Family or Fortune?

Things which are mutually compatible: lamb and rosemary, Morecambe and Wise, Tango and Cash.

Things which aren’t: Cesium and water, high heels and a night of dancing, Eric Pickles and a positive story about local government.

I’d like to propose that bringing up a young family and pushing forward in your local government career is moving into the second of these groups.

I can already hear local government press and HR departments up and down the country crying out in opposition, quoting the schemes in place to support working parents such as flexi-time, TOIL, childcare vouchers and more.  Outwardly we may protest otherwise but, drawing on personal experience, over the past few years I have found it increasingly difficult to reconcile my day job with my more important evening and weekend job of being a parent.

Looking around the office seems to back up my concerns.  Those who are young and successful are invariably those without children.  Those who have children and are successful usually are older, with children at least in their early teens.  Those who – like me – are young and have children are finding it tough at best to squeeze as much success out of their careers as they might otherwise like.

I want to be clear of course that in no way, shape or form do I blame my children for these challenges, they are the best thing I have and ever will do, regardless of whatever else happens in my life and career.  However, I’m keen to explore what exactly is the problem, and whether it is in any way controllable.  Why do those of us with young children find the balance so tough?  Is it as simple as people think, is it in any way particular to local government, or is it something that simply has to be accepted and worked through?

To start with, it may be useful to identify a few areas where pressure builds, and an obvious place to start is with;

Evening and weekend meetings

Not particular to every role, but many jobs have a line in the JD which commits officers to occasional out of hours working at evenings and weekends.  Whilst for many this materialises a few times a year, for others this ends up meaning every month or even every week.  And of course many roles actually are dedicated to out-of-hours working.  For me, I end up doing between five and ten evening meetings a month, and one or two weekend sessions as well.

Quite simply, this means every minute at one of these is another minute away from the family.  Whilst it may be easy to tell me to balance this out with days off through Time Off In Lieu (TOIL), late starts and early finishes, in reality others rarely appreciate the extra hours worked outside of the 9-5 and constantly request meetings or delegate work to fill regular hours.  Of course, once you get to a certain grade TOIL and flexi cease to be, and in any case there are only so many times and people you can say no to: the day job doesn’t stop as the night job cranks up.

Fitting work into 35 hour week

Regardless of these evening meetings, for anyone who wants to progress in their career they need to have successful things on their CV to prove they are able to deliver.  If you are content to move along gradually and over time then working within your projects and ‘normal’ timelines will allow you to build up such a list; if you want to speed up this process then you need to take on more projects and build up this list more quickly.  It therefore comes as no surprise that you will need to fit more into your working hours and deliver more than 35 hours worth of work.

It would be nice to think you could fit more than 35 hours worth of work into 35 hours, but few are that superhuman, meaning working weeks of 45, 55 or even more soon become the norm rather than the exception.  As we all ‘know‘ (or at least choose to believe), we Brits work some of the longest average hours in Europe, so to stand out you need to not just work those hours physically but also mentally, performing throughout your day and not just adding hours to the timesheet.  The old fashioned 9-5 is a dream for many.

And of course, none of this working week time includes the commute – just a 20 minute journey each day equals an extra 3 hours 20 minutes each week, and for those unfortunate enough to live even further away this soon racks up.  One person in my office faces an hour and a half commute.  Each way.  That’s fifteen hours a week, assuming there are no delays on public transport (a rarity over the course of the average week); I do not envy them for one moment.

Head space

So we work evenings in the office and have double figures of hours in the average day; is it any wonder then that we find it difficult to keep everything straight in our heads?  In the office we will have project documentation to keep track of, several projects on the go at any one time, budget reports to write, people to influence, reports to produce, other reports to read and comment on, presentations to prepare and a whole world of other tasks, all underlined by a constantly filling inbox.  As parents we have children to get to school and after-school clubs, babysitters to arrange, food to cook, households to clean and tidy, story books to read, shopping to get in, bills to pay and more chores than we care to admit.  If we’re lucky then this burden is shared with others, but the need to make sure everything is done is impossible to fully hand over to another.

It would be wonderful to think that portfolio management techniques would come into play and keeping all of this on schedule and on budget should be a case of simply planning properly and joining the dots up.  If you even consider this for a moment: you do not have children.  Keeping so many balls in the air would challenge even the most competent of jugglers, so occasionally some of them will be dropped.  Forgetting a deadline or to send an e-mail is one thing, forgetting to pick your child up from football practice is quite another.

There are of course many other challenges and things which make balancing a family and a career difficult at best, but there are only so many things which can be controlled.  With that in mind I’ve identified a few practical strategies I plan to employ:  Some may think it’s too late for Resolutions, but I’m going to make a few promises to myself and see how they get on:

I promise to start a little later each day.  There is simply no point trying to commit to going home earlier; in the words of Mary Poppins it’s a pie-crust promise, easily made and easily broken.

