Women in business: Reimagining work-life balance

Can your career and personal life ever be in harmony? Maybe not, but there are ways to tip the scale in your favour

Vancouver entrepreneur Madeleine Shaw | Chung Chow

The ever-elusive work-life balance. Is it achievable? Or is it a myth? The answer depends on whom you ask.

Some people feel it can never be achieved because work and life are one and the same. They need to be integrated, not kept separate and balanced.

Others believe “balance” is inappropriate since it implies “equal.” If a significant deadline is fast approaching at work, or worse, a child is severely ill at home, then prioritization and flexibility are required.  For others, the term simply means having it all without going crazy or getting burned out – a career, a family and a life. This may be achievable, but only if you give up the idea of perfection.

“I think it’s a myth but then we still have to live our lives so I think it’s both,” says Jacqueline Jennings, who has first-hand experience with burnout both as an employee and as an entrepreneur. “There’s a very antiquated idea that we have a work life and a personal life. They used to be separate in the days when you would get a job and keep a job for 40 years and they would give you a pension and you would clock in and clock out and there were no smartphones.” Today there’s no separation, she says. “It’s less about balance and more about, how do you survive and thrive without that separation?”

So, if we could wave our magic wand and find that equilibrium, short of inventing more hours to the 24-hour day, what would it look like? What could it look like, if it were to exist?

Radical reimagining ■ Vancouver entrepreneur Madeleine Shaw is thinking big but starting small with a reimagined workplace she calls Nestworks. She has registered the business as a non-profit society and is currently scouting a location for her shared workspace that will be family-friendly and include a registered on-site daycare.

Shaw envisions renting a space of up to 20,000 square feet, separated into a number of different areas, and partnerships with family-friendly businesses, such as Café Deux Soleils on Commercial Drive, where kids are welcome and accommodated.

“Within the space of Nestworks, there would be a room where the children just get acclimatized. Mom and Dad are sitting there working on their laptops and the kids can go and explore and be with other children, but they can still see their parents,” says Shaw, 49, describing what she sees will be a series of collaborations that support family-friendly policies in the workplace.

Shaw has spent the past 18 months investigating shared workspace models in large cities, including Toronto, Chicago and Seattle. She juggles her own career with being a parent, a spouse and a daughter to aging parents.

“It’s a radical reimagining because it seeks to intentionally integrate things that have traditionally been very separate,” says Shaw, who is also a social entrepreneur and co-founder of Vancouver-based Lunapads, which makes clothes with built-in reusable menstrual pads.

“Children and parenting are traditionally considered unsuitable or incompatible with a professional work environment. I strongly question this, and feel like there is a very strong case to be made for positive outcomes including positive mental health, creativity, innovation and collaboration,” Shaw says.“The nature of work and how it’s constructed these days is changing radically. Why not this too? The way that we currently work and live is inefficient; it’s stressful and hinders full participation in the workforce by parents. To me, it’s not really radical at all, just something that makes sense and whose time has come.”

Jennings is familiar with the challenges of finding affordable daycare in Metro Vancouver. Her husband stayed home for the first two years with their son. He went on parental leave and when it ran out, he quit. “It’s basically impossible to find child care especially in Vancouver for a child under 18 months,” says Jennings. “If you can find a spot, you will be paying $1,600 a month. For the difference, we were going to be paying somebody else to look after our son, and it was a nominal amount that he was going to be bringing home after we paid that person.”

The timing for Shaw’s idea couldn’t be better, as daycares and office rents are increasingly out of reach. The seeds of Nestworks were planted years ago when Shaw and Lunapads co-founder Suzanne Siemens started their families while launching their company in 2000. They brought their babies to work until each child was about 18 months old, after which Shaw says kids in the workplace no longer works so well.

 “I had one child, she had two,” Shaw says. “The kids arrived conveniently about one to two years apart, so over a period of five years we had a child in the office the whole time.… What I learned through the experience of having small children in our office was that it reduced, rather than increased, stress, allowed us to practise extended breastfeeding and overall spend more time with our kids.”

Even the name, Nestworks, suggests integration.  “A nest is very cosy and a place where things are growing and incubating,” says Shaw. “It’s also a place where families live. And the work part of it, it’s because we’re working.”

Nestworks would also include specialized-care areas for infants, an area for toddlers and likely an adult-only, do-not-disturb area for meetings and quiet time. Lunch, however, would be shared. “You could eat with your kids. Why not? Or checkup on them, or whatever,” imagines Shaw. “To me, that is the secret sauce of the work-life balance.”

She describes a scenario many parents are familiar with: a child who starts to show early signs of being sick, but not sick enough to keep at home.  “If your kid is maybe seen to have a tiny bit of an upset tummy in the morning, but seemed to be pretty much OK, then you drop them off at the daycare and then get on transit or you drive for 40 minutes to work, you can’t satisfy tugs at the back of your mind wondering if your kid’s OK,” she says.

“It’s physically impossible in the middle of a workday for you as a parent to go and check on your kid and say: ‘How’s your tummy, buddy?’” says Shaw. “I’m talking about these simple little things that promote family health, not to mention the impact that it would have on children having a sense of security to know that their parent is close at hand. It’s not some mystery. They’ve seen the room where Mummy is having her meeting and it’s just down the hall. They know if they need her, she’ll come.”

