Saving Nature Means Saving Ourselves From Myth of Work and Life in Balance

Finding balance shouldn’t be about negotiating a tightrope. Photo by Susie Shoaf.

By Kristine Zeigler & Lynn Lozier, The Nature Conservancy in California 

This week the Wall Street Journal dedicated an entire section to the issue of women and equity in the workplace. It seems every day more research is published about women’s lack of progress in obtaining executive leadership roles and what factors may be to blame. Work-life balance comes up a lot as a barrier to more women entering the top management positions in companies.

At our workplace, The Nature Conservancy in California, both men and women at a recent work-life balance workshop reported feeling overworked, exhausted, burnt out and unsupported in many ways.

The workshop could have been a bummer. Employees mentioned a host of anxieties and worries, including their aging parents, their limited time with their children, their wish to have children, (or their decision not to have them), as well as their obsession with work to the point where they slept very little. Yet they also spoke of their fondest hope – that they could shape their future even when faced with difficulties such as illness in their families or financial hardships. Honesty was on the table. So was goodwill.

One outcome of the salon is that the notion that “work-life balance” is a myth and frankly, not a useful metaphor. It suggests a teeter-totter or a fulcrum. Too much weight on one side and you fall off – failing at one part of your life and out of the game. Given our shared passion for The Nature Conservancy’s mission to preserve lands and waters all over the world, we are not even sure it’s fair to say that our dedication to nature and our commitment to our personal lives are all that different from one another.

So we settled on a new paradigm to replace “work-life balance:” equilibrium. One way to define equilibrium is as an adjustment between opposing or divergent influences or elements. Natural systems, including the human body, are full of dynamic functions that adjust to change and maintain equilibrium. Saturation and scarcity harmonize in systems – one influence waxes and another wanes. Things are “tuned” as you go along and function is sustained, be it the forest, the ocean, or the body.

Equilibrium also describes a mental state that is calm and stable. It speaks of poise. No matter what is going on in the world around you – anxious colleagues, deadlines, family conflicts, ill parents or children in need – there is a place within the heart and the mind that can be a place to rest – like a hammock, not a tightrope. Finding breath and finding the center of oneself, letting one part of the body be saturated by peacefulness, may be the most radical chemical and biological reaction of all.

The Nature Conservancy needs its employees to be at their best. Much is at stake, from rapid land development, climate change, and depleting fisheries, to unprecedented and catastrophic drought in much of the West. Animals are going to go extinct and coastlines are going to erode. Homes, businesses, even our very health, is on the line. Our time is now; the planet needs us. So, seeking equilibrium in ourselves could be the winning formula for restoring it in nature. Nature depends on us, as much as we depend on it. We owe it to ourselves and to our colleagues to reach for and sustain equilibrium.

Above all, it is critical that we forgive ourselves and adapt at those times when one part of our lives looms large at the expense of another. There is no perfect balance or proportion at any given moment. It’s a dynamic.  The key is to be adaptive and maintain your own equilibrium. Perhaps approaching things this way can be calming.

Coastal wetlands may give us the best metaphor yet. Mangroves get tattered and beaten up after a storm, but they absorb and dissipate destructive forces while providing nursery grounds for myriad young marine life. They are resilient. So are we.

Despite the storms of our lives, we can find calm and be our very best selves inside the office or at home with our families. The plants, animals and people on this planet need us to do just that.

Kristine Zeigler is the Director of Philanthropy for The Nature Conservancy in California and is one of five female members of a nine-person Leadership Team.

Lynn Lozier is the ConservationTrack Program Director in the Conservation Investments Department at The Nature Conservancy in California. She is also a coach and trainer in teamwork and team leadership.

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