When life is in the balance

by Gautam Raja

How do you even begin talking about work-life balance in a culture that has work on the both sides of the scale? One in which being so busy as to not have a life is something to brag about? And when offices are filled with people who have the same idea? “Work-life balance? Hey, work IS life.”

I recently overheard my wife on the phone telling her colleague to stop taking calls after 10pm. “Just because they’re the client doesn’t mean you’re on call all the time.” The phone ringing on the weekend though… that won’t stop.

It’s especially hard because my wife has just come from a work culture that deeply appreciates—almost reveres—the weekend. Her office would start emptying by Friday afternoon, and there was no question of having to see or hear from her colleagues until Monday morning. Not only would her bosses not expect calls, they’d actually be annoyed to receive any kind of work call or message over the weekly holiday. The fact that she needed to make one wouldn’t be seen as being hard-working or productive, but inefficient… “Did you not schedule or finish your work in the week that you need to be making calls on Saturday?”

It’s completely different in Bangalore. The once-lazy city has become a workaholic beehive, and there’s no surprise in having the boss call at 10pm on a Saturday or 11am on a Sunday. Maintain “radio silence” for too long and people start to get jittery, thinking of all the things that absolutely cannot wait until Monday.

It’s partly the city’s fault. Bangalore has become a boom town—filled with people from all over the country, even the world, who are trying to build careers or start companies. It must be an exciting place to do business, but the problem is, everybody is plugged in all the time. And when you’re off work, where do you go? A mall? Certainly not the park—at least not in the areas where most of the nu-Bangalore IT people are—because there aren’t any. The outlying areas of Bangalore have developed on such a rapid and massive scale, that they’ve left no space for recreation. Almost every square foot is earning good real estate money. And when driving anywhere is a struggle, you have two choices—sit at home, or sit at your desk and get some more work done. The latter is easy to justify. When you make enough money, you can take the family on an expensive holiday. What’s going to the local park on Friday evenings compared with taking two weeks off in the year to go to Europe?

I myself have been in several conversations where my view on having work and not-work in balance is looked at as weak-minded self-obsession. Saying you need more time off work starts a competition of “let’s see who works harder”. Ultimately, it’s proven by your opponent: “I work 14 hours a day, seven days a week and I don’t need time off, so why are you whining?”

An interesting result is a lack of excellence in anything that doesn’t involve climbing the corporate ladder. From amateur sports, to home cookery, to artistic endeavours, the bar is set incredibly low. It’s enough that you simply do something that’s not work, forget about doing it well. In fact, trying to do something non-work well is often met with sneering, as if striving to be good at a hobby is not in our national character. “You spent a weekend baking cupcakes? If you worked harder, you could have have just bought the cupcakes!”

What do you say to that?

First published in Gulf News, July 9, 2013