Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Want Better Work-Life Balance? Start With Understanding.

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 4

An important step for achieving work life balance is to understand the nature of the institution you are working for. defines a corporation as follows: An association of individuals, created by law, having a continuous existence independent of its members, and powers and liabilities distinct from those of its membersLets look at the four key ideas in more depth.  Each one has a significant impact on how individuals behave.

Association of individuals:  When a group of people are together, it is natural for a culture to form.  Culture provides the norms of acceptable behavior, and is a huge influence on how we act at work, which can spill over into the rest of our life. I will return to corporate culture later in the chapter.

Created by law: Ultimately, what a corporation can and cannot do is defined by local, state, federal and international law.  How often corporations stay within the law and how often they push is a matter of debate.  A simple example is minimum wage  – depending on where someone is working, his or her minimum pay is a function of local law.  A company may choose to pay more for a variety of reasons, but it isn’t required to.

Continuous existence independent of its members: Would it surprise you to learn that one of the first corporations in the world was a copper mine in Sweden that operated from at least the year 1080 until 1992?  It did me. The business was set up to distinct from its founding members, and it certainly was successful outliving them.  Key implication: a company doesn’t need any particular individual to survive.

Powers and liabilities distinct from members: A corporation can enter contracts, be sued, and in some cases be held criminally liable in a distinct and separate way from its employees or investors.  Many corporations provided limited liability for its investors, meaning that no money beyond the initial investment was at risk.  The structure of corporate ownership has a big impact on the behavior of the people who work there.  We’ll come back to this.

Again as a simple example, I used to get my paycheck directly from a company bank account, and not from an individual’s bank account.  Of course a company cannot issue a check (or do anything else) without an actual person to do the work.  This leads to many circumstances where a person is acting or speaking in the name of the company. Not a problem in and of itself,  until we forget that the company isn’t actually alive…

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  1. It might seem pedantic to some, but…. One piece of language I’m trying to reform is the use of the term “work/life balance.” If language shapes our reality even just a little bit, then “work/life balance” – although its meant to be have positive connotations – must be reinforcing some negative views of life for all of us. Work and life are not somehow distinct “realities” that we can balance. “Work” is surely not meant to be devoid of “life.” Equally, considered, engaged and relational work can surely be part of a highly connected, health-ful life (even potentially a very big part of it). I know the term is coined to try to get us to live in a more “balanced” way but I suspect it simply allows those who see “work” and “life” as mechanically disconnected realities, to continue with that problematic viewpoint – and to continue tinkering with work to make it a “bit more friendly” rather than reforming the notion of work and its part in a whole life..

    • Greg Marcus says

      I must admit, I am not a bit fan of the phrase work-life balance either, and I’m open to suggestions. What I would like to communicate is an issue of priorities. When someone is working massive hours, there just isn’t enough time for life outside of work. Relationships with people suffer, as can personal health.

      There can only be one top priority. I am not sure what you mean about the “mechanically disconnected realities.” Please tell me more. Are you arguing that work should be integrated into life? I remember a theme from Ursla Le Guin’s book The Dispossessed. In a language of the future, there were no separate words for work and play. That used to be a guiding principle for me, but I have since changed my perspective and am more in favor of firm boundaries. (In fact, I touch on this in the next post.)

  2. Dick West says

    I like what I see here. My kids all in their 50s–still resent my working long hours to accomodate my “customers” (citizebs of Pittsburgh) who had day jobs making them unavailable for meetings except evenings or weekends. It was the only way to do the job. When I was the boss in an earlier point in my career, I gave them compensatory time off. But that, along with much of yje American dream, is a thing of the past I’m sure.

    • Greg Marcus says

      Hi Dick,
      Thanks for sharing your story – it brings a visceral reaction that I can relate too. I remember my first business trip after my daughter was born. When I got home I picked her up and she turned her head away from me.

      Sometimes the job makes demands of us that are hard to avoid. But the kids don’t see it that way. I agree with you – we can’t count on the boss giving us that sort of compensatory time any more. We need to make it happen for ourselves.


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