The quest for work-life balance is unbalancing us

For a decade or so we’ve talked about work-life balance as the holy grail. Find that perfect marriage of work productivity and personal fulfilment and we’ll all be winners. Employers will benefit from less stress amongst employees; we’ll benefit from a greater quality of life. Happier, healthier workplace all round. Yet despite our quest for work-life balance, it doesn’t feel like the scales are tipping in the right direction. 

Vase on a window

With companies reporting growing stress levels and stress-related absences, what does work-life balance really look like in practice. Some of my research recently has made interesting reading. Articles promoting how women are finding their “balance” don’t look much like balance to me.

Living the dream

Take for example the case of a lawyer called Sheila, living her dream of making cheese from her 200 strong goat-herd in the mountains. Sheila funds her hobby-turned-business by working as a senior-associate lawyer, most of which she manages around her daily schedule on the farm. Sounds idyllic doesn’t it (unless you don’t like goats; or cheese – in which case maybe not so much). But look a little closer and you’ll see a harsher reality; while she has the flexibility to decide her own schedule, her overall working day boils down to a punishing 18 hour day (8 hours of law and 10 hours of cheese-making).

A mom making it work

Another case example is a working mum of three named Deborah. Deborah, according to the article, is a “mom making it work”. In fact, she’s making it work so well that she gives talks across the US to other female lawyers on work-life balance and retention of women in the workplace. So how does she achieve this magical balance I hear you ask? 

Well first she likes an early 5.30am start to cram in a few hours work before the kids gets up. Then she (in her words) merely squeezes a normal working day into school hours. She maximizes any business trips by using her downtime to fit in haircuts, visiting friends and of course training for marathons. And that’s before we even talk about how Deborah ferries her kids between after-school activities, runs the school chess club and coaches their sports teams. 

Optimising, maximising, squeezing, cramming

I truly admire Deborah; I do. She’s clearly doing the best she can to be an effective lawyer AND be present in her kids’ lives. But Is this really what work-life balance looks like? Optimising, maximising, squeezing, cramming. These are not adjectives that smack of balance to me. Frankly, by the time I finished reading about Deborah, I wanted to give the poor woman a hug and a cup of tea. 

Work-life balance, and all the buzz around it, clearly started with the best of intentions. It stemmed from the desires of Gen X and Millennial workers to prioritise family time. After witnessing the long working hours and poor work-life balance of their own parents, they wanted to do it differently. So where has it gone so wrong?

Work-life balance and it’s twin

Perhaps the fault lies with our second obsession. Alongside this drive for work-life balance, it seems that we Gen X-ers and Millennials have also developed a bit of penchant for productivity. Or rather, a constant need to increase our productivity. While on one hand we may be reducing our working hours on paper – in reality we’re trying to show how productive we are by completing the same quantity of work, in less time (and probably for less money). And the reward we give ourselves for working full-tilt? Do we give ourselves permission to spend this new spare time kicking back and resting? 

No, the reward we give ourselves is the opportunity to fill up that space with more. More of whatever it is we feel we should be doing; whether that’s running a side business, being a more hands-on parent, running a marathon or getting a masters. It seems freeing up some hours to create whitespace, to just be, is not an acceptable use of our time.

Saturation point

Of course at some point, there will come a saturation point. The point at which our fragile human brains and bodies cannot absorb any more of the more. I say this from my own experience; at some point burnout will come knocking on our door. Or worse case scenario, it might come hammering on that door with a battering ram and a tidal wave of emotions that we’ve kept at bay with our busy-ness.

And if, or when, that day comes; when you’re sitting at your computer pondering the free time you’re soon to have as your youngest starts school – whilst simultaneously flicking through the brochure of the 12-month PRINCE2 Practitioner course you’ve just signed up to.

Stop.

Take a moment.

Take a moment to think, not how you’ll fill your time, but how you won’t.

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The quest for work-life balance is unbalancing us

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