The Missing Work Life Balance

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Over a century ago the Welsh poet W.H Davies wrote:

What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare!
No time to stand beneath the boughs and stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass, Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight, Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

I recall these lines each time I interact with my own children or children I have seen growing up, including those of my relatives, neighbors, and friends! These children are so engrossed in their work and are living such stressful lives, that, at times, I wonder if such lives are worth the efforts these kids are putting in. I see these kids stuck to their phones and laptops for 10 – 15 hours daily, if not more! They are so busy that parents or spouses often do not dare to disturb them during such ‘work’ sessions.

Recently, I visited my cousin, a retired ‘Bharat Sarkar’ karmachari in Bangalore; both his daughters are living within a 5km radius. His wife lamented that for 5 work days of the week, both daughters and their spouses, are too busy with ‘office work’, hardly able to speak over the phone; on weekends, they are busy attending to household needs and other chores, leaving limited time for one-to-one interaction, excepting over phone. These kids have packages running into six digits (and more) but do not have the time to relax in the evening, post work! For people working with MNCs, with clientele spread across continents, the difference in time zones creates longer work hours! Recently, I saw the top executive of an MNC in Bangalore return from office by 5 pm but start a video conference with his bosses in the US by 7 pm! The conference can last for 2 hours at a time and the Family, by now has learned to ‘live’ with the situation! Here in India, most people live to work.

One of the biggest reasons that people struggle to balance work and family life is that they fail to compartmentalize. Talking to wife/ child while at the office is considered normal as is checking a work email while playing with the kids or taking calls from clients while out for dinner with family - all in the name of that magical word – Multitasking!

Post-1990, India saw the evolution of the private sector ‘corporate world’, led so powerfully by the IT sector. Private jobs became the preferred choice against ‘Sarkari’ jobs of the golden times (as those appear today) of the 1960s and 1970s! I used to see my late father (and other close relatives with govt jobs) return from their offices at a fixed, predictable time and then, enjoy family time or socialize! Over the years, job opportunities in the public sector or pure govt sector have reduced in absolute numbers or as a percentile of total jobs available in the market. A classic example is the telecom sector – I have 3 cousins who worked for the ‘Sarkari’ BSNL – the organization that used to have a monopoly on communication facilities in India. With the introduction of competition from the private sector (starting in 1995, with Essar Cell phones), BSNL not only lost its monopoly but also its arrogance, its sheen, and, more importantly, its customers.

The Telecom sector just erupted like a volcano and today, India has the world’s second-largest telecom market with a base of 1.16 billion customers. Similar explosions took place in several other segments of the Indian economy – Banking, electronic media, insurance, consumer and white goods manufacturing, aviation, food, hospitality, travel, industrial manufacturing, services segment, etc. This boom has created jobs, mostly well-paid ones but the kids appear to be paying a heavy price for the money they are earning– by way of their family and social relationships!

Having spent 42 years in Pharma Marketing, I have seen the Indian Corporate World functioning inside out, as I rose through the ranks. Throughout my professional career, I had to travel frequently and stay away from home for days together; the introduction of cell phones further tightened the noose around our necks as corporate bosses could contact the sales staff at odd hours! Sales are considered a jealous mistress, leaving one with limited time for other activities; yet, I feel, I and my colleagues in the industry could maintain a decent balance between life and work responsibilities. I always could give time to my family and attend to my social responsibilities, including parent-teacher meetings with my kids! Today, that life-work balance is under serious threat. Employees are expected to be on duty 24x7x365! No doubt the facilities and financial rewards are way beyond our expectations.

Yet, the question remains in my mind – at what cost?

The Covid 19 outbreak had a brutal impact on every segment of the economy, particularly on segments like small retail, tourism, food, hospitality, non-pharma sales, travel, aviation, manufacturing, etc. For about 24 months, the country remained in varying degrees of lockdown. The manufacturing industry resorted to downscaling, leading to the loss of jobs. The Labour market crashed, particularly in the unorganized sector; the construction industry came to a halt, and domestic help was advised to stay home. Some industries created various forms of the ‘work-from-home’ model – but WFH suited only certain types of industries!

Zoom calls became the order of the day. I learned that several IT Companies in hubs like Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Pune let go of huge properties they had hired as office space! Initially, people working from home were delighted; WFH saved commute time, a huge relief in large cities like Delhi, Mumbai, etc, besides giving people the notion of convenience. Young parents were particularly happy for being able to spend more time with their toddlers. Soon, however, people started feeling that the knife cuts both ways and there is a serious issue of timings. People ended up working for longer hours! Given the propensity of Indian Management, long work hours have become the norm, creating stress and impacting lifestyles!

The impact of Covid 19 was global. I found that several of my relatives in North America were also working from home. However, during my recent 8-month stay abroad, I found while people had adopted WFH, they continued to maintain a healthier work-life balance, in line with the general trend in the West. Holidays and weekends continue to be sacrosanct.

