hits them in the eye."

Consequently, employers realise their staff might end up spending too much time at work and they also needed to look after their own health. Fonterra, he adds, has 'wellness initiatives', where staff talk to a medic about their work habits and lifestyle. They then get advice and follow up discussions on diet, exercise and time management.

These days, Van Den Assum has more time for skiing, mountain-biking, kayaking, and joining his family in art, dance and music activities.

At systems integrator Gen-i, stress was seen as part of the job, thanks to project deadlines, which some people actually thrive on, says its former CEO Garth Biggs. He says the company, however, had policies in place to help tackle this, including stress management courses, social and sports events for staff; plus support for staff with domestic issues to deal with.<p/>"My philosophy is you can not get staff attention if they are worried as to what's happening at home. The company was also more focussed on what your contribution was, not the hours you put in," says Biggs who turned to consultancy work after the Telecom takeover of Gen-i, and is also executive director of the HiGrowth Project.<p/>He has a portfolio of work interests, which he says offers more control over his life. Living on Waiheke Island "with a myriad of water toys" is another factor. "That ferry has a sump that drains away stress," says Biggs, who is set to enjoy a six-week Christmas break

Start-up pressures

Auckland-based sports management software company Go RealSports is a two-year-old start-up.

CIO and COO Neil Movold says his business has no formal work/life policies but is big on allowing work from home, giving staff time off when needed, including playing sports - a situation helped by the lack of deadlines in his enterprise.

However, as a fast-moving and growing company, Movold says younger staff burn out simply because they are not up to the demands of senior and changing roles in a young company.

New businesses can not afford the expertise they would prefer and young graduates, fresh out of university, are too confident about their abilities. They have been "spoon-fed" by academics and struggle with fast-paced change. "I have talked to other start-ups and they have similar experiences," he continues.

Movold says it is not about how much time you spend in the office, but how you manage your time. "It's nothing to do with working 80 hours a week. You can work seven hours a day. It's about quality and that comes down to time management."

The 40-year-old father-of-two says this is his fifth start-up company. "My life balance is not just about being with my family but also to make sure I am growing mentally and spiritually. I go on courses, I read books and magazines. I realise there are trade-offs, such as getting married and having kids means not enough time for golf," he says.

"I am a big advocate of promoting staff, sending them to university. They all play sports but if there is imbalance on the work side, it depends on their maturity and it's just a matter of their age. I advocate to younger people, find a mentor.

I talk to mentors outside my company and they have helped me a great deal. Vacations don't help me with stress at work but exercise always helps indirectly. Punch bags work, golf balls do not. Stress is a mental problem," Movold continues.

Making choices

MetService helps promote balance by providing four week holidays and allowing time off for personal issues. Overdale says he ensures his own hours are manageable and he has time for home and family.

This way, he is prepared for projects that require "full-time high energy dedication".

"To some extent, I consider that one's work, if it is absorbing, and in one's area of interest and skills, is an important, major, and often empowering part of life. I try to be the same person in and out of work, and enjoy my daily life whether at work or at home," he says.

Valerie Fogg agrees that if people wish they were elsewhere, they may already be suffering from burnout.

There are times when her department is really busy on project work, so staff at Simpson Grierson may have to work late and on weekends. But as long as service can be maintained, she lets them take some time off in lieu.

Fogg relaxes by reading books or magazines or taking her dog for a walk. "Animals are a great calming influence and are always happy to see you no matter what kind of day you have," she says.

Movold adds family issues do create a moral dilemma. "Does the world need to be more materialistic?" he asks.

"I have a developer leaving to become a full-time dad. More power to him. This is not burnout. People have a choice. If my wife earned more than me, I would consider it."

Garth Biggs concludes: "No one has ever said on their deathbed they wish they spent more time at the office."

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