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Balance and boundaries in 21st century work



Recruitment firm Robert Half released a report in August this year which identified the three key reasons Australian workers leave a company: higher pay, better work life balance and career advancement.

Laptop at a cafeWhile employers are obviously looking for what suits their needs most when hiring someone, the same increasingly applies in reverse. Through the application process, both sides are being interviewed to see how they stack up. More and more, younger generations are deciding they should have a say in the quality of their working lives.

As Charlotte Rimmer outlines in the Australian Financial Review, 'salaries are not just about money — your remuneration is called a package as it consists of all the attractive, enticing temptations to draw you in to a new role and keep you there'.

Managers and CEOs not stuck in a punitive or authoritative model are learning that holistic working relationships that build loyalty and mutual respect are the best ingredients for a well-functioning team.

A few years ago at an event hosted by an organisation I write for, I was talking to a man nearly three times my age about the relationship between writers and editors — including the terms of such a relationship, like pay. Mid-sentence he offered this side note: 'You know, when you're younger you haven't realised yet that you're worth more than that.'

The comment has stuck with me ever since. It was a hard lesson, but early on in my career I realised that employees who don't know their worth are the easiest to exploit.

It has taken western workplaces some time to realise that the 'common good' argument (around a common cause) must first be applied to each individual, in the form of self-care. Any other approach is short-sighted and futile.

With a growing awareness of this fact filtering through to senior management and executives, you've got workplaces that feel like homes; you've got terms like 'work life balance' which prospective employees can bring into the conversation as early as interview; and you've got 'working from home' and 'flexible working arrangements' as standard policies.


"An older school of thought might see this as pandering to a softer generation — but these models result in a more engaged workforce, more likely to care back."


While it's now easier for a company to find someone to fill a gap, sans long-term contract, there's also a greater variety of options available for employees. The Fair Work Ombudsman stipulates that after 12 months continuous employment, staff can make a request for flexible work arrangements. One might argue that the changing nature of work is a win for employees over employers — but it goes both ways. Leaving a bit early, coming in late, the occasional long lunch, or the ability to work from home, a café or a different country, all support the key driver of company success: staff wellbeing, which leads to efficacy.

Kathleen Gerson, professor of sociology at New York University, describes the 'ideal worker model' of the 20th century this way: 'The good worker is someone that is there full time, in an uninterrupted way, over the course of their careers, and that they will put work first.'

There lies the central point of difference — while once it was honourable to put your work first, it's now seen as a fool's errand. Not to say staff should discount their employer's interests, but put them in their proper place — important, yes, but not more important than health, for example, or family. Unions have built memberships on these kinds of ideas for decades. But the current movement is not so much about grouping together as it is about individuating: 'My particular needs are important, too.'

While the older model is being superseded, it still requires staff insisting on work/life practices. It also requires a strong belief in the value of rest and play. Rimmer's article touches on the work/life practices of her own small company.

'A morning surf, afternoon personal training session and children school pick-up are all accommodated. But when a last-minute pitch/presentation is due, it can be hard to rally the troops and complete to deadline. So we have created a call-out — the word 'rally' is texted to the team. All those who have succeeded in their quest for flexible work arrangements need to come to the office, the team supports each other and the business succeeds in its goals.'

It sounds too good to be true. But it makes a lot of sense when you consider the basic give-and-take of all respectful relationships.

Staff should benefit their organisation over months or even years, and burnout won't achieve that — nor will it entice individuals to stick around. Neither will spectacular R&R programs or free pizza lunches which are an obvious ploy to buy staff loyalty (on the cheap). All employees really want is to see is that their employer cares about them. An older school of thought might see this as pandering to a softer generation — but these models result in a more engaged workforce, more likely to care back.

Mainstream psychology teaches that if an individual is solid on their own boundaries, those around them, even withstanding a power differential, will tend to accept those boundaries — particularly if they value what they get from the relationship. The good news is, you're more likely to 'bring value to the table' if, in the past, you've maintained the boundaries necessary to protect your own wellbeing.

My guess is many people learn this as they get older and wiser. Maybe younger generations, both employers and employees, can reap the benefits of this knowledge without having to learn it the hard way.


