If day-to-day work/life balance is what you and your family want more than anything else, you will never be happy in the military — no matter how many innovative policy solutions are discussed.
There is no work/life balance in the military.
As much as our leaders need to compete with civilian policies in order to recruit the best and brightest, the reality is that work/life balance is not the same in military life as in civilian life.
Can you picture a command master chief telling a sailor he can work from home because of a sick kid? Can you imagine a battalion commander routinely flying soldiers back from Afghanistan for two months of paternity(!) leave Mark Zuckerberg style? Could there ever be a time when a Marine says she can’t work weekends because weekends are family time?
To get work/life balance in the civilian world, flexibility on the job is required.
What civilians don’t seem to understand is the kind of flexibility that makes work/life balance possible in the civilian world is much less available in the military. Most work of the military requires the presence of a person. You can’t phone it in or do it online.
Military presence is what the job is.
National defense is conducted 24/7/365 by people who stand watch on ships in the middle of the Persian Gulf. It is performed by people who spend so much time on their feet they wear out the toughest boots imaginable and end their careers with three knee surgeries. It is held together by those carrying weapons into the most dangerous places in the world, in any temperature, for however long it takes, no matter what the family needs at home.
Our service members are torn.
While we family members can recognize intellectually that the demand for national defense is inflexible most of the time, that does not stop the pain of trying to parent with a partner who is absent due to deployment, or because they are working the jobs of three people, or because the leadership climate/unit culture have everyone terrified to take off five whole days after the birth of a child in case they do not look committed enough.
Is it any wonder the most cited reason to leave the military is work/family conflict?
Inflexibility is no excuse.
Inflexibility makes the military a tough sell when you are recruiting a generation that equally values meaningful work and a fulfilling family life. It also makes retention a tough sell when the fourth move and the third kid and the spouse’s promotion all arrive on the same day.
Consequently, our policymakers must be especially thoughtful when they talk about work/life balance. They simply cannot look to the civilian world and expect to copy what they see there. That creates scorn, doubt, and distrust.
Instead, our policymakers need to start by acknowledging the unique nature of this job. Our service members and their families do not need empty, condescending rhetoric. Instead, policymakers need to prove that they get it, that they understand our work and our lives.
Then and only then can they identify and invest in the benefits that help young military families during their most intense years when they are flooded with the competing demands of work and life.
Then they can encourage our leadership up and down the chain of command to urge service members to take advantage of these benefits when offered. And when those leaders say they cannot support those policies because of a lack of personnel, do something about it.
Finally, engage our servicemembers and our families in a discussion about what work/life balance really means in military life. Families can learn to balance years of war with years of peace. Families can balance professional challenge against security. Families can balance the benefits of military life against the physical, emotional, and social costs of military life.
Work/life balance is the right conversation right now in military life. We just need to go about it in a conscious way that acknowledges the reality of military life.
About the Author:
Jacey Eckhart is a career transition coach known for her ability to connect senior military (officer and enlisted) to their next high-impact career. Trained as a military sociologist, her professional focus is on veteran employment, spouse employment, and long military marriage. She has more than 20 years of experience designing workshops for active-duty members, reservists, and the National Guard, including Navy SEALS, Army Delta Force, and all their wonderful families. For more information, visit No Regret Military Tansition or email Jacey.