To many people, work-life balance is at best a good idea, or at worst a terrible modern day joke that doesn’t make anyone laugh anymore.
In the words of Boris Groysberg and Robin Abrahams, who wrote in a March 2014 Harvard Business Review article: “Work/life” balance is at best an elusive ideal and at worst a complete myth, today’s senior executives will tell you.”
The underlying reason for this elusiveness is that we’re constantly connected and expected to be present both for “work” and “life” at all times: when we are at work, we’re expected to be reachable by family and friends, and when we are at home we are expected to be on call for work and clients.
Despite the efforts of many companies to implement work life balance practices for their employees, it is the individuals themselves who struggle most with juggling their roles in a meaningful and effective way.
As part of my work to develop faith-driven professional training for individuals and corporates, I looked into the life and sayings of Prophet Muhammad and tried to extract practical lessons that would be beneficial for the modern day professional. Before we delve into these insights, let us explore 5 reasons why work life balance is so hard to master.
Why is Work-Life balance so hard to achieve?
5 Challenges to Achieving Work Life Balance
Here are 5 of some of the challenges that fuel the work-life balance debate:
1. It’s subjective
Modern day work life balance is based primarily on expectations. For an executive who works 50–60 hours per week but makes it a point to be home for dinner at 6pm every evening; is he considered to have “mastered” work/life balance? Perhaps from the executive’s point of view he might be proud of himself for being home for dinner every night, but his spouse or children might not appreciate that work occupies 80% of his time.
Similarly, consider the case of a working mother, who’s torn between her career and her family. Who decides if she has achieved “work/life balance”?
2. It’s transient
Work Life balance is not fixed. It changes with seasons and with every stage of our lives. You may be able to achieve some form of work/life balance when you have one child, you’re a junior staff, and you don’t have as many responsibilities. However, trying to achieve work life balance with 3 kids, a demanding job, a mortgage to pay off, and being involved in so many other extra curricular activities really is a challenge.
3. It’s not measurable
How do we even begin measuring work life balance? Is there a metric or scoring system that tells us how well we’re doing on the work life balance continuum? Are the number of hours spent on family vs. work vs. personal activities sufficient to measure our work life balance effectiveness? What about the quality of those hours? These questions and more make work life balance debate even harder.
4. It emphasizes “work” as larger than life
The whole idea that there’s “work” and then there’s “life” is problematic at many levels. Firstly, it assumes that work is the center of our lives and everything else is peripheral and on the side. Secondly, it assumes that work can never be integrated with life and that there’s a Great Wall of China separating the two.
As Dr.Stewart Friedman argues in his book “Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life“, the idea that “work” competes with “life” ignores the more nuanced reality of our humanity, which is arguably the interaction of four domains: work, home, community, and the private self. The goal needs to be to create harmony among these four areas instead of thinking only in terms of trade-offs.
5. It’s hard to plan for
Let’s be honest: you can plan the most balanced lifestyle, giving due time to every role you have, but reality always wins. Whether it’s that last minute emergency meeting at 4pm that disturbs your dinner plans, or rushing to the hospital in the middle of a client meeting because your child had an injury at school. Life keeps throwing stuff at us that makes it impossible for us to manage and truly have a balanced lifestyle.
By now, you might be thinking that achieving work-life balance is totally unattainable! It’s the right time to consider how insights from our Prophet Muhammad’s life and practices.
3 Key Lessons from Prophet Muhammad That Help Solve the Above Challenges
When one observes the daily routine of Prophet Muhammad , one cannot resist but notice how balanced & effective it was during his life. This is the man who, in just 23 years changed the face of humanity with his mission. Interestingly, we never hear complaints from his family or companions that “he was too busy” or “didn’t have enough time for us”.
Although one can argue that the Prophet did not have a 9–5 job, nor did he face half the challenges and distractions we’re facing in our modern day lives, however we can still extract key lessons from his life that are applicable for us today.
Lesson 1: Scrap Work-Life Balance and Focus on Total Life Balance
The Prophet once heard that one of his companions was fasting everyday and spending all night in prayer. The Prophet made a point to go visit him and advise him not to do this. Here’s what he told him: “…I have been told that you stand all night (in prayer) and fast all day.’ I said: ‘Yes (I do).’ He said: ‘Do not do that. Sleep and stand (in prayer); fast and break your fast.
For your eyes have a right over you, your body has a right over you, your body has a right over you, your wife has a right over you, your guest has a right over you, and your friend has a right over you…” [Sunan an-Nasa’i 2391]
What fascinates me about this incident is how the Prophet made it a point to go and visit the man and advise him to stop. All of this despite the fact that the man was engaged in devotional acts of worship, which one would think the Prophet would be pleased about.