Reality check ■ Five years ago, Jennings gave up a string of high-powered executive-level jobs that she says were her “primary relationships,” including being executive assistant to Lululemon Athletica founder and CEO Chip Wilson. Now married with a three-year-old son, she moved out of the city and runs her own company from her new home on the Sunshine Coast, giving her a fresh perspective on work-life balance.

“There’s a lie being told, primarily through social media but we tell it to each other. It’s that you can have it all,” says Jennings. “You can’t. You aren’t making perfectly home-cooked meals every single night of the week with organic vegetables you bought at the farmers market. Maybe your house isn’t clean every day. Maybe your laundry just goes from the dryer into a pile instead of perfectly folded and back into drawers. Those are some of the lies of motherhood.”

Something always has to give, she says, nothing more so than the idea of perfection. “A lot of people can achieve the esthetic of a well-dressed baby, all organic natural products, perfect health and fitness, home-cooked meals. But, what is missing? Are you actually present or are you just curating and documenting that life? Is there joy and spontaneity? Probably not.”

She approaches life the same way she asks her clients to approach their careers: be clear on your vision and priorities. “You can do anything but you can’t do everything. If you have 25 priorities, something is going to fail. You won’t succeed.”

Other tips include:

Connect with nature.

•Unplug and take time for yourself. Ante up “yourself care.”

•Say “no.”

•Don’t eat lunch at your desk.

•Be mindful and take control of your schedule. If you’re not a morning person, don’t schedule meetings before 10 a.m.

•Take your breaks. Go outside and be exposed to the light and darkness of the day.

“Most people have some degree over their schedule whether they realize it or not,” says Jennings. Be proactive. Don’t reply to a meeting request saying: ‘I’m free any time.’ Put forward three times that work best for you.”

If Jennings could wave a magic wand, what would her new reality of work-life balance look like? “It’s so difficult because we all live in a culture of overworking,” she says. “The most radical idea that I can think of is that companies stop breaking labour laws. A workday is eight hours; anything over that is overtime. Yet no one gets paid overtime.”

B.C.’s Employment Standards Act states that workers are entitled to a minimum of 1.5 times their regular pay after eight hours in one day, or more than 40 hours in one week. They get twice their regular pay after 12 hours in one workday. Any company policy, short of a collective agreement, that states otherwise is illegal. The act does allow for averaging agreements, which permit hours to be averaged over a period of four weeks. Managers are excluded from the requirements; however, they are entitled to be paid for all hours worked, unless their contract explicitly states otherwise.  “There’s a huge misconception around our labour laws,” says Jennings.

Cultural shift ■ The new norm will require a cultural shift, say those who advocate a return to less stressful times. The YWCA is one such advocate, promoting work-life balance through smart family policies “that address the imbalance in unpaid care, such as a universal system for early learning and child care, flexible working arrangements and parental leave reforms that encourage men to play a stronger role in the domestic sphere,” says the YWCA Metro Vancouver website. According to the YWCA, “more than ever before, we play many different roles in our lives,” including co-workers, parents, spouses, friends, volunteers and caregivers. “With so many responsibilities, it can be hard to take the time to care for our own physical and mental well-being.”

The YWCA cites research showing most people are affected by role overload, but women, more so than men, still carry a larger share of unpaid work at home. “Half of women in executive roles report they value flexibility over salary and would change jobs to achieve a better balance. Students and young graduates are also developing a strong desire for a flexible schedule.”

While flexibility is important, Vancouver business psychologist and executive coach Christa McDiarmid questions the “common wisdom” on work-life balance. “It’s a lot of talk about flexibility and work from home and I don’t think it necessarily translates to work-life balance,” says McDiarmid, 49. “I don’t think working from home necessarily improves work-life balance. In fact, I think it makes it harder for people to draw boundaries when they work at home.…  It’s really easy to answer emails at 11 p.m.”

She believes the workplace culture has to shift, and from the top, with change being driven by the CEO and executive leadership team. “That’s why I target executives. You need role modelling from the top that shows this is an executive team that takes work-life balance seriously. There is a culture that says you’re weak, you don’t work hard enough, if you go home at 5 or 5:30 p.m. That stigma has got to change,” says McDiarmid, who believes executives need to publicly recognize and positively reward employees who consistently leave work on time. Other initiatives could include the boss going around at 5 p.m. and turning off all the lights, forcing people to leave.

Her strategies include:

•Exercise regularly.

•Disconnect – watch TV, play video games, do whatever works for you to recharge your batteries, but do it in moderation.

•Connect with nature – take a walk outside.

Shaw believes the very notion of work-life balance is part of the mythology that needs changing. She also questions the idea that it is a women-only issue. “I feel like the way that we have constructed ‘work’ and ‘life’ as completely separate – typically physically, as well as mentally and emotionally separate – is what needs to be questioned and reimagined.… If I see one more panel at a women’s business conference devoted to addressing how women and/or mothers can better address the issue, rather than acknowledging that it needs to be about systemic change, I think that I will fall over.”