Why work-life balance is a sham

The very concept of ‘work-life balance’ assumes that our ‘work’ and ‘personal’ domains should exist in perfect harmony. Amy King, Head of Customer Success at Chemistry, argues that in today’s continuously changing workplace, with 24/7 technology and increasingly blurred lines between professional and personal life, it’s a concept that’s deeply flawed…

Problem #1 – Is work not life?

‘Work-life balance’ makes it sound like at work, I am dead. Which is stupid. Your work is part of your life. In fact, on average, we spend at least a third of our waking life at work. Finding meaning in your work and doing something you believe in is so important.

Most of us have experienced turning up to work and feeling unfulfilled. In fact, annual research by Gallup suggests we’re experiencing a worldwide engagement crisis, with 87% of people worldwide feeling miserable or disengaged at work. Whilst this reality alone is tragic to think about, engagement at work is also found to be closely tied to well-being and is estimated to cost the UK economy alone at least £6 billion through lost productivity, absence and subsequently performance. Sadly, only 7% of Brits share that they are working to their full potential, according to research by Bupa.

The point is: a job is never ‘just a job’. Both individuals and organisations lose out by settling for less at work. Instead, it helps to spend time working out what the right working culture, team and role will give you – find the right mix and you’ll have found your opportunity to be brilliant.

I’m lucky to work in an organisation that does just that. Rather than focusing on ‘can you do the job?’, there is huge importance placed on the match between your intrinsic personality, motivations and behaviours to the working culture and role. We find time and time again that if you get the right ‘fit’, people are much more likely to thrive and fulfil their potential. That’s because, suddenly, work doesn’t feel like work – it feels like play.

Problem #2 – ‘Balance’ is over-simplistic

As soon as you use the term ‘balance’, it forces the two things you are talking about onto opposite ends of a scale. It pushes the idea that ‘work’ and ‘life’ are distinct, unconnected worlds that should sit perfectly equal. It sounds set and unchanging. If they’re not equal, then one must be getting in the way of the other – and that must be a bad thing, an unwelcome tension or competition between the two.

It’s much more constructive to think about how ‘work’ and ‘life’ integrate and accept that its dynamic, not binary. Life is filled with multiple domains and demands outside of work (social, family, personal, hobbies), so finding the right harmony in life is about considering how they complement each other. Sometimes you’ll need to lean more heavily into your work; other times you need to prioritise things outside of work – like relationships, health or leisure, to name but a few.

The key to getting this right to focus not on balance, but alignment.

Misalignment between professional work practices and changing family-life dynamics is one of the biggest areas of conflict today. Traditional male/female roles between work and home are increasingly being challenged. Interestingly, recent research shows fathers increasingly reporting that the modern workplace is ‘unsupportive of their aspirations of a better work-life fit.’ This can lead to increased burnout rates, as they try to ‘do it all’, or having to compromise earnings or career to find more flexible work. Women have long reported experiencing a ‘motherhood penalty’, but now, men are feeling the effects of a ‘fatherhood penalty’, too. If we are to overcome these challenges and respond to a more modern and equal family setup, both government legislation and employment practices need to evolve to help families align and integrate their life with their work in a more flexible way, without being punished.

And that’s just one example. For others, finding alignment might mean prioritising a charity challenge and integrating a training plan into their working week. It might mean finding the flexibility to take an hour out of the day to visit a loved-one in hospital. It might mean choosing to work a full weekend writing a paper they’re passionate about.

Whatever it is, everyone’s personal priorities differ and change over time. Take the time to reflect on and renegotiate your own personal commitments to create the right alignment for you.

Problem #3 – There is no one size fits all

I remember a close colleague laughing at me when I shared the following: I needed more balance in my life. The truth is, they were right to laugh.

I’ve learnt over the years that I’m naturally motivated by change and challenge. I enjoy stretching myself and stepping outside my comfort zone. I’m also a chronic optimist, and the high level of ‘openness’ in my personality means I have a tendency to take the road less travelled in the pursuit of bigger and better ideas. All of that combined leaves you with someone who naturally thrives on immersing themselves into dynamic and demanding work – work that aims to make a ‘dent in the universe’.

Looking for a predictable, structured routine – a.k.a. a bit more balance in my life – is just about the worst thing I could do. When I do, life suddenly seems lacklustre and my energy dwindles. Instead, my personal nirvana lies in engaging in ‘bursts’ of creativity across difference domains. I have to accept that these bursts, whether personal or professional, can cause things to shift ‘out of balance’.

My point is: what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another. It’s highly personal, tied up in your intrinsic motivations. My close friends would probably see my setup as their worst nightmare!

And for organisations? Too many fall into the trap of thinking one ‘work-life balance’ fits all. Some organisations are flexible with working hours, helping individuals be their best, but they should also be tapping in to their personality and motivations to better understand what working dynamics will engage or frustrate them.

Problem #4 – Life is leaky

We carry our emotions and energy with us everywhere we go. There’s no getting away from them. Some people like to actively segregate ‘work’ and ‘life’, but our brains are wired in such a way that we can’t easily compartmentalise the emotions between the two. The amygdala in the brain is the processor responsible for emotions, survival instincts and memory, most linked to its role in creating the feelings of fear or pleasure. Once the amygdala fires up primitive emotions, it tends to override the more rational part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, resulting in our emotions leaking across all domains of life whether we like it or not. They’re hard to switch off.

A bad day in the office might mean going home and being tired/irritable with loved-ones. Rationally, you know this isn’t fair, but you can’t help it. Equally, a difficult personal situation can be distracting at work, impacting your productivity and performance. It is unhealthy, not to mention against our human nature, to assume we can successfully compartmentalise, tuck our emotions away, or ‘fake’ positive energy when really we feel like s***.

In fact, research shows that people being more authentic results in better workplace outcomes such as engagement, job satisfaction, performance and well-being. The research also indicates that we like getting to know the real people we work with, with 75% sharing they would like co-workers to share more about their true selves.

In sum, we are social and emotional beings. Don’t try too hard to be ‘perfect’ or ‘manage your mask’ to appear as someone or something you’re not. It can feel hard to do, but I’ve found that being more honest with myself and the people in my life makes things feel better.

Final thoughts

Whether we like it or not, our lives are complex. The lines between our personal and professional lives are increasingly blurred, meaning ‘work’ and ‘life’ can’t be put into neat and tidy boxes. 24/7 technology also means hyper-connectivity. We are more visible and accessible than ever, with our online life domains arguably merging into one, particularly for digital natives.

If we are really going to turn the tables and have a majority of us engaged, productive and fulfilled in what we do, we need to see a seismic shift in how work-life balance is understood and, subsequently, supported by organisations.

Jun, 29, 2017