Work-life balance needs more than lip service

Genuine work-life balance might seem impractical or even fantastical in a culture where working hard is promoted and the path to success at work doesn’t always leave room for other needs and goals.

Beyond Blue said that ‘work-life balance’ is a goal anyone who’s ever worked a job can relate to, because no matter how rewarding your career might be, there’s more to life than work. 

Shire of Bridgetown-Greenbushes Western Australia, Senior Executive Manager Community Services, Elizabeth Denniss shares her experience of searching for a better work-life balance in the local government setting:

“There has been one common thread in conversations at work and in my personal life over the past six months.  That thread is how COVID-19 has changed how we look at life.  

“In some respects, I feel as though I am ahead of that conversation because late in 2018 my brother took his own life at the age of 49. This had a profound impact me. Like us he worked in local government, although later in his career he moved into state government. 

“As a result of his death I started to consider what really mattered in this short life.  Yet I did not feel that I could discuss this in the workplace or with colleagues until the impacts of the global pandemic started broader discussions on topics such as the importance of family and taking time to enjoy what we work so hard for.  

“I have noticed that many people have readjusted their priorities. I hope that these individual choices create a collective shift in our industry which can still be quite old fashioned in how it approaches work-life balance, especially in rural areas and conservative communities. 

“As recently as 2019, when my current contract as an executive manager was being considered for renewal by Council, I was advised by the CEO (after the meeting) that a Councillor had expressed a concern that I was seen at a lunch time yoga class with a work colleague and that this did not ‘look good’. 

“I asked my CEO what his reply had been and he stated that he explained to Councillors that ‘while it was common for executives in local government to not take lunch breaks due to work commitments, an employer could not dictate what a staff member did in their personal time’. 

“I found this experience discouraging for many reasons. Physical exercise was part of my own mental health program during my grieving period. I was taking a proactive approach to my health to ensure I was fit and able to perform my duties and responsibilities to the best of my ability. 

“The fact that my commitment to self-care and positive work-life balance was seen as a negative instead of a good example was especially disappointing. 

“I have the strength of character to remain committed to my own needs and goals regardless of the views and opinions and others. But I am conscious that not everyone can do so. I believe senior staff and elected members share a commitment to model exemplary self-care and work life balance. 

“This is especially true in times of crisis, but also in times of calm. Doing so enables us to respond with greater resilience in times of crisis. How we go about doing this is perhaps an opportunity for real and meaningful dialogue within the sector.”