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Why mid-career project managers are prioritising work-life balance

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For a feature in the spring 2023 issue of Project journal, I asked several interviewees who are in ‘mid-career’, roughly aged 35 to 50, what their priorities are. The message came through loud and clear that balancing personal and family life with workload becomes an increasing issue in the second phase of one’s career.

To some extent, that’s obvious; as one respondent put it to me: “Lots of people at this stage have had children, which have now become their biggest priority.”

But could it also be a symptom of people in danger of burnout and no longer as willing to work long hours as during the first flush of their career? Or more than that – a reflection of the particular structure of the project profession, which frequently means short-term assignments and a lack of long-term security?

The legacy of the pandemic

The pandemic was a game-changer in many workplaces and brought a renewed focus on wellbeing and work-life balance. Project management was no exception. Estelle Detrembleur, Associate Director of Project Controls at construction and consultancy firm Mace, says she feels divided about what it meant.

“In some ways it was perfect. I had been travelling a lot, but now we had to work from home, and that meant I could get more work done, rather than being five, six hours on trains each day.” On the other hand, she was cut off from family in Belgium and Poland and missed out on seeing people day-to-day. What she came to realise above all is the importance of face-to-face contact in all aspects of her life.

Manish Khanna, a Project Controls Manager at Atkins, currently working on the East West Rail Phase 2 project, says there has been a “drastic” change in attitudes towards work-life balance during his career.

“As managers, we have become far more considerate towards the mental wellbeing of staff and now acknowledge that flexible working can play a vital role in a company’s performance,” he points out. In personal terms that means he takes much more effort to have breaks between meetings, and he feels hybrid working has made a big contribution.

Changed priorities

Marc Grange, a manager at performance consultancy Clarion Insight, also says his attitude to work-life balance has changed “significantly” since he started out – especially in the priority he now gives to working for employers with a positive workplace culture.

“Having worked in some very top-heavy structures previously where the emphasis was on climbing to the top and doing whatever was needed to get there, I'm now enjoying working in a flatter structure with nice people where effort is recognised but the emphasis is on doing a good job with a smile,” he says. “I've realised that you don't know a bad culture until you've worked in one.”

Grange says he is not against short projects, but for him, the location is a more serious consideration. And he adds: “I've worked some silly hours before. If the work needs doing I'm happy to stay on and do it; what I won't do is stay on every day. There has to be flexibility in what’s demanded or it leads to burnout, which doesn't do anyone any good!”

Balance is non-negotiable

Rob Crofts is Regional Operations and Project Performance Manager at underwater construction company Subsea 7, based in Stavanger, Norway. He spent many of his early years working on oil rigs in remote locations, including in West Africa, before settling down in a corporate role based in Aberdeen with a family comprising two young children

“When the pandemic came, like many businesses in the UK we had a downsizing and I had to find new work,” he says. “The opportunity that came up for me happened to be in Norway, so I had to move the whole family there.” When single, Crofts says he wouldn’t have thought twice about that, but now his family had to come first. “Luckily the lifestyle here is great for families and it’s a really good adventure for them.”

For some, work-life balance can mean something as simple as being able to live near their workplace, cycle to work each day and not have to jump on a plane at a moment’s notice. For others, it’s about a more deeply embedded attitude towards their work. What’s clear is that for many at this stage of their project management career, it’s become non-negotiable.

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