When work and family blur together, healthy balance can be hard to find

Hard-working business owners face challenges in finding work-life balance

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Work-life balance is the zeitgeist of the modern era, the subject of endless studies and surveys. We are living to work and not working to live, the saying goes.


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Certainly, achieving such a balance can be challenging for enterprising families in particular, says Winny Shen, an associate professor of organizational studies at the Schulich School of Business at Toronto-based York University.

One of the reasons some people start a business is the belief it will help balance family and work goals, she says. But research suggests that entrepreneurs still face challenges.

“In starting any kind of business, the work hours can be really long,” says Shen. “And we know that the more time you spend on work, the greater likelihood that work will create challenges to fulfilling your other family and other life obligations because we only have so much time in a day.”

A survey by the Alternative Board in 2013 found only 19 per cent of entrepreneurs worked fewer than 40 hours a week. Nearly half said they worked 50-plus hours a week, and if the headlines are any indication, that figure has only increased in the ensuing years.

The numbers would seem to speak for themselves, but balance is a subjective and personal thing, says Shen. She talks with her business students about examining what is important to them and whether their expectations are reasonable.

“Sometimes people can feel like they don’t have good work-life balance because they don’t feel like they’re spending equal time on their work and family, or life, non-work obligations,” she says. “Then the question becomes, does balance mean equal? Maybe not all the time.”


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Are other people doing it better?

The key is to feel sufficiently involved in the things that are important to you, she says. “Maybe you would feel better … if you can let that idea of equality go, if that’s unnecessary pressure that either you’re putting on yourself or society is putting on you,” she says.

“I think we maybe have this perception that other people are doing it better than we are,” she says. “We might make these assumptions that no one else is struggling except me, when in fact maybe the struggles are actually very common.”

The younger generation is much better at finding that balance upfront in their relationships than seasoned entrepreneurs who established businesses 40 years ago.

Carolyn Cole, Cole & Associates

For family businesses, viewing work as being in service to family can help alleviate some feelings of conflict, she adds. But it can also be more difficult to establish boundaries.

“What is work versus what is family time might be really hard sometimes to distinguish, and that can, I think, create challenges in terms of not being able to turn off work,” she says.

Some people don’t mind that blending, she says, but “the issue becomes if we’re thinking about these things as connected all the time, we never turn our brain off from work and that can really hinder us from being able to rest, relax and recover.”

The survey by the Alternative Board found 97 per cent of entrepreneurs worked weekends, 40 per cent of them always or often.

And in a separate survey by NodeSource in 2017, 45 per cent of entrepreneurs said their greatest ongoing challenge was work-life balance.

Differences between the generations

Nancy Marshall, a designated family enterprise advisor and director of strategy and development at Prime Quadrant, a family office based in Toronto, says she wouldn’t necessarily call work-life balance a problem for successful family matriarchs and patriarchs, but it sometimes is an issue they need to work through.


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“It’s interesting. I mean, the very makeup of a family enterprise is that family and business intersect,” she says. “And it’s where they intersect where you often see conflict.”

With work-life balance, the conflict often seems to be generational, she says.

“Whether it’s the first generation or the second generation, the patriarch or the matriarch, often they believe that the business is successful because of the hard work that they’ve put into it,” she says.

They expect the same sacrifice of the succeeding generation.

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But at the same time, those next generations saw the sacrifices made. “Mom or dad or whomever wasn’t as available, wasn’t always there for them from a family perspective, and sometimes they don’t want to make those same sacrifices to their family life.”

Family meetings are important, not to deal with the family business but the business of family, she says. They build good communication and trust, and bridge the gap between generations, she says.

“The more that you can communicate, whether it’s family or business or ownership, and the more that you can be open and honest and really bring that forward, it solves a lot of problems.”

It’s a personal thing

Carolyn Cole, founder of Cole & Associates, a family office strategy and design firm, and herself an entrepreneur, says family enterprise leaders have as much work-life balance as they choose to have.


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“It may come at the sacrifice of other things, such as sacrificing revenue or productivity, for time with family, but it is attainable and achievable when made a priority,” she says.

Like Shen, she says work-life balance is a personal judgment, and that judgment often hinges on an entrepreneur’s age.

“The entrepreneurs who are later on in the life cycle, where they have built their business from nothing, which has resulted in an enterprise that is truly reliant on them, have a harder time finding work-life balance,” she says.

“The younger generation is much better at finding that balance upfront in their relationships than seasoned entrepreneurs who established businesses 40 years ago.”
Families rarely, if ever, come to her asking for help finding better work-life balance, she says. They come seeking guidance on enterprise governance or other business-related changes.

“That’s something I believe that society puts on the entrepreneur, not necessarily something that the entrepreneur is seeking,” she says. “Families will naturally find their own balance.”

Again, her advice is communication.

“My advice would be, if you’re an entrepreneur, ask your family. Do you feel that we as a family have the balance that we need to thrive and be healthy?”

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