The elusive balance between work and life – how do senior leaders strike their balance?

The elusive hunt in balancing our lives at work and at home – we do our best. We all have interests, responsibilities, commitments both at home and at work – so how can we fit everything in and maintain healthy relationships and positive wellbeing?

There are only 24 hours in every day, so what are the tricks and tips of those at the top that help them feel like they have balance? And – has it always worked?

We took time to ask our Advisory Council, and there are some great tips below!

Rachel Hunter – Director-General, Department of State Development, Manufacturing, Infrastructure and Planning

That is really interesting for me to reflect back on when I was starting to move into CEO level positions, and I had young children. That always creates tension in terms of the time you need to be focused on work verses the time you focus on family. I was fortunate that I had a lot of family support, but in a way, children have a way of imposing a sense of balance on you anyway. Because when you are with them, you need to be with them 100% – they require it and they often demand it. I had three children, two of whom are twins, so I thought I was very fortunate in having that counterbalance in my life. They are grown up now and we are a very close family, and now my mother lives with us. She is someone to whom I need to ensure I provide time to be with her, and support her; so at one end of your life you have children, and at the other end you have elderly parents; so I think there is always for most people a ‘pull’ around family versus the ‘pull’ of work; and somehow you navigate that.

And you navigate it in a way that takes care of the people you love, but there is also a need to take care of yourself in that process. I have always found that balance is a shared balance – it is something as a family you all work towards to ensure you support and enable each other to do the things they need to do.

I think the privilege of working in Government is that you have access to flexible working arrangements when they are most needed – particularly around parenting responsibilities. I also find that if you love your job, it brings inherent balance as well, because the rewards of working in the public sector I think are significant to people. And the more senior you are, the more the demands increase, but so do the leadership rewards in providing public value.

Neil Scales – Director-General, Transport and Main Roads

I absolutely feel like I have work/life balance. I always take time out to reflect – whether that’s either in the car on the way into work where I outsmart my smart phone by putting it in the boot, or on the weekend when I am working on the garden (which is about 3.5 acres!). It is one way to detach yourself from what is a pressure cooker environment. The DG job can feel like drinking water out of a fire hose.

You must have a supportive family. I have a supportive family, and I have always been in high pressure environments. I was the Director-General of Mersey Travel, from 1997 until I came here so I have been operating at a high level for some time. In some ways, you do get used to it, but in other ways you need mechanisms to detach yourself. I always tell my people ‘be aware of the vividness of the transient moment’ because something will look bad, and then you take a step away, and sometimes it doesn’t look as bad.

I also read a lot which helps. I also try to take the bus into work one day a week – not only to detach but to also test the product. In all of the cities I have been in world, this is the only place where people say thank you to the driver as they get off the bus. I think we have a really good transport network here; we have 29 kilometres of bus lanes that are world class and the whole of the integrated fleet from Queensland Transport is completely accessible for wheelchairs. There is a lot to celebrate in this Department.

Greg Hallam – Chief Executive Officer,  LGAQ

I have not been very good at this at all! There were lots of pressures when I had a young family. I have always worked long hours. I normally work a 60-hour week. When I am on the road, the average week is 70-75 hours. Because you are a public figure, you are available all the time. You get phone calls from all sorts of people at all hours. Ultimately, you can fight it for a bit, but you must have some ways of relaxing.

For me, I breed and sell race horses and I have coached athletics for 30 years. So, I have things like that – which also keep me busy! At least it is a place where I am not thinking about work. 

Whether you are a knitter, a gardener, a lawn bowler, a golfer – you have got to have something that allows you to release your stress.

I am out of the office around 90 days of the year, so I miss some of the coaching sessions that I like to do. I don’t beat myself up about it anymore. There were times where I would hop off a plane and head straight to a coaching session in a suit – I am a bit kinder on myself these days.

I am also really mindful of young people with relationships, families and we try to find ways to support that flexibility. I wasn’t always – I was pretty old school. But we are pretty flexible now around working from home, having family leave. Having kids here on pupil free days – and these have been good things. We expect people to work hard, and they do, but we’re really mindful about people’s lives. Particularly over the past 10 years I have gotten better at this. I used to be quite stuck in the mud and my team have been very kind with me in taking me on that journey! It wasn’t easy, but we got there.

