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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the phrase “work/life balance.
I’ve always struggled with this wording because to me, balance is precarious.

I picture trying to balance on a seesaw or balancing plates I’m carrying to the dinner table.

I tried replacing the word “balance” with the word “integration.” That helped for a while, but something was still missing.

Then I suffered a significant family loss in late 2022 and I realized why I struggled with this phrase: because for me, work/life balance is not something you achieve. It’s a living, breathing awareness of your needs, day by day.

In going through grief, rather than asking how I could get more balance, I started asking myself “What do you need right now?” The answer changed a lot, sometimes moment to moment. Life and work are constant cycles, and our job is to pay attention to what our body and mind are telling us at any given time.

Sometimes I wanted to work a lot to manage the grief. The work provided a sense of normal that I craved. Other times, I needed to slow down to maintain any sense of self-preservation.

We can’t always meet the needs we have in the moment; external circumstances, cultural norms, or life pressures may prevent it. But we can be aware and we can extend compassion to ourselves no matter the circumstances.

As I worked on projects with global teams, I thought too about how much culture also plays a role in work/life balance, should we choose to call it that. In some cultures, a hard line of separation exists between work and personal life. When you’re at work you’re at work. You’re there to achieve the objectives and leave when business hours conclude.

In other cultures, work and life are entwined. Your leader at work might even make the funeral arrangements for your lost loved one. You work “off hours” because that’s just life going on, so the phrase “work/life balance” becomes almost moot!

And of course, every cultural approach is a spectrum, so lots of people live between these spaces.

From my perspective as an intercultural practitioner, I believe that cross-cultural teams should discuss these things in advance of working together. They should ask questions about normal work hours in their culture or organization, the role of holidays and life events at work, and the needs of individuals on the team.

Why? Because life happens and it’s inevitable that differences around work and life will arise. But you’ll also likely find similarities. For example, we all go through grief and loss, even if it’s mourned in different ways.

So what do you need today? Is there a small step you could take toward meeting that need? If not, try again tomorrow, and the next day.

In life, we always have the chance to start again.


Vicki Flier Hudson

Vicki Flier Hudson, Chief Collaboration Officer for Highroad Global Services, Inc. inspires people to leverage the full power of differences. She has helped countless large-sized corporations establish successful operations across the globe and build bridges across cultures, distance, and time.

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