Circus Skills in Science - can we Learn the Balancing Act?

Circus Skills in Science - can we Learn the Balancing Act?

I have to admit I was sceptical. Despite having helped write the work package on work-life-balance for the Horizon 2020 LIBRA Gender Equality project, I wasn’t sure that this particular balancing act could be taught. Prepared to be proven wrong, I attended the Work-Life-Balance training course organised by our project and EU-Life partner institute CEITEC (Brno, Czech Republic). There was a certain irony that a fair amount of life re-jigging was needed to attend the meeting; but the love of my life & family logistics co-manager has developed his own circus skills of concurrently spinning the familial plates alongside his career ones.

Andrea Handsteiner from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna began the challenge by looking at institutional approaches to work-life-balance. She highlighted evidence demonstrating that employers with family friendly policies have lower levels of sick leave, less staff turnover, less time taken as parental leave and increased numbers of highly motivated staff. We were asked to consider whether our employer understands employee needs, whether measures put in place by the employer are communicated effectively, and whether the employer has changed in its attitude over the last 5 years.

This was a useful exercise and I came to the conclusion that with the advent of the Athena SWAN and LIBRA projects, BI has been listening to its staff’s needs through consultations which has resulted for example in the promotion of flexible working and job-sharing. A little more work promoting a cohesive community with effective internal communication would work well alongside this.

She concluded that in addition to support from senior management, state-of-the-art equipment to enable working from home and the provision of good food at work are key elements to support an effective integration of work-life and away-from-work-life. Thinking about BI, the equality4success team is working together with the Computer Strategy Committee to further enable home working and the food is looking good in the new Cambridge Building. A shop (I’m thinking bread, milk, pasta and pesto) on campus would be a fantastic addition.

Moving on to consider individual approaches to work-life-balance, we were encouraged to self-reflect. I am really not one for navel gazing. However, I had to admit that it was useful to identify the aspects of my job that I really enjoy, to think about what my life goals are and to consider whether any adjustments are needed. What resonated for me was a discussion on how work goes through cycles of being “crazy busy” - putting outside life completely on hold - and then returning to “normal busy”; but the habits developed during the crazy period are maintained. So emails still get checked first thing in the morning and last thing at night, even when the workload doesn’t require it.

Finally, it was emphasised that a “good” balance is different for different people and there needs to be visible institutional recognition that those who choose to work part time or work flexibly are equally passionate and exceptional at their job as those with more traditional working patterns – perhaps even more so. So my thinking still stands that work-life-balance can’t be taught. However, there are useful and interesting lessons that both senior management and individuals should have in the back of their busy minds as they manage their own circus skills.