Work-Life Balance is Dead, and Here’s Why
Let’s take a look at your workweek. How many times have you had to forego something important in your life to attend to something important at your work?
And how often have you grumbled or heard your friends, family or colleagues complain about their inability to achieve a good balance between time spent at work and available time for them to be with their families or engage in other personal interests outside of work?
You are probably looking back at the good old days, probably even before you joined the workforce, when work used to take place outside the home in clearly designated timeframes, notably the 9-5 schedule.
Today, this has become nothing more than a fairy tale. If you think about it, you have most likely checked your email over the weekend.
It has actually become an unspoken requirement at most organisations that all workers have got to pay attention to their emails at all times, making a huge contribution to the blurring of the line between work and personal life.
After all, if you get a work related email over the weekend, you might be expected to respond to it, which amounts to working.
You may think it is reasonable to blame unreasonable managers or profit-oriented executives for the collapse in the boundary between life and work.
This cultural shift is, however, caused by factors that are more complex than that.
Americans, for instance, pride themselves on hard work, resilience and sacrifice.
And human beings generally flourish on the feeling of being needed.
Neurological studies show that there are certain elements of the working life that can make it addictive.
For instance, the quest to satisfy novelty-seeking curiosity – like say the prospect of unread emails on your work inbox – triggers the production of dopamine in the brain making you repeatedly check for mail throughout the day.
The evolution of digital technologies has greatly impacted not just how we work today, but in an equal measure when we work.
As such, in a growing majority of job roles, the traditional 9-5 workday that is now nearly a century old is dying off.
It no longer fits the way we live, communicate and work. It is even more complex when you consider the fact that there are now up to four generations working together in today’s workplace.
This means that organisations have to evolve their operations to have a healthy appreciation of each generation’s disparate style, work expectations and attitudes.
In spite of this shift in work accessibility, many organisations and managers still insist on this outdated model that obliges workers to stay on site 9-5, five days a week.
A study by Andrew Oswald, a Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick reveals the effects of this model on job satisfaction of employees in the United Kingdom by age.
Oswald found that the younger generations, not yet at home with the strict work schedules experience the least job satisfaction as compared to older employee cohorts who have either made peace with it or find that it works for them.
WHAT IS WORK-LIFE BALANCE (WLB)?
While there is no universally agreeable definition of WLB, it relates to the extent of prioritisation between an individuals work-related and personal activities and how much job-related undertakings make their way to the home.
Ideally, there should be no opposition between work activities and other life roles.
A kind of equilibrium state in which the requirements of personal, work and family life are equal.
That an individual requires a balance between the time allocated for job-related activities and other aspects of life.
A 2010 National Health Interview Survey by the United States National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety provides evidence on where this concept is most relevant in the 21st Century workforce.
Employees in traditional industries such as fishing, agriculture, forestry and hunting had the highest levels of work-life balance.
This is as compared to workers in occupations such as law, who had the lowest work-life balance, with office and administrative support workers coming close.
These findings suggest that while the pursuit of the equilibrium between work and other life aspects is desirable, it might be more applicable and is already evident in more traditionally co-located occupations such as in agriculture that mirror the industrial age than it can be for what can be termed as ‘professional occupations’.
The ideal WLB is nevertheless flawed in its insistence on defining work life and personal life as separate.
American journalist and founder of the Freethought Magazine, Paul Krassner, clarified an anthropological viewpoint on defining happiness – that it barely has any differentiation between one’s personal or work lives.
Work life balance has become a major talking point today owing to the proliferation of technology that has progressively eliminated the importance of physical presence at work, which is central to the meaning of work-life balance.
It was previously near-impossible to take home work creating a distinct line between the professional and the personal.
Today, however, with advancement in mobile technology, cloud-based applications and the Internet, it is now possible for employees for be literally permanently at work.
The distinction between the personal and work-related activities is severely blurred.
Most employees now operate in an environment where there is an ‘always-on’ linkage to the workplace with smartphones now extending the authoritarian control of traditional managers beyond the office.
Despite all these changes in the workplace, organisations and managers are not yet persuaded to evolve their workforce facilitation techniques.
They continue to advice employees to seek work-life balance as they did before we were introduced to the Blackberry.
There is nothing extremely wrong with this other than the fact that the concept of ‘balance’ has always been elusive, if not plain tired. Here are three reasons why.
WLB ARTIFICIALLY DIVORCES WORK FROM LIFE
This takes us back to the purpose of work itself.
Of course, there are those who read from the Biblical foundations of work as punishment for disobedience in reference to Genesis, where Adam is told by God ‘by the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat thy bread’.
