CSR, Sustainability and the Illusion of “Work/Life Balance”

Are we practicing what we preach?

This post was written for and originally posted on the PMGblog. It takes a look the trouble with work/life balance idea through a social responsibility and sustainability lens. It was based on an earlier post here on Slate. Many thanks to Nicole Ravlin and PMG – great People Making Good.

Many dynamic parts

We all struggle with how to make our lives what we want them to be. Our goals tasks, obligations, chores and aspirations all compete for our attention. Add the goals and needs of others – spouses, parents, children, friends, colleagues, and the like – and it is a miracle our brains can organize our lives into any workable plan from day to day, much less from week to month to year.

For those of use who work in the realm of corporate social responsibility (CSR), whether from a public relations, management or strategic perspective, the conflict in promoting the triple bottom line of our companies while we attempt to live healthy lives can be a challenge.

We work to create and promote sustainable business practices: good companies tending to people, profit and the planet. Sustainability is the focus. We talk all day about how companies choose to operate in ways that protect the health of the ecosystem in which they operate while still earning a profit. If a company

known for CSR does something that is fails to uphold that position – it treats employees in an unjust way, falsifies aspects of a design it promoted as flawless, sources an ingredient from an negligent vendor – its stakeholders point out this discrepancy and call for change. Jeopardizing the health of the system in which CSR companies exist is not an option.

But as we work to help good companies stay true to their visions of sustainable behavior, we work brutally long hours at a frenetic pace and try to manage every media outlet, all possible contingency plans, supply-side conflicts, employee issues, crisis management, new business development, plus our own experiences outside of our paid work that include our family, friends, communities, homes and our personal health. The result of so much chaotic activity is often stress, reduced productivity and mental and physical fatigue that deplete our experience of life. While we work to support our companies and clients and promote their overall wellbeing, are we practicing what we preach? Is our behavior sustainable? Does it support the health of our equivalent triple bottom line? Who are our stakeholders who tap us on the shoulder and point-out that our pace and methods are not aligned with what we say we value?

Our culture attempts to mollify this conflict by creating the concept of work/life balance. Work and life – “life” being family, fun and the things that we’d supposedly rather be doing other than working – must somehow become balanced. But the balance is like a teeter-totter, and one side can suddenly plummet if an unexpected imbalance occurs, jettisoning the other up into the wind waiting for a convenient time to be recovered. It’s a precarious balance at best.

This is why the work/life balance concept is an illusion. It implies that a) balance is possible and desirable, b) work is something people don’t like to do, and c) work is not part of life. It does not look at individuals and all of the things each of us do in context of our larger systems – our personal ecosystems that can function in sustainable ways if deliberate, kind attention is paid to them. What we seek when we discuss the work/life idea is not balance, but health. Systems needn’t be magically balanced but they do need to be healthy. The health of a system is the foundation for its success.

Our lives work less like this...

So, what if we start thinking about our lives like we think about the companies we are working so hard to support: dynamic systems that must be tended to in many ways in order to be healthy and highly functioning? What if we considered ourselves as dynamic, work-health systems?

Like CSR companies and their knowledge that sustainable business practices are the keys to the success of their triple bottom lines, the work we do as humans – whether in public relations, consulting, management or operations in the CSR world or not – is dependent upon our overall health. Health – physical, mental, emotional, social, financial, interpersonal, professional etc., is what every person needs to be sustainable over time. It allows us to thrive.

CSR companies choose to see the health of their businesses as dependent upon all points where they connect with their stakeholders, the financial system and the environment. Thinking that our personal successes can only come from our work and our “life” being balanced on an unstable teeter-totter of doom is akin to businesses thinking that the only way to operate profitably is by disregarding the people and places that allow them to function.

...and more like this.

If we can start applying the ideas that we promote about CSR to the full breadth of our lives – the dynamic systems that require deliberate attention to work well – we can practice what we preach and live and work sustainably. Choosing to think of our lives as multifaceted, dynamic systems rather than to two basic parts that just need to be balanced can be a lot to consider. But seeing ourselves as the beautiful complexities we are rather than simplistic teeter-totters is worth it.

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