x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Checking the work-life balance

Achieving work-life balance is not as simple as spending equal time for work and personal life.

Hussein's exciting job in fraud detection with a major bank in Dubai was a source of awe and envy among his peers, as he teamed with the police and immersed himself in detective work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But Hussein was deeply dissatisfied with his bachelor lifestyle, having little time for family and friends and being unable to make plans because of the unpredictable nature of his work.

His is one of the case studies that Dr Katty Marmenout, a research fellow at the INSEAD school in Abu Dhabi, discusses in a paper on achieving the much desired balance between work and personal life. Dr Marmenout initially started holding coaching sessions for Middle-Eastern women as part of the INSEAD Women Leadership Initiative in Abu Dhabi. Although women in Arab societies are increasingly encouraged to join the workforce, a woman's role is still very much considered to be in the family realm, she says.

At the same time she found that men, forced to conform to the stereotype of being breadwinners, also struggle to balance their careers and personal lives. "As my female audience voiced the need for their husbands to find a balance too, I subsequently coached men as well," Dr Marmenout says. Hussein was one of the people she encountered in these sessions. Dr Marmenout says work-life balance is not simply about equally dividing the time spent on one's work and personal life, but establishing a harmony that reflects an individual's priorities.

So, this allows for acceptance of the happy workaholic or the satisfied stay-at-home mum or dad. "How can we measure or evaluate work-life balance? The best indicator would be that it should feel right," she says. Dr Marmenout advised Hussein to make the most of his free time and try to connect with family and friends during those times, as well as giving priorities to aspects of his work and delegating issues to team members.

Through these workshops, she realised that women and men generally have a different perception of what the "life" part of the balance involves. For women it tends to be devoting more time to family, while for men it is spending more time pursuing personal interests. Thus, she suggests it is useful to conduct separate sessions for men and women. Dr Marmenout says she found herself dealing with these issues when she recently had a baby and moved to the Middle East.

She says a much-neglected area for people is self-leadership, which includes effective time management and awareness of situations that cause emotional distress. "Complaining of a lack of time to fulfil all one's obligations is often a prominent sign of self-leadership," she says. "However, the sense of drowning and lack of time cannot be merely mended by tackling the symptoms through time-management tactics."

Among the Middle-Eastern women she came across who were struggling to juggle their multiple roles was Aisha, a mother of a six-month-old with a husband in the military who was away most of the time. Aisha was living with her husband's family, and her mother-in-law would take care of her son, Ali, while she was at work. The mother-in-law would often phone her at the office and tell her that the baby was missing his mother and refused to eat. These calls fuelled Aisha's feelings of guilt to such an extent that she considered quitting her job.

But one day, during one of these calls from her mother-in-law she said: "I don't want to hear you complain any longer. If you don't want to take care of Ali, that's fine. I can find a nanny but I need to continue my work. Please only call me if it's an emergency." Then she hung up. The group was full of admiration for Aisha, Dr Marmenout says, as she had solved an important emotionally stressful issue.

"She had made one important step forward towards increased satisfaction and effectiveness in her worklife," she says. "Other steps would be needed on the family side." rbundhun@thenational.ae