Soft Skills

Work/Life Balance in the 21st Century

Work to live, or live to work? Working hard, getting the job done, and having a fulfilled life at home—can we really have it all? In a globalized world where business never stops and nearly all our business tools enable constant communication, where do we draw the line between work and leisure? In addition, what impact does separation between work and leisure have on our performance, job satisfaction, and well-being? These intriguing questions were among those posed to participants in The Way Ahead’s global survey in an attempt to investigate and contrast work/life balances found in the oil and gas industry compared with other industries.

The Concept of Work/Life Balance

Work/life balance is a concept that significantly affects the health and happiness of one’s life. The concept rests on your agenda for demarcating the amount of time you spend with work and the amount of time you spend in leisurely pursuits, where leisure is everything outside the scope of your work.

Work/life balance is an area of research dating back to the 1960s. In fact, it began as a topic of study in management as an attempt to formulate working conditions that maximized productivity for industrial companies. It has often been a theme of political and social discussion, and it is important to realize that different societies have different perceptions about what a suitable work/life balance is.

A good example is the comparison that historian Keith Thomas draws between preindustrial society and modern times (then the 1960s) in terms of work and leisure, worker productivity, and management philosophy. Thomas presented his research (Work and Leisure in Pre-Industrial Society) at the seventh Past and Present Conference in London in 1964, and, since then, the concept of the sociology of work and leisure has emerged as an academic discipline.

A similar comparison today might be between the 21st century and what I would call the “pre-information technology (IT)” era of the 1960s and 1970s. In the pre-IT era, the separation between work and leisure, in essence, was a physical separation between the worksite and the home. In today’s society, it becomes more difficult to separate the worksite and the home because we must take into account virtual as well as physical separation. As workers and consumers, we are constantly adapting to new technologies that enable us to stay literally plugged in with work. Smartphones, remote server access, tablets, phone apps, and email are all examples of ways by which we can stay connected with work.

Work/Life Balance Poll

To find out how the oil and gas industry fares in relation to work/life balance, we administered a poll. We asked 77 workers from across the globe and from many industries for their take on work/life balance. Roughly half the sample population were engineers and scientists working in the energy sector, with an age demographic split fairly evenly among young professionals, as shown in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1—Work/life balance TWA survey demographics.


When looking at the demographics, one sees that 65% of the respondents were younger than 28, fitting into a profile called “GenY.” Of the 77 respondents, 80% said achieving a good work/life balance was very important to them. In addition, when asked what workers felt about their current work/life balance, only 12% said it was dismal or unsatisfactory. Generally, this survey’s respondents were young professionals with an educated view on the importance of work/life balance and who were well-practiced in the art of achieving that balance.

What Creates Work/Life Imbalance?

What contributes to a poor work/life balance? Fifty-five percent of the survey’s respondents said it was from taking work home with them. Interestingly, an additional 38% said they felt guilty about not taking work with them. Combining these responses indicates that 93% of respondents feel obligated to take work home with them. That highlights a possible difference between pre-IT-era and 21st-century work/life balance. It also highlights a risk young professionals in the oil and gas industry face today, because almost all employees in this day and age carry work-related electronic devices.

Another question is, “How do people react when they experience an imbalance between work and home (say, longer than 1 month)?” When asked this, 15% of the respondents said they would complain to other employees, 19% said they would do nothing (i.e., bottle it up and take it home with them), and 10% would either speak to management or quit their job.

All employees have expectations of what their work/life balance should be like, and sometimes those expectations change with personal and professional circumstances. As our respondents have shown, the consequences of not meeting those expectations can be quite extreme both for individuals and companies. When experiencing poor work/life balance, some will lose sleep, others will complain to fellow workers, and some are bold enough to quit their jobs.

Achieving a Good Work/Life Balance

Whose responsibility is it to achieve a good work/life balance? It is a difficult question to answer generally because different societies have different perceptions. Nonetheless, it is an important question for everyone to ask themselves. Participants in the survey indicated that 39% of the responsibility rests with the individual, 20% with the supervisor, 34% with the employer, and 7% with the government.

When asked to comment on work/life balance, most respondents said “work to live, not live to work,” or ”leave work at work.” However, one respondent commented, “Good work/life balance is about feeling energized and satisfied in both your work and personal life at the same time. While there is no one formula that can create the perfect work/life balance for everyone, the best work/life balance comes from having a mutual respect for what the company and the individual employee needs. For me, the perfect work/life balance is one that requires a lot of hard work and lengthy hours but is offset by a high degree of autonomy and the flexibility to take personal time. It is about finding the right fit.”

Indeed, it is about finding the right fit, and the challenge our industry faces in the 21st century is finding that fit in terms of both physical work hours and virtual work hours. For the younger generations, the balance may be different than it is for our older companions. However, regardless of age, people should be mindful that the perception of what constitutes an optimum work/life balance can be easily skewed by the seductive and effortless nature of electronic communications. But, by finding the right balance that is comfortable and equitable for all, employers and workers can prosper together.


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