Work-Life Balance: A Bad Concept That Ignores The Real Problem

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Work-life balance is one of those concepts I love to hate. Here’s why:

The notion of work-life balance is artificial at best, and at worst, it’s a false way of describing a very serious problem that exists in our workplaces.

Work is part of life — no work, no money, and no money, no food or roof to live under or (insert other necessity of survival here). Work and life aren’t separate; they never have been.

Work is part of who we are and what we do. We spend more time working than we do any other activity in our life except sleeping. So, to suggest that work is separate from life is ridiculous.

Problem: a lack of fulfillment in the job

Here’s the real problem: Most people are working at jobs or organizations that they hate.

OK, maybe that’s a little strong. Maybe they don’t hate it, but they certainly aren’t getting fulfillment from their work, it doesn’t connect to their passions, or they just aren’t happy.

I won’t restate all of the research out there that suggests that employee engagement levels within our organizations are shockingly low, but that’s just another indicator of this bigger problem. So, when people describe “work,” all too often it is meant to describe an unnatural and not-so-fun set of activities that you are required to do in order to have the money you need to support your lifestyle.

Thus the birth of the notion of “work-life balance.”

Work-life balance assumes that the work part of our day is burden, and the life part is where we get our joy and fulfillment. Life is where the stuff that matters happens. And when we talk about someone being out of balance, about 100 percent of the time that means that they are working too much (too many hours, too much travel, etc.) and that there is too much burden, not enough joy.

Teaching people that work doesn’t have to suck

I’ve never heard someone say that they needed to work more in order to improve their work-life balance. This is really dysfunctional thinking because it ignores the most basic and most important truth about work: it doesn’t have to suck. In my experience, people who love what they do and are good at it, don’t talk about work-life balance because it doesn’t make any sense to them. They don’t need this artificial sense of balance because work feels good and natural to them.

Instead of work-life balance programs, what if we instead started investing in teaching both people and organizations how to put people in jobs that are natural to them, that they would love. What if we taught people that their responsibility was to find their way to a job that was fulfilling?

Clearly, this isn’t a natural ability since so many people are so unsatisfied with their current roles. Even further, what if we started teaching people some personal accountability so that they could begin to take ownership of their own work experience? Have a sucky boss? Well, then do something about it. Hate my work? Guess I had better find a new job.

Now, I know that there will be arguments that work-life balance is more about making time for the priorities in your life that have greater importance than work — time with family, attending to our spirituality and health, etc. Work-life balance programs don’t fix this problem.

If you don’t have the skills to seek self-awareness, clarify your values, and then act accordingly in your life, it doesn’t matter how much time off or flexibility I give you. If your priorities are out of whack, giving you more time off isn’t going to fix that. Broken people aren’t fixed by work-life initiatives; they just get more benefits and time off in which to be dysfunctional.

It’s about job fulfillment – not work-life balance

I know I personally have felt the most out of balance in my career when my work wasn’t aligned with my values, regardless of how many hours I was working. Today, I travel more than I ever have before, but I feel (and my wife agrees) like my life is more “in balance” today than ever because I’m doing what I love and pursuing a dream despite the fact that I’m away from home more than is ideal.

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So, here’s my bottom line: We need to stop talking about work-life balance and instead start working to make work suck less. Individually, we need to stop accepting that our work should feel like a burden and instead, find our way to work that gives us joy and fulfillment.

As leaders, we need to teach people the skills they need to get clear on their values and then encourage them to have the courage to align their lives around them. As organizations, we have to be more committed to creating workplaces and experiences that attract the right kind of people for the work we do.

We need to create work where people can bring themselves fully to it, to feel natural and fulfilled in what they do. We must also make it painless and without penalty for an individual to opt out of their job when it begins to feel to heavy.

When we start treating work as if it’s part of life, and not a hiatus from it, we will unleash some real magic.

  • http://twitter.com/lruettimann Laurie Ruettimann

    Work-life balance conversations are bad when they talk about personal fulfillment, too. Some would say that there are problems bigger than working for a job they hate.

    Many fair and smart business leaders just think—we do a lot for you in terms of creating a safe, decent and profitable work environment. We ask you to work hard. If you don’t like it, you can leave. That’s the free market.

    Leaders and entrepreneurs also question the notion that engaged employees and better flexible policies result in better profits.

