How Working in the Mideast Made Me Get Serious About Work-Life Balance

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The official workday here in Saudi Arabia begins at 8:30 am.

When I turn the corner headed to my parking spot, there are the usual suspects waiting for the gate to open. The time is around 7 am. The majority of the people coming in around this time are Americans.

The other day I was standing in the guard house around 8:15 and I noticed the rest of the workforce coming in. The majority of these workers were non-expats.

At the end of our work day, which is 5:30 pm, the majority of the people you see leaving are non-expats along with a sprinkling of Americans, me being one. My work style has always been this: in early, but leave at the official quitting time.

When the “whistle” blows, I am out.

Burning the midnight oil

Last weekend, I was out running errands and was in the neighborhood the office is in. As I drove by I noticed a few cars parked at the work campus. Every car was owned by my fellow Americans. The non-expats always tell them that they are crazy.

As I see this exchange play out every day, I tend to feel that these non-expats are on to something. They are high performers, but they don’t seem to have this overwhelming sense they need to work late and on weekends. If they have a conference call scheduled late in the afternoon, they will take it from home as opposed to waiting in the office to take it [Saudi Arabia is seven (7) hours ahead of  New York].

At a recent conference in Mumbai, I heard the story of a CEO that was on his typical, month-long vacation. One of his VP’s was trying to reach him and the CEO did not pick up or even return the call. When he returned, the person who was calling mentioned that he was trying to reach him without success.

His reply was simple: I was on vacation with my family. That was it, no more explanation needed.

We all need to recharge

Our technological devices are all equipped with the little bars that show our battery life, and many people panic when they get down to one or two bars left. Because I travel internationally, I always carry a surge protector that handles all electrical currents, because I do not want to lose my service due to a dead battery.

On the human side, many of us work long hours and on the weekend all in the name of getting it done. What would happen if our bodies had a battery monitor which showed how many bars we have left? Would we take heed to the low battery and stop to relax, refuel or recharge?

We all know the symptoms when someone is close to being burnt out. We do not need a bar notification to tell us we are winding down.

However, we seem to take better care of our devices that we do our human body. Would we synch up by taking a nap, a walk, or reading a book to recharge? Would we heed the warnings that if we did not recharge, we could no longer function as our devices do?

Work-life balance not an issue here

Saudi Arabia is probably one of the most conservative and religious countries in the world. Their populace prays five (5) times a day.

During those times, everything closes — from grocery stores to restaurants and even malls. This makes trying to run errands challenging at times. As a result, leisure activities are severely limited. Therefore on weekends, the choice of activity is limited.

One of my personal challenges before coming over to the Middle East is dealing with free time. I used to have a to-do list even for Sundays. What I have found living here for a year is that this “enforced” free time has caused me to learn to relax. Yes, I had to learn it. I have now mastered the ability to “recharge” not only for weekends but throughout the week.

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As I look at the work habits of incoming Americans, I can see that they still keep up the same work habits even in a culture that frowns on obsessive work. Some will adjust and learn to function at a slower pace and still get it done while others will press on with their same old ways

Work-life balance does not seem to be an issue in the Middle East. As a senior faculty member for the Human Capital Institute, I have facilitated a few of our session over here. In the planning stages, we are told that we are to end our sessions at 4 pm because participants are used to leaving at that time.

Leading by example

The issue of work-life balance frequently turns into a struggle in the U.S., but there is never a one-size-fits-all solution. Forget about the best practices because the solutions are going to have to come from your people.

When I worked at IBM, I had a problem getting home on Fridays to pick my daughter up from day care. After about the fifth time I was late, I was told by the director that if I were late one more time, we would have to withdraw her from the school.

When I discussed this with my manager, his solution was a question — “what do you need from me to solve this?” My answer was simple: “I need to leave earlier on Fridays to make sure I get there on time.”

He said choose the time you need to go and let me know. Just like that, my dilemma was solved.

As managers we have to be on the lookout for burnout. We must recognize it before we can create a motivating atmosphere for an employee.

A burned out employee is one who previously delivered good work, but has recently fallen into a rut. Changes in attitudes and behaviors are common signs of burnout. A normally friendly and helpful worker who becomes disengaged and unenthusiastic may have burnout. Overreactions to stress, problems with punctuality or attendance, more mistakes, lower production, and negative feedback from co-workers are all signs of burnout.

As managers, we also need to know when we have to turn off and get recharged. We need to set the example of our teams.

Our bodies do not reflect bars, but they will reflect when we are running low. The solution is very simple: recharge your body  — now, before it’s too late.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.

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