Once when I was a sub-editor at the Foreign Desk of The Straits Times, I started asking myself if a career in journalism was what I really wanted. Work started at 3pm and except for a slight lag in the first hour or so, the constant updates to make sure readers got the latest in international news meant that work was relentless and the pace hectic. There was little time for chit-chat with colleagues.
Because of the workload, we would step out only to buy dinner and have our meals by our computer terminals while we worked. It would be 2am by the time I got home, and my family would of course be asleep. By the time I woke up, my family would be out – my wife at work and my kids in school, and I would be out of the house again before they got home.
Weekends weren’t great either. I would have to work either a Saturday or Sunday. This meant that one of my rest days would fall on a weekday when my wife was working and kids in school. In effect, there was only one day in the week that I could spend with my family.
I did not want my kids to grow up with me out of the picture, so I decided I would get up every morning at six to catch them at breakfast and drive them to school just so I could have 30 minutes a day with them. Most of my colleagues got up only at noon – six hours after I was up. This routine left me exhausted and in a perpetual sleep-deprived state.
I would catch a snooze every opportunity I got. My kids got used to me pulling up my handbrakes at the traffic light and telling them: ‘Wake me up when the lights turn green.’
It was not the work that left me in this state, but trying to maintain a balanced family life as well.
But my gallant efforts were not enough. A concerned friend pulled me aside one day and said he felt I was not spending enough time with my family. ‘You need to quit your job,’ he said. He was one of those who felt that some jobs just do not allow a person to have a work-life balance and that journalism was one of them.
But quitting was not an option I had. I had been in this job for years and I enjoyed it. Lucky for me, I was later posted to a section with saner hours. Many of us parents forget how much the family needs us, and some of us even believe that work-life balance is something one shoots for later in life.
I once asked a new father if he would consider switching jobs given that his current one required him to travel so much. My question agitated him somewhat. He felt it was easy for me to talk about balance as I had reached a level where my job was secure and salary comfortable. He felt that he needed to give more priority to work for the moment and strive for work-life balance later on when he was a bit more stable financially.
There is a lot to be said about people who are able to maintain a work-life balance. It helps to sustain a worker. Knowing that he is able to work and at the same time maintain his family, friends and other interests would keep him at his job. These workers tend to score both in quality and quantity. They also tend to make more pleasant colleagues. The emotional recharge they get from outside the office, and the skills and contacts developed outside the workplace are often transferable to the office.
But there are even more important reasons for this balance. It will also save marriages and families. It will prevent children being brought up in homes where the parents are absent. There are enough statistics to prove how much more inclined kids are to getting into all sorts of trouble when they come from homes with absent parents.
For some workers, achieving work-life balance will entail a trade-off in terms of promotions and money. I have always maintained that if my bosses would allow me to work from home, I would be prepared to take a 10 percent cut for the same amount of work.
Finding that sacred middle ground between work and life outside is not simple. It is so much easier to swing more towards work. For me, one good reminder not to go overboard with work came from the same friend who asked me to quit my job.
One regret many people express on their death beds is about how they wished they had spent more time with their family. No one, as far as he knows, has ever said: “I wish I had spent more time in the office.”
“Think about that, Matt,” he said.
About The Author: Mathew Pereira is currently the Sports Editor of The Straits Times. Between 2004 and 2008, he wrote several columns which talked about his personal experience of fatherhood. This piece was one of many in his collection of fatherhood stories. Mathew is a member of the Fathers Action Network (FAN).
First published on 16-01-2012.