Megan GrahamMegan Graham is a Melbourne based writer.

Main image: ShiftWorking.com via Flickr

This is the first article in a multiple-author series on work that Eureka Street will present over the coming weeks.

Topic tags: Megan Graham, work life balance



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Existing comments

"All employees really want is to see that their employer cares about them." I would hazard a guess that there is nothing more painful to an enthusiastic employee than a workplace where there is an inability to appreciate and value that vitality. Our work, whether paid or voluntary, overlaps with our life at home and our leisure. There needs to be balance. And a workplace that truly values people will work to achieve that balance. Great start to this series on work, Megan.

Pam | 20 October 2016  

Excellent opening to a series on work which makes a lot of sense. Raises a couple of questions: Does this system of work make trade unions unnecessary? If widely adopted in the new world does it toll the death knell of the unions?

john frawley | 20 October 2016  

Thank you for a balanced look at the work-worker relationship, Megan. I am looking forward to other articles on this issue - and I thank Eureka Street for addressing the idea. I hope that there might be room in the series for an article on those whose work is as volunteers - being taken for granted in that sphere is also very damaging.

Dennis Sleigh | 21 October 2016  

Thanks for a great start, Megan. I have worked as a line manager as well as an Industrial Chaplain in large and small businesses and I now believe that the heart of the 'problem of work' is sociopathic managers, who treat their staff as pawns on the board of their own ambition. We need a new morality of work and workplaces and I can't see that coming anytime soon. Do you have ideas and insights to share of this central everyday issue??

Mike Nelson | 21 October 2016  

Megan, A lovely story but in reality the situation has not changed . May I quote the experience of my wife who is a teacher of +30 years at her school. ( I am a retired one).She is on long service leave. We were in Sienna , Italy a few weeks back. Mobile rings at 2AM in the morning! Sleepily she answers it. Her Deputy Principal was ringing to remind her to put her 'working with vulnerable people' card details in by email or she would be deregistered ! I was gobsmacked! That by the way is one of several calls so far.She even went to the extent of having IT suspend her school email account so she did not have to face a mountain when she returns in Term 1 next year. Sadly the separation between work and home is now very blurred. Workers are expected to be on call 24/7 (My son and daughter, both in IT are so required by their work). Obviously judging by the idealized world of your article, too many businesses are still in the 20th Century, however the workers are too afraid to complain for fear of losing their job or being downsized!

Gavin | 24 October 2016  

In this new world of work, teachers are particularly disadvantaged. There is very little room for flexibility when classes must be covered and little incentive to retain staff when teaching is seen as an undesirable occupation anyway. If there were a few brilliant leaders in the area, like there used to be, we might see innovative changes to the benefit of staff and students.

Sheelah Egan | 05 January 2017  

John Frawley, in an ideal 'new' world that might be possible, and there are certainly enlightened employers out there, in increasing numbers, I hope. And then, there is also 7-Eleven, as a complete institution, it seems.

PaulM | 06 January 2017  

Would these principles apply to the church as an institution?

Jennifer | 06 January 2017  

Pam:"a workplace that truly values people will work to achieve that balance." It may be stretching things a bit to compare the Church to a workplace, but the same principles apply. If the Hierarchy assume that their views are the only ones that matter, and neglect the ancient saying, 'vox populi, vox Dei', the necessary balance will not be achieved. It was the 'vox populi' that carried all before it in the early Church, before the Church merged with Roman politics.

Robert Liddy | 07 January 2017  

1970s. I worked for a large company. Our manager, who had worked his way up through the company, practised this. He thought people were differnet in how they were capable of working. Some worked steadily all day with no change while others could work accurately at a frantic pace if called on, and those in between. We knew how he saw us and aleays responded as necessary. Sick children catered for, work from home if necessary, flixitime etc. The mill always received our orders early in their day as we could slow down once that important function was achieved. Great boss, happy fellow workers, great productivity. I was sorry I had to move away

Audrey | 08 January 2017  

My advice as a 75 year Old. Join a Union at least you will have some protection as time goes by.

Bernie Moloney | 10 January 2017  

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