It’s once again ‘National Work-life Week’, when we shine a light on all things ‘work-life balance’, so maybe the title of this post isn’t what you were expecting to read right now!
But I’m serious. ‘Work-life balance’ is, in my opinion, an unhelpful term. And words matter, so I encourage everyone to have a think of what they really mean when they say this and consider how it might be limiting our thinking. As you might expect, I see a few problems with this phrase.
1. ‘Work’ is part of life, so it’s unhelpful to set up some kind of false dichotomy
If you think about your own life, you’ll quickly realise that while your job may represent a big part of the time you have available each day and each week, your other roles in life are also very important to you.
I encourage my clients to consider looking at the status of work in their lives by examining the *multiple* roles they occupy. We each occupy a variety of roles, and when we over-simplify our complex experience down to ‘work me’ versus ‘non-work me’, we lose out on a lot of the detail that can make a difference.
Think about the roles you occupy as things stand. It could be any number from a diverse set including: employee, manager, mentor, parent, spouse, son/daughter, neighbour, sports fan, sports team member, hobbyist etc.
There’s often a lot more to our lives than a simple work/life tension. If we don’t remain conscious of this, involvement in some of these roles can drift and fade with time. Then we can feel all kinds of unhelpful emotions like guilt and frustration.
Indeed, research demonstrates that what we do at work can enrich our lives outside of work (e.g. acquisition of skills, feelings of esteem and goal attainment) and what we do outside of work can benefit us in the workplace (e.g. positive spillover of mood, social support from others etc.).
2. ‘Balance’ implies a 50/50 split between two aspects
If I had to pick, I think ‘balance’ is the word that’s most problematic for me. It continues the false image of two opposing sides to life, but also implies that balance between them is the ideal. Furthermore, a balance of what? The ‘Work-life balance’ narrative leans heavily on time management, but this is only part of the story
It neglects the fact that we also have limited attention to give to priorities and limited physical energy to expend on activities. If we focus just on time, we can definitely make a wonderful plan for our week, but our cognitive limitations and – let’s face it – after-work exhaustion can make this plan irrelevant pretty quickly.
So what are we trying to balance in the first place? Our time spent in a role? Our satisfaction or engagement in a role? I prefer to talk about ‘work-life integration’ or ‘navigation’ over ‘balance’. The latter is pretty engrained in our public discourse, so I can’t see it leaving us any time soon! But when you consider your own situation, maybe you could think about the integrated and complimentary nature of your roles (there’s only one you!), as well as the ongoing navigation of challenges.
3. It implies there’s a solution to be found, rather than an ongoing effort to overcome challenges
Remember that in this context, ‘balance’ is a metaphor. You can balance a pen on your fingertip, but only as long as something doesn’t come along and knock it off. I’m sure that your life, just like mine, is a lot more complex and interesting than a pen!
We don’t achieve balance, as if it’s some kind of goal. Instead, we can look to our values, figure out what’s important to us, then prioritise and remain flexible in our responses to the unexpected challenges that regularly pop up. It’s an ongoing, dynamic engagement with the world around us. A series of tensions, opportunities, challenges and setbacks – not a simple problem with a single solution.
This is why so many of us feel stumped when we’re dissatisfied about this ‘problem’. We can look for the one, magic bullet that will solve the issue, rather than exploring a series of smaller steps that could nudge things in the right direction. Until, that is, the next challenge comes along.
In our next post, we’ll look at some helpful alternative ways of taking action when it comes to your multiples roles and how they interact and integrate.
If you’d like to get some professional support when it comes to have you navigate these challenges, check out our approach to coaching and have a look at our training courses on this very topic. As ever, please get in touch with your questions or comments. We also discussed this topic on our podcast ‘My Pocket Psych’, back in November 2018. You can listen to this episode below.