Opinion || Work–life balance pulls in three directions

An unobtrusive monument in downtown Melbourne – an obelisk topped by a globe over the numbers 888 in brass – commemorates attempts by 19th-century life coaches to achieve work–life balance.

It marks the introduction in 1856 of the official eight-hour day. Originally this was only for building workers, but you have to start somewhere.

The "888" on the top of the obelisk refers to eight hours of work, eight hours of rest, and eight hours of recreation (including union activism). What could be more balanced than that?

Nowadays, things are a bit more flexible, for good or ill.

Back then, a builder didn’t have the option of texting his brickies at 7pm to direct them to lay a couple more courses of bricks before knocking off for the day.

But today’s account director is well accustomed to the dinnertime email instructing her to run reports on the Jiangxi Bensheng Export Co. in time for tomorrow’s 9am meeting.

And construction workers now are expert multi-taskers: checking Facebook while supervising the concrete pour, for example.

All that is solid melts into the cloud, as socialist philosopher Karl Marx commented.

You’re a worker, and part of a household, but you’re also a citizen, and that brings responsibilities of its own. You can’t divide up your life into separate spheres and allocate all the bad bits to your boss’s account.

We still tend to talk about work–life balance, though, as if it were a fixed goal; as if we each have a set of scales, and we add a bit more work or a bit more life to one pan or the other to make it come out just right.

No, it’s all just life. You’re signing off on a total package. And that whole isn’t made up of just work time and home life. It’s work, home, and the community.

There are no clear lines, and everything tends to smear into other things. There are things you do only because you’re paid, and there are things you’d do even if you weren’t paid. Then there are things you’re prepared to pay other people to do, but these aren’t divided into work and life – they’re all mixed in different proportions at work, and at home, and in the community.

At work, you’re sometimes bored or tired, but you probably enjoy having a part to play, and you like interacting with people who know who you are and where you fit. You get satisfaction from a job well done.

At home, you love your family, but you still have to put up with emptying the dishwasher and putting out the garbage.

And in between, you experience both drudgery and triumph in your not-for-profit volunteering (you do contribute, don’t you?) – things that you do for free because you believe in the cause.

You’re a worker, and part of a household, but you’re also a citizen, and that brings responsibilities of its own. You can’t divide up your life into separate spheres and allocate all the bad bits to your boss’s account.

Your work has community implications, and if your factory is polluting the local ecosystem you can’t get out of your responsibility by saying that it’s just good business. At home, you’re tying your kids’ pocket money to the job they do cleaning up their room, and as a volunteer you’re all fired up trying – for example – to reverse environmental degradation in the creek.

The same principles apply in all three sectors. You’re not three different people just because you’re on three different insurance policies.

This isn’t just airy-fairy theorising. Many studies have found that at work, your health basically depends on how much autonomy you’re allowed to choose your own patterns; at home, your happiness depends on seeing a coherent meaning in your existence; and in your community work, your life expectancy is linked to how many organisations you’re invested in.

It’s never just about the money, or the fun, or the free ride. We’re social animals, and we have to be happy in the society around us.

What we want from life – what we really need  – is to think well of ourselves, and what we think of ourselves is inseparable from what we want other people to think of us and what they actually do.

The community sector is the best chance most of us have to bring our self-esteem into line with the esteem we’re held in by our neighbours.

Denis Moriarty is group managing director of OurCommunity.com.au, a social enterprise helping the country’s 600,000 not-for-profits