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Work life balance week: All work and no play

by Nancy Jackson BALPA Media and Communications Officer

Robert* spent several years in general aviation outside the UK before moving here. He started his British career as a flying instructor, was made redundant and went part-time. His career has also included time as a first officer, captain and training captain at several UK based regional airlines, an international airline, a low-cost carrier and a cargo airline. As part of BALPA’s examination of work life balance he talks us though the sacrifices he’s made to achieve stability in his life. 

Robert's story

My career has been very varied. I’ve changed aircraft, base and company numerous times. Through it all I have had to balance the needs of my family with my many work commitments.

In the early days in the UK, a decent work life balance was easy to achieve. The job I started with was nine to five with no seasonal variation in workload and was well paid. Family life was very good.
But maintaining that quality of life has been a constant struggle. Volatility within the aviation industry, the continued drive of airlines towards greater efficiency with increased workloads, changing rosters, movement of bases and ups and downs in financial rewards have all had to be taken in to account.   

“At times, the cards have fallen nicely….”

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not been all bad. At times, the cards have fallen nicely and decisions have been easy. For instance, my captaincy came with increased wages and although I was working hard and for a short time away from my usual base, the temporary burden seemed worthwhile.
At times, my work pattern and shifts have meant I have been able to have significant times at home. A period of stability just as my children were starting university meant I could get fully involved in attending university open days and in helping them move to their new homes. I have also been able to make the most of quiet times in seasonal work. A couple of years ago we timed it so I could take extra time off in the quiet winter season to enable a long visit to New Zealand!

“…I couldn’t get time off for my daughter’s wedding.”

At other times, the costs of the piloting life have been harder to bear. I have been through redundancy, I’ve seen the company I work for bought up and the aircraft I fly moved to different bases. At times, I’ve had to weigh up taking a financial hit with a reduced pay packet against staying put but with my home life suffering.
A problem that’s cropped up time and again in my life as a pilot has been the pressure that busy changing rosters and long periods of time away from home have on the family. I have inevitably missed out on school parents’ evenings, concerts, sports matches and so on. One time I couldn’t get time off for my daughter’s wedding. I was forced to take it as unpaid leave in the end.

“My wife has had to make sacrifices…”

My unpredictable shifts have also affected my married life. My work pattern has often been at direct odds with my wife’s and that’s meant periodically we have had little time together. All these points have played a part in my career decisions. I chose to change airline and aircraft to avoid the more detrimental impact of the piloting life.
On more than one occasion the move has involved taking a hit in the pay packet, but as the overall aim was to achieve a better work life balance we felt it was right for us. Once I made the decision to change jobs even though it was on to a smaller aeroplane and was seen by some as a 'backward step'. For me that step was positive. It meant a move back to work at a base near my home with similar pay and minimal night stopping.
My wife has had to make sacrifices to support me too. She’s had to move, arrange work and make time to bring up the children, all the time fitting in with my work as much as possible. She has had to cope with emergencies while I’ve been away and have the strength to act almost like a single parent family when I’ve been night stopping away.
We feel that what the two of us have managed to do together has worked well because we are still all together as a family. Our children have grown up into happy adults that are still very much part of the family unit. I am very proud of my whole family.

Live to work or work to live?

We understand all too well the strain the piloting life can have on families and have always tried to mitigate this. During one week in my career, I heard of three colleagues who were going through divorce, all due to too much time away from home. That confirmed to me that regardless of their effect on my career, my choices have been good.
I also know two pilots who have had very serious medical issues, one a stroke and the other a heart-attack. In both situations their families have been very important in helping them from there on; if they had ditched their families in favour of careers they probably would not have survived.
We are not 'super rich' but we are quite comfortable. We feel that 'work to live' is the correct way for a family life and 'live to work' is not 'family friendly'.

*Name changed to protect identity