    And many employees make mature decisions beyond whether or not they feel personally fulfilled at a job. Questions people ask.

    * Without balance, does the job provide benefits for my autistic son?
    * Even though my boss demands that I work weekends, can I pay tuition at State College for my smart and talented daughter?
    * Do I care about low morale or do I care that I pay my mortgage and synthesize some measure of happiness elsewhere in my life?

    Personal fulfillment and happiness look different for different people. I’m not sure this makes the work/life balance discussion any easier. I think we should model good behaviors as HR leaders and be honest with employees. Personal dissatisfaction, speed bumps and dysfunctional environments are the norm—at work and in life.

    When you do have moments of joy and happiness, treasure those experiences. It makes the difficult times seem worth doing.

  • http://twitter.com/TomGimbel Tom Gimbel

    Jason, I couldn’t agree more. I felt so adamantly about this topic that I wrote a blog
    post about it myself a few weeks ago…here’s the link in case you want to
    check it out: http://pastfive.typepad.com/pastfive/2012/05/work-life-balance-doesnt-exist-aim-for-work-life-happiness.html

    The truth of the matter is that work-life balance doesn’t exist. Instead, employees should
    focus on seeking fulfillment and enjoyment from their job….something I call work-life happiness. This is both realistic and attainable…and it can be achieved by anyone.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/XHDJ5IXYJT6JVM3DE3VBZUJFPY David

    Amen!  It’s Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, plain and simple; but something about which most managers, executives, and leaders haven’t a clue!

  • http://twitter.com/sgt101 Simon Thompson

    If you have a job that is as satisfying as your child’s laughter, then something remarkable has happened.

  • BlairS

    I share your pain, Jason. I think more people need to find that passion of doing what they love to do and enjoy doing it.  I also think work/life balance includes having the flexibility in your schedule to integrate the work day better.  For too many years, like most of us in the recruiting business, I worked a LOT of hours.  The best possible outcome is to have work that you are passionate about and find fulfilling as well as being able to adjust your schedule to enjoy quality personal time with those who are important in your personal life.  Thank you for adding more dimension to a sometimes too superficial topic of discussion.

  • Allison O’Kelly

    “When we start treating work as if it’s part of life, and not a hiatus from it, we will unleash some real magic.” This certainly rings true.  ‘Work/life balance’ is simply not a viable concept—they are almost opposing forces where one is constantly battling the other. The key to living a ‘magical life’ is to determine what matters in life, and work those priorities together, like pieces of a puzzle. It is necessary to realize that some pieces will be larger than other, but that is okay. Alignment, balance, integration, whatever you personally call it, is all relative to what matters to you, and how you make your life, and work, work.–Allison O’Kelly, founder/CEO of Mom Corps 

  • George

    There is certainly a problem if ‘work-life’ balance means being able to do something that sucks (ie work) because at the same time we can do things you enjoy (life).  Then you’re in the wrong job.

    But that’s not what ‘work-life’ balance means, at least not to me.  All it means is trying to balance all the things you get happiness from.  I personally find that if I don’t spend time with my family, I am not a happy person.  I don’t think that makes me a bad employee or person.  And no matter how much I love my work, and I really do, it can’t make up for spending time with my family.  

    Further, in my opinion doing things outside of work can make you better at you job too, whether that’s exercising and eating right, socializing, or reading books, even when not in your field.  

  • http://twitter.com/TexasTwittHR Seth McColley, SPHR

    Great post, Jason! Makes me think of the old adage – if you’re doing what you love, then you’ll never work a day in your life. Not sure that’s completely accurate, but finding fulfillment and purpose in your work sure makes it feel like less of a burden and not just a means to an end.

  • Leanne Chase – @LeanneCLC

    Ahhh…I too am not a fan of thinking of work as separate from life.  But work/life is still the term the masses use…and after fighting them for 4 years on it, so do I.  With that said I think your post misses the mark.  I have had jobs I love, but they didn’t work for me because I needed to be in two places at once.  My work insisted I fill a chair from 9-5 each day and my kid gets out of school at 3.  It came down to priorities for me and guess which I chose.  HR is the rule enforcer.  Once they allow workers to have some control over where/when and how they work, that is when work/life stress will abate. 