While that constituency may believe themselves to be condemned to a lifetime of toil, there are more practical reasons for work that even they have when seeking employment.
In the least, most employees take up jobs because they need to be able to support themselves, their immediate families and also those around them.
If it were an ideal world, we would be all engaged in work that makes us proud, is meaningful and fulfils our purposes.
But even when the work we are involved in does not exactly grant us the desired joys every day on the morning commute, working is an integral part of what each one of us does and constitutes a contribution to the societies, countries and the world we live in.
The concept of work-life balance creates an impression that work is something that is outside your ‘life’.
This could not be further from the truth.
Try and remember the last time you responded to the question ‘who are you?’ or ‘tell us about yourself?’
I would bet that your occupation, career achievements and credentials formed the bulk of this response.
For most of us, at least, we define ourselves to the world based on what we do for work and depending on how well we are doing, it becomes a source of pride.
Now when you re-examine the work-life concept, you realise it really diminishes the image above that we have of the self.
Separating work from life is an exercise in futility.
We would rather think of work as one part of a holistic ‘life’ experience and helps us appreciate the contribution of success in our careers on the lived experience.
WLB INHIBITS OUR ABILITY TO THINK BIG ENOUGH
By fixating on achieving work life balance, we lose sight of what more there is to achieve in life in the current labour conditions.
As mentioned earlier, balance is a limiting concept and it could be interpreted as being synonymous to setting the bar too low, which in effects makes us less inclined to demanding enough out of ourselves, our employers and leaders.
Today, there are still a significant number of companies stuck on the either/or mind-set.
This is true if you for example consider the enduring discrimination against working mothers.
For-profit corporations can be all said to be designed to extract as much from their employees as possible with minimal costs, even the most well-meaning ones.
Right now, too many companies are still operating in an either/or mentality (though thankfully, it’s starting to change).
That’s why there are still workplaces that penalize parents who choose to take parental leave or assume that employees who don’t put in as much “face time” aren’t committed to their jobs.
This could explain the results of a study by Shelley Correll, a Professor of Sociology at Stanford that mothers faced more discrimination in the workplace, including during hiring than fathers and people without children.
Some workplaces do still penalise parents who take parental leave or determine the level of employee commitment to work on basis of amount of ‘face time’.
We can instead subscribe to the ‘you can have it all, just not all at once’ mantra as proposed by Dr Tracy Brower.
There are periods in life where you just don’t have enough time for yourself and dedicate it to school, work or family and vice versa.
This is really the normal wave of life. When you envision the bigger picture and believe that you indeed can enjoy a positive experience with what life and work can offer, you are more set to achieve it.
Brower views the work-life balance dilemma as a function of linguistic determinism.
She explains that we should evaluate how we talk to ourselves and examine how we talk about issues as this makes a huge difference.
In her book Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work, Brower urges that work life balance outlook should be buried in favour of efforts towards life fulfilment where we are engaged in a lot more living and less of balancing.
This important ‘thinking big’ disposition is well demonstrated in this personal narration of Amanda Machado who had for years believed that keeping her life and work separate would be beneficial. When living in South Africa, she was offered a dream job in the United States but had to deal with the difficulty of leaving her partner and family behind, details her peers advised her to withhold.
She, however, was able to negotiate a remote working arrangement which essentially allowed her to have both.
Machado has been able to create a successful freelancing career since the day she made the decision to look beyond the constrictions in her industry.
She says she now reflects more on her life’s work and less on the job itself.
It’s about living more!
WLB SUGGESTS INSTABILITY THAT IS NOT VERY HELPFUL
Work-life balance implies a continuously precarious state for the employee which could mean at some point you could experience some negative impact in case you lose balance.
What is more constructive is a shift towards considering solutions that continue to evolve over changes in work and life.
This is a better way of aligning your thinking and aspirations with the normal variations that life itself functions in.
Instead of being wary of failure or falling literally of the balance, it is more important to acknowledge that you may have very good days, better ones or fairly bad days which is frankly an assurance of nature.
It is more useful to think of life as continuously evolving each day, year and month than a panic-inducing high-risk enterprise in which things could collapse with a single misstep.
However much we would wish for an equilibrium, the truth is oftentimes days will probably not look anything like that.
You might find yourself staying late at work and having to get dinner on your way home, or skipping your work getaway this quarter since your parents chose to visit on the same weekend.
The thing is, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this.
The above reasons coupled with the proliferation of technology in today’s workplace has led to the evolution of work-life balance into work-life integration.
