Work life balance: How we can put “work” and “life” on equal levels

We are VERY excited to have our first post guest post below by Claire Grauer who is a social anthropologist, consultant and blogger working with and interested in NGOs and organizational development, child rights, participatory approaches and Social Media. She is currently based in Germany and can be reached at or via Twitter: @sirisnotes.  We welcome guest posts on any topic, so pop us an email or comment and let us know if you would like to write.

Claire takes the topic of work life balance a step further by discussing current thinking on the topic and then offering strategies she has set up to help navigate this much talked about topic.  Read on and join in the discussion in the comments section below.


Zehra’s recent post on “Is there a life after work” gave me a lot of food for thinking. Like Zehra, I, too, have been wondering why so many people working in aid and development are struggling with their individual work life balance.

“Generation Y“, aid and development: We are all in the same boat

During the past weeks, I came across quite a few articles and blogs about “Generation Y”’s approach to work. “Gen Yers”, sometimes called “Millennials”, are born around or after 1980 and said to look for personal fulfilment in their jobs while being careful about maintaining their work-life balance. It is expected that employers will increasingly need to adapt to their applicants’ changing demands – but I have the impression that this is not happening in most work places and it rather seems as if especially those working in entry-level positions are even discouraged to think about something as a “work life balance”.

I do not want to discuss the usefulness of the concept of “Gen Y” here, but I find there are some similarities between us working in aid and development and the “Millennials”: We all appear to be driven by values, we want to do something meaningful in our professional lives and contribute our share towards improving the world by some means or other.

Having been working in development since 2006 I, too, experienced the difficulties of bringing together one’s aspirations of “doing good” while ending up in an environment where many people holding junior positions (and not only those) feel enormous pressure. This pressure often resulted from aiming at being promoted to the next higher level (where there were fewer positions available), waiting for short-term contracts to be renewed or simply wishing to get positive recommendations for future applications. Maintaining relationships and friendships or thinking about having children often came second or third or hardly at all.

Competition for jobs and promotion: Does it require us to put “life” last?

Judging from the many comments below a recent post at From Poverty to Power and from having talked to many students and recent graduates during the past year, competition for entry-level positions in aid and development is and will remain high. Right from their first days of work onwards, many people are then told to convinced they need to always put their jobs first or else they won’t be able to have much of a career.

This goes on for the years to follow: In fact, many people working on mid-career levels I talked to (including myself) know the unwritten law whereby working long hours and weekends and sacrificing anything outside work including family and personal life to work still are the main indicators of a person’s qualification.

By this, I am not saying that working hard is bad, not at all. I, too, like working a lot and could not imagine myself without work. When dealing with something I find interesting or that has a deadline, I do not count hours nor do I care working late or on weekends – and I suppose most of us have a similar approach. But despite the fact that one can draw a lot of satisfaction from work, it is equally important to make sure one “gets a life” outside of your job, as well-known aid blogger J. recently put it. After all, our jobs are mostly only temporary affairs whereas our lives outside work may ground us and give us a lot of energy and inspiration we can put into our work.

Why not put “life” first to achieve the balance?

When I read how Fi had been leaving meetings because of commitments with friends or family I wondered how I would react if someone left a meeting I am attending because of a family appointment – and it struck me that I first felt irritated, despite my deep conviction of the importance of having a life outside of one’s job. My second feeling, though, was admiration, because I thought about how utterly important it is that more people do just this: Just do it – act in order to balance work and life instead of giving work always first priority.

So even though we are talking about work life balance, “work” still is mostly considered to have to come first. But why not put “life” first – or, at least, put them on the same level? After all, there are many occasions where an email can be answered the next day or even a meeting may be scheduled an hour earlier, isn’t it? And a close friend whom I haven’t seen in a year may well deserve that I reserve an hour or two once she’s in town whereas I can meet my colleagues the next day as well.

Some strategies for improving the work life balance

Many NGOs or agencies or other workplaces in aid and development do not yet have mechanisms in place allowing employees to find out their individual degree of balance. True, changing organizational cultures needs time, but every process of change begins with individuals starting it. After all, are not all of us working in aid and development experts for change?

I am not suggesting this was a nice and easy task (and an evidence-based best practice collection yet has to be put together), but here are a few strategies I found helpful for improving my own work life balance:

–       Collect “case studies”: When putting together donor reports, we are dealing with case studies all the time. I have been doing this more or less consciously for a long time: Putting together my personal collection of “case studies”, mainly of women I met or read about and their approaches to handling their work, life, and family balance. It can be highly encouraging to see how someone else has coped with a certain situation, e.g. losing one’s job or handling life as working single mum and give you the spirit to do just what you feel you ought to do in a certain situation.

–       Create a network of friends, colleagues and mentors: I am grateful to having met some very special women all working in different positions within the aid/development sector along the way whom I regularly meet and discuss with. Most of them are older than me and I very much appreciate being able to turning to them for advice and looking over their shoulders at times in order to learn about how they are managing to handle their lives and jobs and families. A network of this kind does not need to be large (and not necessarily involve only women), but it is an important opportunity to reflect, share and learn.

–       Find out about one’s priorities (and what “having it all” means to you): This may be the hardest part because it can be difficult to find out what we really want (at least I found it difficult at times).  I am not so sure whether we really “can’t have it all” – after all, “all” depends on each individual’s ideas of life. In my experience, especially during the early years of one’s  career, it can be tricky to be aware of what it is that you want in life as opposed to what you believe you are supposed to want, because so much is insinuated on us by media, teachers, supervisors, etc. It helped me to write a journal and discuss this with friends and with a coach.

