“Work-Life balance”: A dangerous way to think about the issue.
You hear it all over the place nowadays. “I need a better work-life balance”. “People have their work-life balance wrong”.”You need to improve your work-life balance”.
What this all suggests is that work and life are at the opposite ends of a scale. Like a children’s see-saw in a playground, as one child rises ,the other falls; apart from those moments when both have their feet dangling uncomfortably off the ground. It suggests there is an old style pair of scales and, one one side there is the time you spend at work, on the other side the time you spend at life; and they work against each other unless they are in that precarious equilibrium of perfect balance.
I believe this expression, and the underlying thinking is is dangerous. Why? Because it suggests that work and life are different. Let’s be clear now, they are NOT.
Work and life are NOT different!
To suggest that work is not a part of life is to suggest that we all take off our heads before we go to work in the morning. It suggests that somehow we can enjoy life, but we can’t enjoy work. It suggests that, in our lives, the time we spend at work is not a part of our “life”.
The mere act of starting with the suggestion that life and work are separate, starts in the wrong place. It causes all sorts of wrong thinking as a result.
What are the implications behind this thinking. It suggests you can’t enjoy work. It suggests that work is not a social activity. It suggests that at work you are somehow controlled and not yourself. It suggests that you have your life outside work and any part of work that exists, takes away from your life. It reminds me of the old factory mentality of the 50s, 60s and 70s where you went to work, did a mundane activity and then were released from this servitude when the factory hooter went off.
It also carries a deeper suggestion: that work does not contribute to your life;that they are separate. When I describe this face to face I usually have one hand to represent life and another to represent work, and they are held apart with a void between them.
Now bring those hands together.
What we have now is more about the balance of work in your life. It is also about how work contributes to the rest of your life.
Of course, I run my own business and enjoy what I do. It interests me. It challenges me. I learn things from it. I want to be better at it. To me there is no distinction between life and work. I can’t imagine not being interested in what I do.
Of course there is a different view
However, I recognise that there are people out there who have a different approach. They see work as a way of earning money to do other things in their lives. Of course that makes sense. Many people go to work simply to get money to “live” and enjoy things. But that never makes work a different thing to life. It simply has a different aspect and importance.
I was chatting to a colleague yesterday. She runs a business where there are a lot of part- time people running a business in their spare time to earn money, but they are self employed and geographically spread out. She can’t “supervise” them, as they are working independently. They have to be self- motivated and self- managing.
Ironically, the answer in this environment is one which works in most environments: help people to understand what they have to achieve.;give them the tools to help them achieve it; provide the motivation and direction that they need, and trust them to get on with it.
In most cases people like to be trusted and make decisions for themselves. It is empowering (sorry – awful buzz word). It says “I trust you, you are an intelligent person, these are the guidelines and these are what you can achieve. Now use your initiative and judgment to deliver it”. In those circumstances, people will deliver. The rest of management is making sure they are delivering and helping them to do it.
As another colleague said to me. “If you can communicate the vision and convince people of it, and ,at the same time, if you can communicate the values, then you have management cracked. The rest is simply checking that they are doing it.
In both these circumstances these people are using their life experiences, characters, skills knowledge and personalities to deliver and enjoy work.
Of course the work-life balance is used in the sense of overworking and not having a balance of other time in one’s life. The other expression we hear about now is “Quality of life” and “Quality time”.
We should ban the phrase “work-life balance”
So, my suggestion is that we ban the phrase “work-life balance”. It is a dangerous and misleading phrase. The effect on employee -thinking is dangerous: I switch off when I come to work. The effect on management thinking can be similarly dangerous.
I suggest we use phrases like, “a balance of work in our lives”, or “having a balance of work as a part of our lives”. Both these expressions are far more inclusive. They recognise that work is a social activity; that chatting next to the coffee machine is a vital part of it; that enjoying what we do, learning things, and seeing a difference matters to people; that organisations are social networks; that the people in companies and their customers, partners and suppliers are also people.
Moreover, that work is a part of life. If we deny that we lead to a robotic model of management; one which no-one I know really wants, whether as a manager, or as those who are managed.
There are more dangerous expressions out there we need to be careful of. I’ll cover more soon.