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

You Might Also Like

The Secret Flaw In Work/Life Balance

Discover How I Avoided Burnout

The Secret Flaw In Work Life Balance

work like effectiveness by Mike Kline via Flickr ccI’ve never liked the phrase work/life balance. I’m just not comfortable saying it. I like the sentiment, but the phrase is somehow wrong. I now understand why, but it will take me a while to get there.

Cali Williams Yost makes a significant improvement when she writes about work+life fit. In her book Tweak It, Yost explains the origin of the idea. She was meeting with a senior executive, explaining the benefits to the company of offering employees better work/life balance. But as soon as she said “work/life balance”, his eyes glazed over. Yost asked him to explain why.

“Every time you [Cali] 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]

Yost explained that is wasn’t about working less, but about having the flexibility to choose when and where you work. Yost invented the phrase “work+life fit” on the spot. The executive got it immediately, recounting how he plays tennis twice a week, and tries to fit his son’s soccer games into his overall schedule. Work+life fit is about giving individuals the flexibility to make work fit into their unique circumstances.[ii] For Yost, this was a key breakthrough that has enabled her to open dialog with business leaders about increasing workplace flexibility.

I loved work+life fit when I first heard about it. It made sense to me, because flexibility is a significant improvement over inflexible work hours.  People are happier and less stressed if they have flexibility.

But, there remained a niggling doubt in my gut, which is captured by the image I chose for the post. Our heroine has work+life fit of a sort, but it is not a happy picture. Flexibility is a plus, but if one it merely moving around the ninety hours, there still is not enough time to have a balanced life.

The problem I am trying to solve is chronic overwork, and increased flexibility doesn’t help if the overall hours remain the same.

Continued … the Real Goal Is Life Balance


[i] Tweak It: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day by Cali Williams Yost. p xiv More

[ii] Ibid p xiv-xv