Sunday, December 1, 2019


Work-life balance has been a controversial water-cooler topic of discussion since the 1980s. Prior to that decade, the impact of work-family conflict had been studied for over a hundred years. What caused the change in semantics and, more broadly, how have we adapted to the dichotomy between toil and leisure?

Pre-industrial age, there was hardly any barrier between work and family because most people lived off the land, and it was effectively all hands on deck. Highly labour-intensive, subsistence farming and animal husbandry demanded all-day, year-round attention and, in addition to family members, extra hands often pitched in at harvest time. Mining was an occupation that was almost exclusively male-dominated, and required men to spend time away from home in very brutal working conditions. But, at least, their womenfolk knew precisely where they were and would usually welcome them home to a hot bath and a ready meal.

Industrialisation set in motion the so-called work-family conflict since it drew manual workers into factories where 14 to 16-hour workdays were not unusual. Even their supervisors and line managers were expected to work overtime at peak periods. In those days, the division of responsibilities between husbands and wives was sharply defined. Still, the long hours spent by spouses in formal employment created tension in family relationships.    

In time, trade unions fought for improved workers’ rights until the standard 40-hour work-week was enshrined into law. Despite this, the wrangle on the home front did not abate. It turned out that men revelled in a rugged work culture and were drawn to red-blooded pastimes such as clubbing and gambling. Also, the stereotypical man reckoned that his promotion prospects improved by logging long hours or participating in after-hours drinking.

Post-WW2, educational opportunities and birth-control empowerment untethered women from the home. By the 1970s, dual-income families became commonplace and many women embraced the tenets of the feminist movement. As more women entered the workplace, the work-family conflict outcry mutated into an agitation for work-life balance. Male-centric work environments were not necessarily designed to accommodate new mothers or women with young children. In other words, female employees faced an institutionalised imbalance between family and career pursuits, the characteristics of which were largely different from those experienced by men.

Perhaps fortuitously, the advocacy for work-life balance overlapped with the post-industrial age. The age of acceleration introduced the personal computer, global connectivity, and other digital technologies that have enabled flexitime and telecommuting. The unintended consequence of continuous accessibility has however resulted in workers becoming more stressed to such an extent that, rather than the pendulum being in balance, many feel trapped on a kinetic see-saw.

Not long ago, I came across an article titled “Ants Understand Work-Life Balance.” Ants? Really?

People who live in warm climates encounter ants in their kitchens and around the house, whereas in more temperate climes, insects spend the cooler seasons hibernating out of sight. By and large, tens of thousands of different ant species live in highly-organised ant colonies and most of them are probably oblivious of human activities. When we speculate about alien civilisations, we gaze out into outer space, while ignoring other life forms with which we share our planet. Ants, for instance, possess acute and very robust communication faculties that we do not fully understand. Hence, when we swoon over our smartphones, is it possible that there are organisms that are able to communicate naturally by telepathy?

So, what can we learn from ants about work-life balance? For starters, it helps to know that ants are classified as workers, soldiers, fertile males called drones, and a handful of fertile females known as queens. Studies have shown that ants live in social organisations that manifest advanced defence and resource utilisation attributes. Like humans, ants foster production through division of labour and, collectively, are able to solve intricate problems.

Researchers at Missouri University of Science and Technology in the US discovered that ants have a propensity to optimise energy and resource allocation within each colony. Typically, while designated ants are hard at work, another group remains inactive, thereby conserving food and capacity. As the population grows, a larger proportion stays dormant based on the principle that productive ants spend five times as much energy as those at rest. On occasions when demand rises for defence or maintenance duties, inactive ants are called into service.

Ostensibly, conscientious ants possess better conservation instincts than humans who seem to always want to eat their cake and have it. Unlike ants, humans do not shut down brain and body functions when chillaxing (chilling out and relaxing). Instead, when we start feeling antsy at work, we yearn for leisure activities - from sports and recreation to dynamic holidaying - which tend to increase the pressure on global resources and the environment. Conversely, ants appear to be motivated less by work-life balance than achieving energy balance within their ecosystem.

Translated into our domain, we could begin by paying judicious attention to how we expend energy at work, at leisure, and in between. And with laser focus on productivity improvement and change management, technology could very well serve as a vehicle for seamless work-life integration.           


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