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  • Tamar Balkin

Is Our Desire For Fairness And Flexibility At Work Compromising Our Wellbeing?

We are entering the era of flexible of working hours; diversity and inclusion; flat structures, job crafting, and truly global teams. All of these practices are based on principles like trust, fairness, and appreciation of individual differences and have been made possible in some way by technological innovation. Yet sometimes it seems that these advances in technology have both enabled and limited our wellbeing.

“I want to ride to the ridge where the West commences gaze at the moon till I lose my senses And I can't look at hobbles and I can't stand fences Don't fence me in” Cole Porter

At no other time in history have the lines between work and play been more blurred and it seems to be on the rise. It is very easy to connect to work, friends, family, clients, customers and stakeholders 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Yet there is greater awareness that if we are unable to detach psychologically from work, it is likely that we will experience high levels of emotional exhaustion and need extensive recovery. Last week I provided feedback to a client on his wellbeing using the Global Leadership Wellbeing Survey (GLWS) ( as part of his preparation for an international work transfer. The GLWS is based on a multifaceted approach to wellbeing in both work and life. My client is in a role that enables him to feel he is leading a ‘good and full life’ which holds meaning and purpose. He always feels engaged, alert and switched on at work. He also proudly explained to me that due to his expertise he is always available after hours in the event of a crisis. Thus, as you can begin to surmise, it was in the area of boundaries that the wellbeing red flags began to emerge. My client confessed that he has never been disciplined about switching off from work, and openly admits that his work life often has a negative impact on his personal life. He is acutely aware that this needs to change, especially as his new role is more challenging and if he doesn’t change his ways, the consequences may be disastrous. Yet his strong ideological alignment with the purpose of his work makes it difficult for him to set any work life boundaries. As individuals we vary in our habits and ideological beliefs around separating work and life. Ellen Kossek, who has researched extensively in this area, found there are three ways people tend to conceptualise boundaries:

  • Separators: who strive for a greater divide between work and personal

  • Integrators: who prefer to blend work and non-work roles. They often choose to work during vacations or, selecting a career that overlaps with hobbies or personal life.

  • Cyclers: who experience recurring patterns of separation from life to focus on work, followed by intense work life integration.

Interestingly Kossek found that people do not necessarily remain fixed in these categories. Rather they have a tendency to switch in their focus as their values, perceptions, motivations and ‘roles’ in both life and work change. So what did my client decide to start doing?

He has found and joined a basketball team in the new city, not only cant he take a phone onto a basketball court but he knows it is the only sport that pulls him away from work and in which he becomes totally immersed. He has requested a work mobile, so that he is only contacted out if office hours for real emergencies. In addition he is practicing the third space to help the transitions from work to life. Finally, he is meeting with the new CEO to ensure that there are policies, procedures and practices aimed at establishing healthy boundaries. Maintaining and finessing all of these strategies will be a large part of the ongoing coaching program, particularly as he transitions to his new role overseas. Where does that leave you as a leader? How exactly can you manage this complexity? Perhaps the best place to start by answering the following questions:

  • What is my personal perspective on boundary setting and how does it differ from my team, colleagues customers and stakeholders?

  • When do I completely switch off?

  • When does my team completely switch off?

  • What behavioural norms in my team may imply we should never switch off?

  • How does my team perceive my work boundaries?

  • Are some jobs designed such that they imply staff should be available 24/7?

  • If so what can be done to alter this?

  • How do our policies, procedures and practices impact work life boundaries?

  • What are the real and implied expectations of our customer/client stakeholders?

  • Are there buffers between work and life?

  • What needs to change and how?

Thank you to Rob Briner for his tweet (see below) which inspired some of the concepts in this blog.

References and further reading: Dodge, R., Daly, A., Huyton, J., & Sanders, L. (2012). The challenge of defining wellbeing. International Journal of Wellbeing, 2(3), 222-235. Kossek, E, (2016) Managing work life boundaries in the digital age, Organizational Dynamics, 45,3 258-270 Purser, R. (14/6/19) The mindfulness conspiracy The Guardian. Stew Freidman, Work and Life podcast Ep 125. Elllen Kossek: Evidence-Based Ideas for Managing Boundaries't+fence+me+in+lyrics+cole+porter&oq=dont+fence+me+in+lyrics+col&gs_l=psy-ab.1.0.0i13j0i13i10i30.3888.4716..6210...0.0..0.374.1097.0j1j1j2......0....1..gws-wiz.......0i71j0j0i22i30j0i22i10i30.qKpjqnklizU Sonnentag, S. Kuttler, I, & Fritz, C. (2010) Job stressors, emotional exhaustion, and need for recovery: A multi-source study on the benefits of psychological detachment. Journal of Vocational Behaviour 73, 3, 355-365

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