Likewise, work hours are respected in the West and people are often compensated for putting in extra hours, unlike in India. It is only in India that employers/ managers try to squeeze out every ounce of juice from their workforce! We Indians are often hailed as ‘hard working’ but pretty soon people realize that the ‘hard work comes at a huge cost, impacting the quality of life! I overheard a middle-level MNC IT manager in Bangalore lamenting that his US-based Indian boss often berates his team in India with comments like,” Sleep is very overrated; you have weekends free, enjoy your sleep on weekends”! Such comments or thinking come but rarely from Western bosses or can be used by other employees in the West.

Having worked in the Indian corporate world, I can say with a certain amount of conviction that most Indian employers and Managers are obsessed with 360 degrees, 365x24x7 availability of their staff. They also have this feeling of owning the body and soul of their employees. As a result of the immense competition and perceived ‘threat to job’, a few unfortunate trends are being noticed in this 25–35-year population segment:

  • People have become obsessed with their careers, often losing life perspectives
  • Due to high disposable incomes, this segment has increased its expenses and got used to a certain lifestyle;
  • Fear of losing a job haunts many as it impacts lifestyle; lockdown demonstrated that.
  • Lack of work-life balance affects personal relationships. If an employee continues to neglect their loved ones for work, he may end up with relationship problems that enhance his stress quotient, affecting work as well as the quality of life. The bottom line: unhappiness at work causes unhappiness at home and vice versa.
  • Relationships have become fragile – people are hesitating in committing themselves to the institution of marriage. Live-in relationships have gained acceptance.
  • In chasing the mirage of a career, people are deferring (even refusing) having kids. Nature sometimes has its revenge later!
  • Job obsessions and leading ‘pressure cooker’ lifestyles are impacting health with depression, mood swings, obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and other lifestyle disorders. Increased screen time has led to problems affecting vision (sore eyes, double vision, blurring, headaches (migraine), excessive tearing or blinking, the ‘computer vision syndrome), etc.
  • Since both partners are engrossed in career building, household chores, particularly cooking get outsourced – either to Zomato/ Swiggy or a cook. Quality obviously suffers since the ‘domestic help’ commands a high premium and the couples face a TINA (There is no alternative) situation.
  • Home delivery of daily household needs, even at a cost, has become the norm. A proper ‘supply-delivery’ mechanism has evolved for such families in Metro cities in India. Most couples lack the time to visit markets personally!

An unwitting victim of such lifestyles is the kids born to busy parents. Toddlers need proper care and attention for the first 2-3 years of their lives. As per current Indian laws, expectant mothers are allowed just 6 months of maternity leave; there is no provision for paternity leave in India as of date. Our workplaces do not have provisions for nurseries and it becomes very difficult for a mother to nurse a 6-month-old child. Indian managements are mostly insensitive toward such basic needs of a lactating mother.

Recently, a colleague was forced to resign by an arrogant HR because she wished to feed her 6-month child at home during lunch break! Since families have become nuclear, parents have to either fall back upon their own parents (set of in-laws) or hire nannies. Parents from India have been traveling to the greener pastures of Europe and America for decades for babysitting! The concept of sending young kids (< 6 m - 5 yrs) to Day Care Centres has been prevalent in developed countries for decades and is taking root in larger cities now in India too! I recently got to see first-hand, the working of a couple of Day Care Centres in Canada; such centers are tightly regulated (in the West but not in India). While this Daycare provides adequate care to young kids, nothing can replace the love and care parents/grandparents/ family can provide! My wife and I spent 8 months babysitting in Canada from 2021-22 and the difference it made to the child’s development was obvious to all, including the daycare provider!

I am not in any way criticizing the current generation – they are just responding to a set of situations; their lifestyles are a response, maybe a knee-jerk one, to the situation they find themselves in. I find it different from my point of view, having led a very different type of life. Probably every generation goes through this process of evolution, finding their own answers to the peculiar situations they find themselves in.

My concern is that the cost our children are paying for earning big salaries might, in the long run, prove too big even for them! Not everything can be seen in terms of dollars earned! Life does not have a rewind button! Time just flies by, leaving behind people not in step. A healthy life-work integration is the order of the day! We need to look at life in its larger context! Life balance is more than work-life balance - it is an intricate art and science of making decisions on how we spend our time and energy, including how we include various parts facets of our lives - caring for our families, our friends, traveling, self-care and occasionally dabbling in our hobbies. Yes, work consumes a significant part of our day, but there is a much larger, much more important thing called LIFE. Work-Life Balance (WLB) has more to do with managing expectations - those others have of us and those we have of ourselves. Humans are sensitive and vulnerable creatures, designed in complex and vastly varying ways. The pace of life these days requires the cultivation of expectation management and everyone must evolve their own unique form of that art. It's a struggle because so many people just rely on the wrong role models. Your employer shall replace you as soon as you quit or retire.

Long after you retire, your loved ones and friends shall still be there for you. The relationships and memories you built with them are what matters most in life.

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Comments

    • Suniel Kumar Dhar

      A very well analysed document on the present work culture of our younger generation !!

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      • Ashok Dullu

        A good write-up reflecting a common failure in working life. My only regret in Professional life was a blurred work- life balance. Initially it is building a career and later, preserving it becomes the CDS. ( Compulsive Disorder Syndrome). Have met only one person in my professional life who made career choices in conformity with 'work life balance' principles Sanjeev indicates. 👍👍

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