  • Sudipto chakravorty

    Hi! 
    A good post indeed Jason !!!. There is certainly a problem.  The best solution of course is what you said is to get onto a job which you feel passionate about doing , enjoy  e.t.c  e.t.c . but then this more of an idealistic  situation . There are few, who actually get on  in/ find   job/s  which they feel completely  passionate about .
    There is   age-old wisdom/ preaching’s to take care of this situation which says   ” you do not get everything in life what  you like , enjoy or feel passionate about . the wisdom is to develop new test buds in life  so that you start enjoying  those   not so tasty/ tasteless stuff in your life .” That is what also Army , as  an organization  , all over the world ,teaches their staff.
     
    but then all the above are actions / attitudes at the individual level , what  person needs to internalize .
     we are probably more concerned about actions , as an organization / HR needs to take to ensure minimization of  dissatisfaction / debilitating performance / indiscipline action & finally  attrition arising out  this imbalance  . In spite of the fact that there is an  internal contradiction in achieving this balance … there is a need to act . 
     
    Can we have a discussion on the kind of actions being taken to minimize this problem?

  • Jordan Hodges

    OK, this is brilliant! Thanks for this piece!!

  • Bwalaspa

    “Have a sucky boss? Well, then do something about it. Hate my work? Guess I had better find a new job.”  Geez, is it really that easy?  I can just snap my fingers and change my boss and job?  What a flippant, arrogant, ignorant thing to say.  And the responses show that too many people here are in management, forgetting what it is like to be on the front lines day after day.  
    I have had many a bad boss.  And, often, there was just nothing that could be done?  Why?  Because the culture that promoted such a lousy person, was loaded with lousy people all the way up the food chain.  Most bosses I have had that truly sucked were the ones who blindly did whatever upper-management told them to do, without asking questions and completely disregarding if the new rules or regulations made the jobs I was doing, and others like me, more difficult.  The ones that actually questioned management were quickly ushered out the door.

    And, to the second point, I can only say: really?  Have you tried just switching jobs out there?  I have been trying to find a new job since November, going to interview after interview for 8 months now – only to be told no again and again.  So, sometimes you are stuck with a lousy boss, in a lousy job, because you CAN’T do anything else.

    Here’s what we need to do:  Every single solitary time management hires a consultant who comes in, crunches numbers, and considers each employee as just a number, they should then spend time talking to their employees.  Rather than trying to justify the cost they just spent by hiring the consultants who do not consider the employees, by just implementing whatever the consultants say, they should ask employees: How do you feel about this change?  And they should do that even if they don’t hire a consultant.  Too many managers have been in management for so long, they have forgotten what it is like to be at the opposite end of the ladder.   Put employees first, over profit, and watch as employees work harder at their jobs, thus leading to higher profits.  Consider employees as people, not numbers, not “things” that you have to put up with cuz you don’t want to answer the phones yourself and that you can easily cut when times get bad (it’s easy to reduce a number – harder to lay off actual people).  We need to change the culture not of the workforce, but of management.

  • Lisa

    This post does not make the distinction between two types of “work-life balance.” The first, where people want to have a measure of fulfillment in their lives – perhaps can be solved by finding work you love at a company that loves you back (with the caveat of all the posters below who noted it’s not *quite* that easy in this economy, still). The second, though, is family-based work-life balance. I can love what I do, but if I never see my kids, that’s not balance. 

  • Autumn Frisco

    Work/Life Balance is really touching on the Yin/Yang balance. . . in my opinion

    I do appreciate your thoughts and vantage point though- it is important to live your passion and if work fulfills this then great and if it doesn’t than find a balance

  • Rick

    The underlying tone of your story is “don’t like your job, go get another one” .
    Problem is, there are NO real jobs available, so many folks are stuck for the rest of their lives in employment they hate.

  • Srividya S

    While I agree that work is a part of your life, and you should enjoy your work rather than attempt to seperate it from your life (its a part of your life), I do NOT think its easy to “get rid of a bad boss” or a job you hate. The job market isn’t kind, and sometimes a lot of companies have sucky bosses. Its easy to forget how nasty middle management can get when you’re up on the food-chain, but its not easy to work when a person(s) needlessly adds to your stress by simply not being efficient managers. And when there is no escape, simply because of the lack of jobs, or because of management attitude in the entire industry.

    Like someone else had mentioned here, managers need to stop seeing people as numbers or tools to answer your phone and attend your meetings.