The ‘Weisure’ Class: The Elusive Goal of Work-Life Balance

Words: Jennifer A BARTLETT

Whatever happened to working from 9 to 5? Gone are the days in which we could just leave work at work. E-mail, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter: we live in a continuously online culture in which we can always be connected to work not only in the workplace, but at home. If we can check our work e-mail from home, then shouldn’t we? If we don’t, will we be left in the dust? Suddenly, being ‘on’ 24/7 has become the ‘new normal.’  Further, recent bestsellers such as [former] Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead make the case that both men and women should and indeed can have both fulfilling work and personal lives by working hard: “For many men, the fundamental assumption is that they can have both a successful professional life and a fulfilling personal life… The good news is that not only can women have both families and careers; they can thrive while doing so.”

The problem, of course, is how to thrive when both personal and professional spheres demand more hours than are available, making their separation more difficult. Traditionally this has fallen under the phrase ‘work-life balance,’ the prioritisation of time spent between one’s work and personal life. Increasingly, however, the lines between the two are blurred. Enter ‘weisure’ time, a term coined by sociologist Dalton Conley to describe the intersection between work and leisure. According to a 2009 CNN article, “It’s no coincidence,” Conley says, “that weisure has been growing simultaneously with the popularity of the personal computer, which has helped professionals with more tedious parts of their jobs — and has made many jobs somewhat more interesting… Weisure has been fuelled by social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, where ‘friends’ may actually be business partners, or work colleagues.”

Balancing Act

Regardless of your occupation, the stress of balancing work and life outside of work is an ongoing challenge, not to mention achieving a manageable state of ‘weisure.’ But, do those of us working in libraries and information organisations have additional issues that add to the stress? Anna Shelton’s brief November 2012 piece for Alki, the Washington [State] Library Association journal, offers a good summary of some of the factors unique to libraries that make work-life balance even more important.  Shelton mentions rapidly changing technology, budget cuts, and the needs of different generations of library staff who may have varying ideas of what constitutes a ‘work day.’ However, two additional societal issues are key: the “general public perspective that libraries are old-fashioned, endangered, or unnecessary,” and “library users in the building and accessing digital services, who are increasingly stressed themselves by lack of work, financial troubles, and reduced safety nets, causing more desperation and higher need at the point of library service.” The combination of perceived lack of library relevancy and an increasingly stressed user base may motivate us to try to work harder and longer just to keep ourselves afloat. Shelton offers some good suggestions for dealing with library-related stress, including asking colleagues for help and developing organisational and self-management techniques.

Another useful, recent library-specific resource offering general strategies for work-life balance is Time and Project Management Strategies for Librarians, a 2013 collection of essays from the field. In addition to information about time management, organisational skills, technology and professional development, Section VII of the book features four essays specifically about work-life balance: “Managing Professional and Family Commitments;” “Time Management, Reducing Stress, and Getting Organised;’ “Working From Home: or How to Get it All Done Without Going Crazy;” and ‘What Personal Life?” The chapter on managing family commitments, by Libby Gorman, is a particularly useful discussion about the challenges faced by library professionals trying to raise families, and covers flexible work options, the Family and Medical Leave Act [FMLA], day-care, and so forth. Linda Burkey Wade offers several useful suggestions in the chapter on time management and organisation, all geared towards making the most of time spent at work so that more quality time may be spent at home. Elizabeth Nelson’s chapter on working from home discusses telecommuting from both the staff and manager perspective. Increasingly, some work tasks are not dependent on a physical location and can be completed remotely, but downsides include lack of face-to-face interaction with colleagues and dealing with distractions. Lastly, Pamela O’Sullivan, in her chapter entitled “What Personal Life?” offers strategies to help library employees clearly demarcate between work and home, which is something of a rejection of the weisure ethic: “Although we all have times when we must work longer days, or take some work home with us, this should not be the norm. The best employee is not necessarily the one who spends the most time working, but the one who does the most with the time he, or she, spends working.”

Meredith G Farkas, blogging in “Information Wants to Be Free,” offers a similar sentiment in her thoughtful, personal meditation on librarian work-life balance. Farkas espouses a balanced approach, or having the flexibility to accommodate whatever situations work, or family, might demand at any particular time. As such, work-life balance is a personal decision:

“I’ve noticed a tendency in our profession [and probably others] to see being immersed in the profession and spending lots of time outside of our 40 hrs/wk on professional stuff as unhealthy. And, at the same time, there’s a tendency to see people who view their work as a librarian as a 9 to 5 job as not committed. To me, the only mistake you can make here is buying into what other people think and not defining balance as what works for you. It’s not about quantity, people, it’s about quality.”

Although not describing it as such, Farkas recognises the distinction between setting a clear demarcation between work and life, and adopting a ‘weisure’ approach in which work and personal life are more integrated.

Work-Life Equation

The needs of librarians and library staff differ depending on how long they have been working, their family situations, and other factors. For instance, some literature suggests that younger library professionals are not happy with the idea of devoting their lives to work at the expense of family and personal obligations, unlike previous generations. Specifically, librarians and library staff belonging to Generation X [those born from 1966 to 1976] and Generation Y [born from 1977 to 1994] often tend to have a more flexible idea of work-life balance than their parents. Rachel Singer Gordon, writing in The NextGen Librarian’s Survival Guide, says “One defining attribute of many Generation X and Y librarians is their tendency to place a high importance on work/life balance from the very outset of their careers.” Gordon devotes a chapter of the book to work-life balance, discussing the unique issues facing NextGen library professionals, the pressure to ‘pay their dues,’ and family considerations, including resources for librarian parents. This title should be particularly useful not only for Gen X and Gen Y librarians, but for their managers as well. Work-life issues are of major concern as library administration seeks to recruit, retain, and develop future library leaders; the book should provide useful insights for all those responsible for succession planning.

An excellent example of how library administration might analyse and begin to address the topic of work-life balance is a 2010 report from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Towards Achieving Work-Life Balance: The Library Context is a useful white paper addressing these issues in one particular academic library environment, but it certainly applies to other types of library and information organisations as well. As outlined in the report, problems faced by librarians include lack of adequate coverage, increased job duties, the need to be on-site, little time for professional development, lack of uniformity in application of work-life programmes, and inadequate support for later-career librarians. Also useful is a literature review and industry analysis addressing national trends in academic libraries. Some suggestions for redressing problems include implementing policies for telecommuting, flex-time, job sharing, dedicated research time, and temporary replacement hires.

As library managers, we encounter a wide variety of personal situations affecting ourselves and our employees, including illness, maternity and paternity leave, childcare, and taking care of elderly relatives. Does your institution have policies and programmes on flex-time, job sharing, health and wellness programmes? What are our expectations on employee phone and e-mail access outside regular work hours? What are the expectations for your own availability as a library manager? Do you feel that you are somehow falling behind your colleagues and not serving your patrons effectively, if you don’t answer e-mail and voice mail on the weekends? Where do YOU fall on the weisure/work-life spectrum?

JENNIFER BARTLETT is Head of Reference Services at the University of Kentucky Libraries, US. This article was first published in Library Leadership & Management, Vol 28, #2, pg 1-5, under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

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