Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Is Life Balance Better Than Work/Life Balance?

Talented Man by Erkuthanci via Flickr cc

Talented Man by Erkuthanci via Flickr cc

I have an issue with work/life balance. By putting work & life on the same line, it implies an equivalency between the two. And by putting work first, it provides a pecking order.

Work and life are not equals to be balanced or prioritized: Work is a part of life, a subset. The real issue is how to balance the different facets of life.

As I wrote in Busting Your Corporate Idol, life has three arenas: sleep, work, and everything else. A Balanced Life requires attention to each arena. 60, 80, 90 hour work weeks encroach on other arenas.

So much of the work/life balance field is focused on flexibility. But what about the person who has flexibility and chooses/feels compelled to work 60+ hours. Is this person happy? Maybe Is his or her life balanced? Doubtful. Freedom to pick your own 90 hours isn’t really a help. It may feel good for a time if you love your job to work all the time, but it isn’t balance, and it isn’t sustainable. (I know, because that was me.)

What I needed, and what many people need, is to work fewer hours. In my last post, I quoted an executive who said to Cali Williams Yost

Every time you say work-life balance all I hear is work less, and we have so much to do. I need everyone to do more. Plus, I don’t have any kind of work/life balance myself. How can I support something I don’t have?

I find it sad that the executive felt that he could not have life balance; he wasn’t even trying. He just assumed that he needed to make sacrifices for the company. (Which regular readers will recognize as corporate idolatry.) It doesn’t have to be that way. This executive had flexibility, and after talking to Yost, agreed to allow his employees more flexibility. But he was still overworked, and so were they!

So it’s time to call a spade a spade. We are overworked, and in order to achieve Life Balance we need to choose to work less. Yes, it is our choice. It does no good to blame the company, the economy, or globalization. No one will tell you to work fewer hours. You need to take back that time for yourself. You might be surprised to know how many managers have told me that they see their employees working too much. They won’t life a finger to stop it, but would comply with a request for less work in an instant.

Balance is not stationary. Life Balance is someone riding a unicycle while with a bunch of bowls on her head, with sticks in her hands, each holding up a ball. She is constantly moving. Life Balance is the same way. We are always moving and adjusting. Your Life Balance will look very different from my Life Balance. Of course they will, because we are different people.

I think that until we give up on the misdirected goal of work/life balance, we cannot achieve what we really want, a balanced, healthy, and meaningful life.

What do you think is the best phrase? Life Balance, work/life balance, or work+life fit?

Thank you Patricia Kempthorne, Founder/CEO of The Twiga Foundation, for your helpful feedback on the concept of Life Balance

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  1. Honestly I never thought to question the phrase work/life balance even though I’m aware how powerful words are. I like your life balance phraseology much better but doubt it’ll take the corporate world by storm! Part of why I left that world was because the official corporate policies, which looked great on paper and were lauded, didn’t translate well in practice.

    • Christy, Thanks so much for your feedback. I’m glad Life Balance is resonating with you. To be honest, I am really excited about this idea.

      That being said, I’ll stop holding my breath for Life Balance to take the corporate world by storm. 🙂 I understand exactly what you mean about the disconnect between the written initiative and actual practice in the corporate world. I’ve given up on changing corporate culture. Too many cultures propagate a hidden or not-so hidden company first value system.

      Life Balance is an idea for people. We need to adopt the practice on our own, and find ways to implement it in our own lives. Life balance puts people first, including both self-care and those we care about.

      • Greg,
        Indeed, holding your breath tends to oppose balance of all kinds. 😉 Joking aside, I see many clients who would benefit from the Life Balance reframing. Changing focus from other-oriented to self-oriented is an on-going theme in my work.

        I try not to rail against the system providing the resources (what I saved while there, what my husband earns now) allowing me to do my soul-centered work in the world but the “company first value system,” another helpful framing, is a bitter pill for sure. I love living in my new reality where people actually *are* first.

        Thanks for the food for thought.

  2. I do agree with you that we need to take control back – and under some circumstances, in an employee-employer relationship, that may be possible, i.e. exempt / salaried employees, we feel relatively secure in our position, we have marketable skills / contingencies, we are in some position of negotiation (or competence) power.

    However, as long as supply outstrips demand (at least in certain fields and regions or among certain age groups), and with the number of non-employees used (contractors, freelancers), taking back “our” time just may mean we’re out on our… assets.

    • Thanks D.A. – the job market is tight out there, and certain situations will demand more.

      I did a LinkedIn survey and found that 25% of people work more than 60 hours. It cut across age and level in the company. One person wrote a comment saying “am I the only one working 60 hours.”

      Contractors are an interesting case. How often is the contractor paid by the hour, and how often per project?

      One reason why I like consulting is that I charge by the hour, so if they want more work, they need to pay for it. There is no disincentive for a company to work exempt employees longer hours.

  3. Good post Greg. Work is part of life and the time we spend on personal v/s work either as an employee of an organization or as a business entrepreneur depends on how we choose to prioritize and manage.

    Choice is for each of us to make and there is always time if we prioritize and learn the art of saying no.


  4. You’re not alone, Greg, as many suggest alternative and varied terms for the concept of work/life balance. Work/life alignment, for example, removes the implied idea that work and life are equal. I agree with your points that work and life are not counterparts, but rather work is one of the many parts of life, and it’s key that we learn how to align them. I also agree that flexibility may not be the solution to work/life alignment if you still work 90 hours a week. But, there are different forms of flexibility other than the ability to choose your own hours. A ROWE (results-only work environment) takes the focus off hours on the clock. Under this flexible work option, employees can work when and how they want, as long as they get their work done. The trick is to prioritize these aspects of life and then find the right workplace situation that works for you, your employer and your family. –Allison O’Kelly, founder/CEO Mom Corps

  5. What your opinian “work Life balance” in three (3) different angles likes :-
    a) Fit for life
    b)Non-Communicable of Diseases
    c) Spiritual

    How to seperate all the above into the three (3) different actions like
    a) Think
    b) Feel
    c) Do

    Your views and comment please.. 🙂


  6. Greg,

    What a terrific post and site – I am so glad you found us over at Switch and Shift, and commented on my recent post about flow versus work/life balance. In addition to my comments there, I left out one important point to all the hours I happily put in building my first company: that was MY company. I wasn’t hired by a boss to work a full-time job (which used to be 40 hours/week) and then expected to put in 60, 80, 100 hours to build a company I had no stake in. My wife Jane and I owned 100% of the stock, so I was investing in my own future, not just my present at a fixed rate.

    Jack Stack has a couple of great books, one of which is “The Great Game of Business” (the game being how they made it fun for ALL the owner-employees at his factory to learn how to keep the books with him). The books were given to me by a CEO friend who was selling his company to his employees so they would own all of it and he could retire. Employee-ownership may be a little off your topic in this post, but it inspired us to explore the same as we build Switch and Shift from a blog into a business.

    Anyway, I digress. I comment here with a different purpose: I’d like to invite you to write a guest post for us, a rebuttal of my own piece if you like, or you could take on a different issue related to your book. Please email me and let me know if you’re interested. We’d love to have you!

    • Ted – thanks for your comments and the invitation. I’d be delighted to post.
      You bring up a good point – if you own the business the risk/return ratios are different. The pressure to work more is higher, but at least as the owner you get full fruits of any success that comes from what you do.

  7. As a work-family researcher and advoicate, I don’t like “work-life”

    Life includes all things, including both work and family.


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