The key lesson for us here is that instead of thinking of work life balance in terms of what others expect from us, we should think of work life balance in terms of fulfilling rights: The rights of our body, the rights of our mind, the rights of our families, the rights of our friends, and of course, the rights of our workplaces.
Once we shift our thinking of work life balance from subjective/idealistic notions to rights of others (& ourselves) it becomes very clear and intuitive where to draw the line between the different parts of our lives and how to balance our lives given the circumstances. The elegance of this is that it takes away the guilt associated normally with work life balance. For example, if we know that we’ve fulfilled the rights of our workplace, then we shouldn’t feel guilty if we leave by 5pm just because everyone else expects us to stay longer.
To implement this lesson in practice, we need to firstly identify the different roles that we play in our lives and then understand what rights do each of these roles/entities have upon us. For example, as Muslims, one area we need to ‘shepherd our time’ for is in order to fulfil our responsibility of salah – this in itself is often a challenge, and many of us become chronically late for salah due to hectic days, commutes, meetings and lessons.
Lesson 2: Be a Shepherd in Every Role
The lesson about fulfilling rights above may seem to imply that as long as we fulfill the bare minimum rights to those around us then we’re considered to have succeeded in life.However, another cornerstone lesson that the Prophet taught his followers is to look at our roles from the point of view of responsibility.
He said: “Each of you is a shepherd and each of you is responsible for his flock. The amir (ruler) who is over the people is a shepherd and is responsible for his flock; a man is a shepherd in charge of the inhabitants of his household and he is responsible for his flock; a woman is a shepherdess in charge of her husband’s house and children and she is responsible for them; and a man’s slave is a shepherd in charge of his master’s property and he is responsible for it. So each of you is a shepherd and each of you is responsible for his flock.” [Sunan Abi Dawud]
If you think about a shepherd, his role is not just to do the bare minimum of keeping the flock alive. His role is to nurture and to grow his flock and make sure they thrive — and not just survive.
The following passage from my new book “The Productive Muslim: Where Faith Meets Productivity” explains this concept further: If you think about what a shepherd does, he doesn’t simply protect the flock, he nurtures and develops them. He searches for new pastures, tends to the sick, ensures that young ones are taken care of, etc. It’s not a passive responsibility but a very active role… Imagine a parent thinking they are fulfilling their responsibility of educating their children by simply taking them to school. Is this person fulfilling the role of [shepherd] of his children? To be a true [shepherd], a parent needs not only to be concerned with their children’s attendance, but also their growth and development as productive citizens. He/she needs to check what they were taught in school, how they are doing with their homework, the manners they are learning, etc. This is how we fulfil in part our trusteeship of our children.
With this concept in mind — the conversation regarding work life balances again shifts away from subjective, debatable allocations of time, but towards the quality of our time that we spend to nurture and develop those around us and those who have rights upon us.
Lesson 3: Be Present & Have Quality Time
There’s a long narration in the books of hadeeth (sayings of Prophet Muhammad ) that I never understood until recently. It describes a long account that Ayisha is sharing with the Prophet about 11 women who tell each other about their husbands’ qualities. Ayisha goes through each of the 11 women and recounts in detail what each person said. The last story was about a woman called Um Zar who described her husband in positive terms and had no complaints about him.
The Prophet said: “I am to you as Abu Zar was to his wife Um Zar” [Sahih Bukhari]
I used to scratch my head and try to understand the point of this narration. It made no sense to me until recently. There are various lessons to learn here, but a scholar explained that the main point of this story is to showcase how attentive, present, and a good listener the Prophet was to his family. Something as small as just taking time to listen to your spouse can have a massive impact on nurturing and restoring balance to your relationship. When it comes to achieving a total life balance, a lot of the time, the small things are the big things.
Sometimes when we talk about work life balance we tend to think of how much time we’re spending at home, at work, or with our friends. But if we are 50% at home (mentally) when we are at work, and 50% at work (mentally) when we are at home, then it is no wonder we constantly feel stressed and not able to keep up.
The ability to be focused and 100% engaged in everything we do is a key characteristic of successful leaders who showcase how important the people around them. When such leaders do get busy, the people around them know it is an exception, not a rule, and are understanding and compassionate towards them.
Work life balance may seem elusive to many people, yet if we apply the key lessons above, like shifting the narrative around work-life balance to instead a fulfilling of rights and responsibilities, and being present with those around us, we’ll make huge strides in achieving a holistic, whole life balance.
Bonus Webinar Recording: “Work Life Balance from a Prophetic Perspective”
Click on the image above for a recording of a webinar I held recently for Muslim Professionals on this topic. It contains more practical tips on the notes made above that help modern professionals tackle work-life balance from a Prophetic perspective:
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