Myth or Reality: Work-Life Balance

Posted on 02. Mar, 2007 by in Business

work-life_balance_sign.jpgI just walked in the door from a recruiting event for the public accounting firm I work for. The event was nice – dinner at a nice restaurant downtown – and was meant as a sort of warm-up to the round of interviews that the candidates are going to go through tomorrow. After having gone to a few of these types of events I’ve come to the realization that there are no unique questions anymore… I’ve heard them all. But the question I get asked about most often is about the mythical “work-life balance.” So after having spent a few hours explaining my thoughts on the subject, I thought it had enough business relevance to share here. After all, BeancounterBlog is not just about money. Money, ultimately, will not make you happy – regardless of what anyone else tells you.

College students generally ask about the level of work-life balance in the world of public accounting for one reason – they are worried about the stories they hear of 80+ hour weeks and are afraid that those stories reflect reality. They don’t want to go from pulling all-nighters during mid-terms to pulling all-nighters for a group of partners that go home at 5pm everyday. And I can understand their fear, because I had the same concerns when I first explored the possibility of joining public accounting. However, many of these students also have an unrealistic idea of “balance.” For some, balance means 9-5 work days so that they can go out with their friends in the evening. The reality? Well, as any one of you who work in any sort of client services industry can attest, the reality is much different.

In the client services industry, the time spent at work isn’t determined by the clock – it’s determined by the client and the expectations that the client has set. For an accountant, that expectation is often a financial statement filing date or April 15th. For a waiter, the expectations is that the food will reach the table in the shortest time possible. For a lawyer, the expectation is to win the case. But most of the time, winning the case doesn’t get done by putting 40 hours a week into the case. Winning the case means going the extra mile and spending those extra hours to make sure the job is done right. And that’s what the client expects – quality.

However, for some reason many students I talk to are instantly disappointed when I tell them they might have to put in some 55+ hour weeks in order to meet deadlines. At the same time, I can honestly tell people that I have a fairly good work-life balance. Why? Because I believe that the key to achieving a work-life balance is perspective. In order to achieve a work-life balance you have to stop thinking in terms of hours or days, or even weeks. In order to achieve work-life balance you have to begin to think in broader terms.

Last week was tough for me, for example. I left work about 8pm or so every night, and didn’t get to see my kids before they went to bed. Last week was not a balance between work and life. This week, however, I was able to go to a Sharks game, come home early to babysit while my wife went out, and leave work early to attend a fun recruiting dinner. If you had asked me last week if I thought I had a work-life balance, I might have said no. If you ask me now if this week was a good balance between work and life I would say no. But if I stand back and take a look at the past few weeks, I can honestly say that I have achieved a good work-life balance.

What’s the point of my rambling? I’m not sure, actually. I think I’m just tired of hearing people complain that they don’t have a good enough balance in their life – when in reality they’re either not taking the proactive steps to create that balance, or they aren’t looking at the broader view which would actually reveal that they have a work-life balance after all.

6 Responses to “Myth or Reality: Work-Life Balance”

  1. john

    04. Mar, 2007

    Yes, people have gotten used to complaining, not to taking any actions to fix their messes.

  2. Carl

    06. Mar, 2007

    I can agree with you that counting the hours is not a good way to measure your work-life balance. I call it my “checkbook theory” ( hence my starting a blog about it). The concept is that your work and home balance is jumbled up in a big checkbook. Sometimes you’re making a deposit ( like working late ) and sometimes you’re making withdrawals ( like coming home early from work). Personally I’m finishing my MBA and that has just been killing my balance but 18 weeks and I’m done..

    The key is to recognize the larger picture and think how the overall balance is going. If you always work late and aren’t being compensated properly or enjoying the work then chances are you feel out of balance. If you let it go too far the other way ( and are slacking) then that usually results in trouble….

    I think each person can drive this balance for themselves. There isn’t some magic HR department manual on BALANCE that they issue to you on your first day of work.

    I’m a field based person ( 16 years) and find that the balance shifts with whatever workload you have. Mine is at the end of each quarter or year end (making the numbers). I just resign myself to cranking out the work at those times so I can kick back a bit in the slower, summer months.