I promise to switch my blackberry off at weekends.  I accept that there will be times when I will have to be available and won’t kick myself for these, but I’m moving towards off by default, not exception.

I promise to delegate more.  I am surrounded by talented colleagues who are looking to excel themselves and who would be keen to take on new work.  Of course, I’ll try to make sure I don’t put them in a position where they are losing any work-life balance themselves…

And finally, I promise to accept that I may be able to have it all, but not at the same time.  I am ambitious and want to achieve all I can, and I want to be the best parent I can be.  My career will still be around in ten to fifteen years time (unless of course these cuts continue as they are) – my children’s childhoods will not.  Yes, others around me without children may rise faster, work longer and achieve more early on in their career, but over time this will all level out.

Often at the end of our posts we sign off with a round up of things and an insight, but with this I’d genuinely be interested to hear what others feel and have experienced when trying to balance home and work and especially any advice or tips to help me both have my cake and eat it, preferably before its sell-by date.  So comment below or tweet us @welovelocalgov – we really appreciate it!

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line

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5 Comments on “Family or Fortune?”

  1. Phil Mason Says:

    So true! Yesterday was typical for me.

    I needed to be home for 6:00 pm to take my son to beavers, an important night as he was being invested.

    Start 8:30 am (if I don’t do the school run I’m normally in the office for 7:15) after commute to a remote office. My day was full of meetings and phone calls, inbox filling up. At one point I looked at my screen and I had 8 emails being drafted, all on seperate subjects – plates spinning.

    I go to my last meeting with a colleague 4:45 pm – and on the way in someone shouts “hey I’ll catch you when you finish don’t go I need a word”. I finish my meeting at 5:20 pm, and still have 3 urgent emails to send about project deadlines for others next week. I’ve been drafting these since 12:30 however interruptions, and emerging issues, people on my team requiring m input, other projects requiring my attention etc mean the urgent emails are not done yet.

    I chat with my colleague who needed to catch me – still 3 urgent emails to send. It’s now 6:02 pm. It is a 18 mile journey home through traffic.

    Glance at phone – 3 missed calls and 4 texts from my wife.

    I rather rudely cut a colleague dead trying to grab me as I walk out the door (sorry) as i call my wife to say (again) I’m late and I’ll catch them up.

    I do the 18 miles in 27 minutes to catch up and manage to see my son invested.

    I finish the urgent emails later that evening, stopping work at 9:12 pm (12 hours 42 minutes). I am paid for 7 hours 24 minutes of those and have so much flexi accrued i am at the top of the allowance for carryover (I loose around 52 hours flexi every 12 weeks). There is no TOIL system in our council.

    5 hours 18 minutes unpaid.

    I also know of at least 4 colleagues who were doing their emails at that time (I could see read receipts coming in).

    Similar scenarios to the above are getting quite common.

    I’m not moaning. I love my job and I have managers and colleagues who recognise what I do.

    But I too need to realise that it will all still be there in the morning.

  2. Nicky Says:

    I agree, this sounds like a typical day for most of the people I work with. However, it’s not just people with children who are in this situation. Everyone is having to cover more work with less people. At least those with children have an “excuse” to leave the office, whereas if anything, those without are expected to sacrifice their social/personal lives because these aren’t considered important. I’m waiting to see when someone is going to decide what we are going to stop doing, instead of trying to do badly everything that we used to with too few resources. I expect sickness levels to increase a lot over the next months/years because of this, thus putting even more pressure on those who are left to pick the work up, never mind advancing their careers.

    Everyone should be entitled to a healthy work/life balance, whether they have children or not, but as both contributors above point out, it seems that that’s something that won’t be a reality for most in the near future.

    • LGWorker Says:

      Sick days are already on the increase. Though the following article is very biased (against us I’m afraid) and hasn’t done any proper analysis of the figures, I only include it because it has some sickness levels figures. As someone who, a few years ago, compiled the sickness levels figures for one of the Councils in the worst five list mentioned in the article, I know these figures have risen. In that time the Council in question has gone through lots of restructures and cuts. Not something the article notes, but seems to me a clear reason for increased sickness as people try to deal with not only the everyday stress of their work life, private life and family but also the stress of loosing their job or doing more work with less people. So the very badly written and rather biased article can be found here:

      By the way like today’s blog.

  3. […] We Love Local Government A blog looking sideways at life in local government « Family or Fortune? […]

  4. […] we blogged about the challenges facing those trying to balance home and family lives, and the lunch skipping debate fits firmly into this category.  A straw poll indicated that those […]

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