While some may argue that this is simply a matter of semantics the two are markedly different in their prescriptions for how employees can lead more fulfilling lives.
Berkeley Haas School of Business argues that the traditional scale associated with work-life balance conjures up a sense of competition between the two.
They say that work-life integration offers a different approach that enables more synergies between the aspects that define life – work, family, home, society, health etc.
Understanding Work-Life Integration
It has emerged as the buzzword for describing the holistic employee experience that present-day organisations are seeking to provide.
Rather than viewing work in terms of the amount of time it robs employees from engaging in other life’s aspect as in WLB, many organisations are shifting into looking at work and life as a single integrated experience.
WLB came as a result of stressed baby boomers in the 70s and 80s striving to achieve a balance in their careers, family and other life aspects.
Generation X greatly focused on balance – adopting remote work trends and utilising paid time off or personal time off (PTO) to concentrate on family and other obligations outside the office.
Millennials entry into the workforce, however, is what has brought an entirely new dimension to the employee experience.
As a Forbes report observes, Millennials are quite specific about finding career paths that support their ‘lifestyle’ with necessity – lifestyle here implying life outside work.
This generation envisions the lives they hope to live and seek opportunities that ensure that experience.
In effect, the traditional approach of finding work and then building your life around what the regulations at work permit is inverted.
While an example of a work-life balance activity could be using your lunch break to walk your dog, on the work-life integration model you would be bringing your dog to work.
With the boundaries between our personal and work lives constantly blurring, a shift to integration could make get us a step closer to ‘having all’ at the same time as this experience by Ron Ashkenas shows us. Ron tells of a conference call he took while he was on vacation where all participants were also on vacation and none thought rescheduling would have been appropriate.
WHY WORK-LIFE INTEGRATION?
Career-Family Boundaries are Blurred
An Association for Women in Science study found that more than half of workers say that life responsibilities and work conflicts at least two or three times every week.
Workers are Willing to Give Up Personal Time for Work
A study conducted by TeamViewer and Harris International revealed that a little over 60 percent of employees would be willing to work during vacation.
Gyro and Forbes Insights in another study found that 98 percent of executives check their emails when they are off work with 63 percent checking every one or two hours.
Some employees actually do not have a choice.
More Employees are Working Remotely than Ever Before
Forbes reports that over 30 million Americans work from home at least once every week, 3 million never visit the office and over half report being happier working away from the office.
These numbers are projected to rise by over 50 percent in the next five years.
CREATING LIFE-WORK INTEGRATION FOR YOURSELF
Request for Flexible Working Hours
Find out if your organisation has an existing flexi-time policy. If that is not the case, conduct your research and engage your manager.
If you are in the United Kingdom, you should use the right-to-request-flexible-working application form.
Flesh Out What Your Needs Are
Just because you now have this option, it doesn’t mean that there is a definitive formula to follow.
You have to figure out what your work and personal commitments are and how you will organise your time around them. You must first prioritise your tasks.
Create a Schedule
Once all your commitments have been defined and priorities assigned you need to make a schedule – ideally according to your body clock (night owl or early bird?).
Place your most important work at the times you know you would be most productive and make time for a recharge in case of a burnout.
Harmonise Your Plans
If, for instance, you have a family member or partner, it would best to consult their calendars to make sure you coordinate tasks.
It could be arranging pick up for schoolchildren, ensuring you grab breakfast/lunch together once in a while or important events that you need to show up together.
Rank Productivity Higher Than Hours
Having assigned your most important work during the time you are most productive is important in heightening your productivity.
Equating time spent working on something to the level of productivity is too simplistic and almost always is not usually the case.
You need to be able to measure the level of your contribution for example in terms of the value you generate. Create deadlines as well as a reward for each important task.
Ensure You Maintain Some Boundaries
All this sounds exciting, right? It is, however, possible to overdo it by attempting to merge both your career and personal goals completely.
Nobody expects you to do that, so relax.
The most important thing is to take charge of your wellbeing, so focus on that and your overall happiness.
We have established that work-life balance is to a large extent a myth based on what it seeks to achieve and the claim that it is possible to treat work and life as two separate things.
WLB is also a dated concept that only came up as baby boomers tried to come into terms with workplace stresses and has fallen out of use in recent times for the more practical and technology-inspired work-life integration model.
This promises a more integrated employee experience where career and personal goals are modelled and pursued together instead of the precarious time-balancing act that has been proven difficult to achieve.
It is important to note that work-life integration might too not work for everyone, but when adopted right it could light a glorious path to overall happiness.