    Works for me. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  3. Joseph Keane

    08. Mar, 2007

    I for one am glad to hear that some cooler heads prevailed on this subject. Public accounting suffers from an outdated negative perception in the market place. While horror stories abound of working around the clock very rarely do those stories hold any current merit. All of the “Big Four” firms have controls and people in place to mitigate over working and burning out their most valuable resource “their staff”.
    While it is true that during busy season people are just that busy. However during the slower times you are hard pressed to find people here after 6 PM or on Fridays at all. The main issue here is two fold. Number one is the fact that Public Accounting in general does not have a PR engine that fights these negative perceptions and number two colleges and universities do a horrible job of instilling in their charges a realistic work ethic that is based on current trends in accounting. Thank You for your enlightened comments.

  4. pinney

    23. May, 2008

    hey
    i liked this blog
    even though i didnt read it
    I LOVE IT
    !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

  5. m

    01. Jun, 2008

    Having experienced first hand the myth and realty of worklife balance in a Big 4 here’s my two cents.

    I feel Big 4 firms love to promote the notion that they provide work life balance. It’s a great selling point, but do they just talk the talk or do they actually walk the walk? Do they support it, or do they support it for only a select few individuals? In my opinion from what I witnessed it was supported by my office, and my department for only a select few individuals.

    I think Big 4 firms provide some flexibility in working conditions (ability to leave in middle of day for doctors appointments, occassionally working from home/remotely, ability to start work day later and stay later to avoid traffic, etc), but I don’t know if I would necessarly call this worklife balance because I am still going to be expected to do all the work that gets piled on my desk.

    Based off my experience I disagree with Joseph Keane response that “All of the “Big Four” firms have controls and people in place to mitigate over working and burning out their most valuable resource “their staff”. The firms might have the controls in place, but do they follow them and prevent over working from happening? If the firms do not have enough resources (staff) in place, then how are you going to prevent over working the ones you already have? If you did not want to burn out the staff you already have, then do not expect them to put in 50-70 plus hours year round (week after week).

    I have many horror stories that I could share and things I witnessed, but I try to avoid at all cost another nightmare trip down memmory lane.

    In my department it was busy year round. There was no such thing as a busy season or a slow season. In what would have been traditionally the slowest period October 16 through December (I was in the tax department) we were then expected to go out on audits and continue working 50 plus hour billable/chargable workweeks in addition to the other none billable administrated stuff. There was never any down time, therefore there was no time to recharge ones batteries, do cpe, various clean up work, or even think about or plan for the up and coming work for the next year, or to have a life outside of work. No one can have work life balance when they work in conditions like this.

    Only time I had a life outside of work was when I was on vacation, and trying to live your entire life balance in a three weeks vacation just does not cut it.

    Bottom line, the company ruled and ran my entire life while I worked for them. We were expected to put in very long hours year round. I worked a number of times 3 to 4 weeks straight without having 1 day off. I had to pull a few all nighters on occassion. Only once in a four year period can I remember receiving a thank you acknowledgement from a manager I worked directly with for my hard work. One time the reply I received from a manager after pulling one of those multiple weeks without a day off, where I put in 60 hours each week, working on a Saturday another 10 to 11 hours for one manager and then having another one suggest that same day that I should continue to stay all Saturday night to work on their assignment rather then coming back in on Sunday.

    Let’s evaluate this shall we. I haven’t had proper sleep in weeks and I can barely keep my eyes open and function as it is, nor have I had even one day off. I just spent another 10 to 11 gruling hours working on a mangers project because they waited to the last minute to review and had to fed ex it to the client that day, even though it had been sitting in their office ready to be reviewed for two months (no need to go into this one). My head is throbbing due to the lack of sleep and being over worked. My head has been throbbing for weeks, and now the next manager wants me to pull another all nighter. People, I need some sleep. I would be much more productive after I obtain some sleep. So tell me, where were the controls and people in place to mitigate and prevent this over working scenerio from happening? Scenerios like this happened many times. That’s right it does not appear there were any in place. When the company took opinion polls that showed glorious results on the work life balance issue, my coworkers and I always wondered just whom within this company might they be asking. They obviously were not asking any of the staff and seniors for their opinion in my department as we would have painted a very different opinion and given the company a failing grade in supporting work life balance. It is great when a company supports work life balance, but you can not just talk the talk, you need to walk the walk. That means you better support it for all your employees (staff and seniors included) and not just a few select managers and above.