–       Take care of yourself and listen to trust your gut feeling: We need to free ourselves of the many pressures we feel, particularly in the workplace. We have to start using our common sense, and learn to act according to our gut feeling. Sounds vague? It sort of is, but I only found out after a few years of working that indeed listening to my inner voice and feeling often gave me the kind of advice I had been looking for with my brain and thoughts.

–       Yes, we can change structures and processes: In everything we do, we always have a choice. We can say “yes” or “no”. We can accept conditions in our work environment that we like or do not like. With new technologies all over the place, most office work (and aid and development to a large part is just that), does not necessarily need to be done at one and the same desk 5 days a week. We can thus insist on being given more flexibility while at the same time trying to find compromises, e.g. have regular team meetings or office times in addition.

Now, does this sound too idealistic or outright naïve to you? It should not because I believe that anyone of us, regardless of her position, regardless of her state of mind, can do this and contribute her share to balancing “work” and “life” in workplace discussions about work life balance.

I’d love to hear about the strategies which have helped you improve your work life balance. And how do your employers handle this whole matter? I am sure there are many out there giving their staff greater freedom for balancing work and life so that it fits to their various living circumstances.


About Zehra

Zehra is a livelihoods and cash transfer specialist working in humanitarian contexts. She has also been a health and lifestyle coach for humanitarian aid workers. Loves food, bollywood and tweeting (@zehrarizvi).
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9 Responses to Work life balance: How we can put “work” and “life” on equal levels

  1. Antje Lüdemann-Dundua says:

    Great text, Claire!! Could sign every single sentence and really appreciate your strategies. Have to work more consciously on one or two of them myself. Especially the part on being “aware of what it is that you want in life as opposed to what you believe you are supposed to want” – that was the hardest in the first years, I guess. Well, one strategy is changing jobs, getting to know different women. I like the women networking idea, too. Let’s think about this.

  2. amand# says:

    Claire, thanks for the great post on an important topic. Just wanted to respond to the last part – ‘yes, we can change structures and processes’. I totally agree with you that we can – and i’ve seen it happen and been part of it happening. After struggling ‘against’ the status quo for a while, I had a breakthrough when I realised that a less stressful and more effective approach was not to fight against, but simply to help make and live by new rules. This works because none of us are alone in seeing the need for this – there are many out there who agree, so we can find those points of connection and work with them.

    Even if its in the small things – not taking work calls after a certain hour at night, being unavailable for some meetings because you can’t do everything and have to prioritise – including for personal commitments (go Fi!). Organising a lunchtime breathing or movement practice with those interested at work – or a shared (home-made) lunch where those who live in homes bring home-made food, and those who live in hotels bring whatever they can – like fresh fruit from the market – or nothing (Zehra Rizvi, one of the facilitators of this blog is an inspiration for that one!). Even on mission organising family-friendly social activities with work colleagues (alternative to the alcohol-fuelled evening options).

    Some of the bigger things (organisational policies) take more changing, but one thing that in my experience does make a difference is speaking out – in the appropriate contexts and to the right people. But also with a realisation that many people see things the same way but may not be saying it and often speaking out creates more space for others to do so – such as on leave policies, decisions about accompaniment, the security risks of isolation and organisation-related sources of stress. It also gives people in decision-making positions the ‘grist’ to actually do something about these things – if they can say ‘this is an issue that has been raised repeatedly by people in the field’, they have a better argument for changing things.

    So, my approach is: find those who feel similarly, work on the assumption there are many – maybe even a majority – and simply start doing things differently. Its incredibly powerful to act with confidence and the conviction that at least as many people see things the same way as don’t. And I am finding that it turns out to be true.

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  4. Thanks for this great post Claire. This is an issue I have personally struggled with (as most of us have) but I sometimes wonder if the entire concept of work-life balance is just another idea that makes me and other women feel guilty about our choices, whatever they are. Work and life are not separate. Work is part of life, not just to pay the bills, but to give structure and purpose to one’s days. It was when a trusted friend (and mother) said to me five years ago, “Jen, work/life balance doesn’t have to be everyone’s goal,” that I finally owned my choices. Nonetheless, we don’t “owe” our employers or our causes anything that takes away from our personhood. I encourage colleagues, always, to feel free to meet a friend for lunch or sneak out early to see a movie and enjoy it. Because we bring so much of ourselves to this work, a happier, more balanced you (and me) is a much more effective aid worker.

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  6. Hi all, thanks for your friendly and appreciating comments, and sorry for being late in responding. Good to see that even though we all struggle with that thing called „work/life balance“ at times, everyone of us seems to have found her own way of handling it.

    @Antje: Totally know what you mean ☺

    @amand#: „Start doing things“ – a great and helpful addition. I also discovered that in not a few cases, others in the same work place struggled with similar issues I did – but we just did not communicate about it. In some cases maybe because no one wanted tob e the first to admit a perceived „weakness“ or in other cases because everyone thought she was the only one to think in this particular way.

    @Jennifer: I sense what you mean. I absolutely agree with the fact that each of us owns her choices. There is probably no blue print for an „ideal“ work/life balance so really everyone of us has to find out what works best (and probably this will be changing over time, too). Maybe the term „balance“ is somewhat misleading as „work“ and „life“ may weigh differently for each of us. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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  8. Tasha says:

    Maintaining a work-life balance can really be overwhelming for women. Women should stop beating themselves up trying to achieve it. After all why do we think we need it? Because someone else said so! This is where all the problem starts. I came across another blog with some great insights on the same subject, its simply brilliant. Its by Nita Kapoor of Godfrey Philips India. Do check it out. Here’s the link:

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