James Purtill – Director-General, Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Energy

It changes depending on what part of life you are in. I joined the EPA in March of 99 and my son was born in the same month, so I literally came into the first Board meeting at the EPA with spew on my shoulder! My wife was in the Mater Mother’s, my son spewed on me and then I had to attend this Board meeting. It was funny to say that in the meeting, but no one was smiling, and I was thinking “What have I walked into here!”, I think they were all nervous, but they were great people. A great icebreaker! There are people here who know my son and my daughter, but particularly my son because he was there from week one.

When my children were really young, my wife and I consciously had a partnership arrangement about how we would make this work. We didn’t want to get to the stage where they are now (at 19 and 16) and say “Geez, we didn’t really connect with our kids because we weren’t around”. I travelled a lot in that job and sometimes we took the family with us, and that didn’t always work well, but there are things that I did back then that I still do now.

I avail myself of some of the great terms and conditions of employment in Government. I purchase an additional week of annual leave while the kids still want me around! I understand that some people can’t afford to do that, but that is something I do.

I have always ridden a bike to and from work. By the time I get home, I am clear. I am a commuter, and it is a really healthy thing. It has been great for me. You might ask what that has to do with work/life balance – but by the time I get home, I am in grotty clothes and ready to rumble, and particularly when my children were little this was great.

When they were little, I worked hard. I have a strong ethic, you have to when you are in these roles, you can’t have this job and not have a strong work ethic. But I remember I would be in the lift to go home and someone would ask me “Oh, you are heading home early today?” and I would say “No, I am going home at a normal time”. Now I would go home, and the kids would be in bed at 8pm and then I would work, sometimes until quite late, but why stay at work? You can mix and match. My kids will never say to me “Dad was never home, he was always working late, because they would never have that perception”. Now that they are older it is different, because I am working late, and they are studying until late. So that worked out, but I think you can do it.

I go to my daughter’s tuckshop, I try and have that type of availability

Michelle Lees – Deputy Secretary, Service Delivery Operations, Department of Human Services

I do feel that I have balance. Most people would probably say that I don’t because I do a lot of travel for work, but for me to be in Brisbane, I am often in Canberra or in other jobs in other places. So from the outside, there may be a perception that I don’t have balance.

I think I have struggled with this, but whilst I do travel for work, and I work in a high-pressure environment I have a good balance now. Why I say that, and what I do, is I make sure I spend quality time with family. I don’t think I would be too different from a FIFO worker, so for me, I make sure I am fully present when I am home physically. So if I have something work related that is worrying me I get it out of my head by writing it down so that I can be present. I also make sure if I need to not be distracted on a weekend or when I am on leave, I will turn off email notifications so that I am not at risk of attending to family stuff and getting distracted by work items. So obviously on a regular weekend, my emails are on my phone, but if I was going on leave for a week, I would purposefully be not attending to work related to stuff so that I can have a break.

I make sure I schedule regular breaks each year so that I refresh and put work aside properly because I can’t turn my head off easily, so I do need that refresh break.

I know what works for me in terms of being balanced and keeping on top of things, so I make sure I have time for exercise regardless of where I am.

I am disciplined with how much work I do outside of hours, it is inevitable that there will be work to be done outside of hours, but I set a clear timeframe for when I am going to do the work and for how long.

I make the best use of available technology – having mobile technology is both a blessing and a curse – in the olden days we weren’t as accessible, but now it does mean I can be working on the bus in the morning when Canberra is already working during daylight savings time. Working on the plane, on the laptop and doing emails after work, I have even mastered emailing while treadmilling!

These stories highlight that there is no one or best way to achieve balance. And that sometimes it isn’t easy to achieve. But one thing is for certain – better balance is essential for long term wellbeing. Setting boundaries, finding interests, and prioritising spending time with those important to you are three tips that work for those at the top.

How will you find your balance?


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