Balance or blend?

Life may not be a box of chocolates, but could it be a cup of tea?


The term “work-life” balance is much used and much-discussed. Many surveys and magazine articles discuss whether your “work-life balance” is as you want it to be. In our Athena SWAN applications (gender charter mark run by the Equality Challenge Unit) we are asked to discuss how the University is supporting “work-life balance”. Typically we talk about core hours, nursery care, and any family friendly policies we have.

However, many people object to the term “work-life balance” itself, and I can see why. Balance implies the two things are playing against each other… increase attention on one and the other must pay. How meaningful is it to imply that we are only alive outside of work? Many people are at least partially defined by the work that they do, or by their actions at work. Others are predominantly driven by the work that they do… and the term work-life balance somehow suggests that these people should “get a life”.

The alternative term work-life blend has been around for a while. The thinking behind the term is that in the modern world, with new technology etc, then for many people it is entirely possible to take care of some work things from home and some home things from work. Of course this isn’t possible for all roles… particularly those in the front line service industries, and manufacturing. The other reason for adopting this term is also that it removes the negative connotations of “balance”. With a “work-life blend” a much more diverse set of existences seems possible, all equally valid, and things are not in tension with one another in the same way (there are however only a limited number of hours in the day and therefore there must remain some tension!).

I have previously been rather resistant to the word “blend”. Perhaps it’s because I was thinking about it in terms of paint… if you mix lots of different paint colours together you inevitably end up with a murky mess that isn’t particularly enticing. I also worry that it means never being “off duty” from work, and I at least need to give my mind and body a change of scenery sometimes and find it hard enough to be properly “present” at times outside work as it is.

However, I might be changing my mind. Last night was our Edith Morley lecture given by Karen Blackett, OBE, CEO of She spoke about having “banned” the term “work-life balance” in her company, using instead, “work-life blend”. Uh-oh, I thought. I’m not sure I can buy that. But then Karen talked about having 6 well defined and non-negotiable strands to your blend, for example fulfilment at work, effective parenting, and such like, and using this to discuss your working practices with managers etc.

And this morning I thought of a new description for “blend”  – a careful combination of different ingredients that are not subsumed by each other but together make up something delicious and supporting. In other words…  my favorite English Breakfast tea!








Why I do a leadership role


  I recently attended a “women in leadership” discussion at my University. One of the questions that we discussed was “What motivates people to take on leadership roles?” Incidentally, I much prefer the term “performing a leadership role” rather than “being a leader”. To me, being a leader sounds too much like dragging people along after you, which is definitely not the style of leadership I aspire to! The many suggestions from our group fell into two broad categories: “incentives” and “support”.

Since I often get asked on a more informal basis why I agreed to be a Head of Department (and even why I like it – a lot of the time), I thought sharing my list on this blog would be appropriate. The process of reflecting on this clarified a few things in my own mind – which is always useful. So, this is what motivates me to do my current leadership role:

  1. I have a genuine interest in bringing success to the department and organisation (bear in mind there are lots of different definitions of success of course!)
  2. There is a clear opportunity to contribute using my skills or those I can develop whilst in the role
  3. I have a desire to see the job done well – probably my slight(?) “control freak” tendencies come in here too
  4. The role is aligned with, or at least not in contradiction of, my core values and beliefs (e.g. empowering people, self-development, authenticity, transparency, equality of opportunity, collegiality, the importance of communication, integrity, involved and shared parenting )
  5. I do have a strong sense of duty to a Department that has been very good to me.

And what would motivate me to take on a different leadership role (in addition to the above which would all still be necessary)?

  • The role must be achievable part-time and viewed as such by other senior management colleagues (This is because being full-time would compromise some of my values in 4 above. It’s fine in my current role, but there are no part-time or job sharing Heads of School in my institution at the moment)
  • I have to be able to see myself working successfully with and being valued by the other people at the same level (again this is fine in my current role, and increasingly so at the most immediate next level, but less clear that it would be the case higher up)
  • There would need to be concern for a career development pathway for me – I want to be “Ellie doing a leadership role”, not “a leader”
  • I would need to feel confident of being able to access a support network, e.g. regular “Ellie-centred” reviews, easy access to coaching services – I have had some success in getting this by simply keeping asking for it (clearly in the right places) and I know the University is looking at developing this network over the next few years, but it’s still a long way from being something you can rely on to be there.

But perhaps the greatest motivation is feeling that sometimes I make a contribution, however small, to someone great getting the recognition or the opportunity they deserve, or to the group, Department, School or University being a little bit of a better place to work in after I’ve been involved. Those are certainly the occasions that have me bouncing around in my office with a huge smile on my face (yes, literally on at least one occasion), and make it possible to work through some of the less intrinsically motivating tasks that come with the role.