Jobs and the Future of Work

How saying 'yes' and 'no' could revolutionize your work/life balance

Women working on laptop work life balance employment working from home priorities

Ester Banque, SVP of Bristol Myers Squibb, shares her tips for taking control of work-life balance. Image: Unsplash/Christin Hume

Esther Banque
SVP & head of intercontinental commercial, Bristol Myers Squibb
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Education, Gender and Work

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many people to work from home, causing the lines between work and home to blur.
  • Businesswoman Ester Banque discusses how the words 'yes' and 'no' became very important to her when balancing her work and home lives.
  • She emphasises why the word 'no' isn't a bad thing and can help you to say 'yes' to more important things in the future.

I have spent a significant part of my adult life trying to establish “work-life balance,” or, as the dictionary defines it, “… the state of equilibrium where a person equally prioritizes the demands of one’s career and the demands of one’s personal life.” I spent years trying to establish that balance, and no matter how hard I tried, one (usually work) took over the other.

I have a busy, demanding job, and I have a wife and two pre-teen daughters. All of them need me (and I, them). Something’s got to give.

This feeling has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. In lockdown, the goal of “work-life balance” went beyond challenging; working from home with very little separation (except maybe a door) between work-life and home-life, it became utterly impossible!

From work-life balance to yes-no balance

So, in order to survive, I came up with a different approach. I found it far more useful, and much more attainable, to shift from a goal of “work-life” balance to a goal of “yes/no” balance, with work and life part of one totality. What this means is that while I might want to say “yes” to everything and “no” to nothing, I realize that’s not possible.

The key to this alternative approach is to prioritize and learn to say “no” in order to be able to say “yes” when it matters most. Also key is to manage expectations by being clear about what the priorities are. This way, when the time comes for me to say to a colleague, “Sorry, I have an important family priority—let’s pick this up tomorrow,” or to my daughters or wife, “This work project is really heating up, so I’ll need to be focused on this for part of the weekend, please bear with me,” it’s not a surprise, and for the most part, there will be understanding.

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Whether it’s your children or your boss, I’ve found it is important to be clear about the reason you have to say no, and to offer an alternative solution.

It’s about setting boundaries

This is working better for me, both professionally and personally, than my old attempts at achieving the mythical work-life balance. At the end of the day, it’s about setting boundaries, which is the closest feeling I can find to the “state of equilibrium” I’d been looking for.

As my kids get older, I find they need me differently—as more of an advisor, supporter, or cheerleader than caretaker. And they are empowered enough to tell me that certain events (like their games and performances) are non-negotiable. They will tell me, “Mom, do what you need to do, but you have to be there for me,” and I will do everything to be there for them.

This clarity has proven essential during the prioritization process. Professionally, meanwhile, I have empowered my team to work more independently and to stand in for each other when needed. I do the same.

How to prioritize proactively

As a result of all this, I find myself saying “no” more frequently to ensure I can pursue the things that are most important, and I encourage my team at work to do the same. And I am much more proactive when it comes to prioritizing rather than reacting in the moment. For example, we are cutting the number and the length of meetings we need to attend, and reducing the number of participants in the meetings.

My team and I, as well as my wife and I, have learned to divide and conquer, making sure the right level of oversight or involvement is in place without the need for unproductive “face time.” We are also identifying non-negotiables at work and at home, managing the all-important expectations.

My journey from “work-life” balance to “yes/no” balance has evolved over time, along with the realization that while trying to please everyone, I have been pleasing no one, especially myself. It remains a process. Inevitably, my “yes/no” choices may occasionally disappoint. But in the long run, everything is so much easier when you’re able, without too much guilt or stress, to say “no” when saying “yes” to something else really matters.

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