  6. m

    01. Jun, 2008

    Having experienced first hand the myth and realty of work life balance in a Big 4 here’s my two cents.

    I feel Big 4 firms love to promote the notion that they provide work life balance. It’s a great selling point, but do they just talk the talk or do they actually walk the walk? Do they support it, or do they support it for only a select few individuals? In my opinion from what I witnessed it was supported by my office, and my department for only a select few individuals.

    I think Big 4 firms provide some flexibility in working conditions (ability to leave in middle of day for doctors appointments, occasionally working from home/remotely, ability to start work day later and stay later to avoid traffic, etc), but I don’t know if I would necessarily call this work life balance because I am still going to be expected to do all the work that gets piled on my desk.

    Based off my experience I disagree with Joseph Keane response that “All of the “Big Four” firms have controls and people in place to mitigate over working and burning out their most valuable resource “their staff”. The firms might have the controls in place, but do they follow them and prevent over working from happening? If the firms do not have enough resources (staff) in place, then how are you going to prevent over working the ones you already have? If you did not want to burn out the staff you already have, then do not expect them to put in 50-70 plus hours year round (week after week).

    I have many horror stories that I could share and things I witnessed, but I try to avoid at all cost another nightmare trip down memory lane.

    In my department it was busy year round. There was no such thing as a busy season or a slow season. In what would have been traditionally the slowest period October 16 through December (I was in the tax department) we were then expected to go out on audits and continue working 50 plus hour billable/chargeable workweeks in addition to the other none billable administrated stuff. There was never any down time, therefore there was no time to recharge ones batteries, do cpe, various clean up work, or even think about or plan for the up and coming work for the next year, or to have a life outside of work. No one can have work life balance when they work in conditions like this.

    Only time I had a life outside of work was when I was on vacation, and trying to live my entire life balance in a three weeks vacation just does not cut it.

    Bottom line, the company ruled and ran my entire life while I worked for them. We were expected to put in very long hours year round. I worked a number of times 3 to 4 weeks straight without having 1 day off. I had to pull a few all nighters on occasion. Only once in a four year period can I remember receiving a thank you acknowledgement from a manager I worked directly with for my hard work. One time the reply I received from a manager after pulling one of those multiple weeks without a day off, where I put in 60 hours each week, working on a Saturday another 10 to 11 hours for one manager and then having another one suggest that same day that I should continue to stay all Saturday night to work on their assignment rather then coming back in on Sunday.

    Let’s evaluate this shall we. I haven’t had proper sleep in weeks and I can barely keep my eyes open and function as it is, nor have I had even one day off. I just spent another 10 to 11 grueling hours working on a mangers project because they waited to the last minute to review and had to fed ex it to the client that day, even though it had been sitting in their office ready to be reviewed for two months (no need to go into this one). My head is throbbing due to the lack of sleep and being over worked. My head has been throbbing for weeks, and now the next manager wants me to pull another all nighter. People, I need some sleep. I would be much more productive after I obtain some sleep. So tell me, where were the controls and people in place to mitigate and prevent this over working scenario from happening? Scenarios like this happened many times. That’s right it does not appear there were any in place. When the company took opinion polls that showed glorious results on the work life balance issue, my coworkers and I always wondered just whom within this company might they be asking. They obviously were not asking any of the staff and seniors for their opinion in my department as we would have painted a very different opinion and given the company a failing grade in supporting work life balance. It is great when a company supports work life balance, but you can not just talk the talk, you need to walk the walk. That means you better support it for all your employees (staff and seniors included) and not just a few select managers and above.

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