In defense of work–life balance

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Even as the concept of integrating our professional and personal lives gains currency, it is important to demarcate borders between the two.

Work–life balance is getting a bad rap.

In recent years, people focused on improving work cultures have started to sour on the term. Some argue, as Susan Cramm has in these pages, that it’s a “myth” based on “zero-sum thinking” that divides work and life in a binary way, ignoring the reality that one can blend into the other.

In its place, a different term has become much more popular: work–life integration. Berkeley’s Haas School of Business is among the institutions that prefers this term, calling it “an approach that creates more synergies between all areas that define ‘life’: work, home/family, community, personal well-being, and health.” (In 2017, I had the opportunity to deliver a keynote at Haas, and discussed these issues.)

Some people argue that the shift from balance to integration is also generational. Gen X “has focused heavily on the balance aspect, embracing remote work trends and using PTO to focus on family and work outside the office,” blogger Liz Alton wrote at ADP Spark. By contrast, millennials are “thinking about the lives they want and seeking jobs and employers that support that experience.”

Consulting and speaking about work–life issues for businesses and organizations around the world, I take a contrarian view. In fact, we need both balance and integration. And it is vital, for the sake of workers and businesses, to understand the difference.

In this era, thanks to technology and an increasingly global environment, millions of people bring work with them everywhere they go. That’s how some end up with a 72-hour work week. From the C-suite to entry-level positions, being tethered to your phone and available virtually around the clock is all too common.

When your work and personal lives are integrated — blended into a “unified whole,” as Merriam-Webster defines integration — how is it even possible to separate the two? Seeking work–life integration for its own sake runs the risk of suggesting that you are available at all times of day. After all, if there’s no clear separation between home and office, between work and leisure, what’s to prevent someone from assuming you’re always available?

“When your work and personal lives are integrated, how is it even possible to separate the two?”

That’s why we also need work–life balance. And when it comes to balance, there is a role for “zero-sum” thinking — in which, again according to Merriam-Webster, “a gain for one side entails a corresponding loss for the other side.” Checking work emails every evening and throughout each weekend does take away from personal and family time — especially because those messages are often a tunnel into a vortex of work-related stress.

Put most simply, to me work–life integration requires making sure your employees can, for example, work from home at least some of the time. Work–life balance requires making it clear you don’t expect them to respond to emails at all hours of the night.

Businesses benefit from instilling a culture that supports both integration and balance. Giving employees flexibility to get their work done where and when it works best for them is a fantastic way to attract and retain talent. So is creating a culture in which employees are expected to take real breaks and pursue interests outside of work. All of this also increases employee productivity and engagement.

 
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And although discussions around work–life conflict often focus on women, these issues are just as important to men. “Contrary to public perception and many media accounts, women and men report similar levels of work–family conflicts, both in the form of work interfering with family and family interfering with work,” the American Psychological Association reported. (Researchers pieced through “more than 350 studies conducted over three decades that included more than 250,000 participants from across the world.”)

When I interviewed fellow dads for my book, All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Business — and How We Can Fix It Together, many talked about the importance of work–life balance.

After getting married, Bryan Levey, vice president of engineering for a Boston-area technology company, told his boss, “I used to work all the time, but now I have someone who’s important to me.” Looking back, he says, “It was clear I wanted to balance these things.”

Making this work can require adjustment, both by businesses and employees. “It continues to be a consistent goal of mine to balance work and home,” Levey says. “I generally am home for after-school homework at least once a week at 3:00 and get the kids ready in the morning two or three times a week.” He has switched between five-day and four-day schedules to help make it work. He also took off eight weeks for a big family summer trip.

Another man I interviewed, Tim Lister, gave up his full-time job and moved from the U.S. to Spain in search of work–life balance. “It’s great to be out of the rat race, to read and think more,” he told me. “I breathe fresh air and live among people who have a good work–life–family–rest balance.”

During my final year at CNN (before leaving to work full time on these issues), I removed easy access to work email from my phone. And upon leaving work each day, I turned on my out-of-office messages. The email automatically sent to people inside the company explained that to reach me, they’d need to call. In other words, it left open the potential for work to be integrated into the time I was not in the office. Some colleagues later told me that my message made them think twice about whether they really needed to hear back from me right then.

As I’d get in my car and drive out of the lot each day, I felt more free. More relaxed. And, as I’d pull up to my house and start playing with my kids, I felt more balanced.

Josh Levs

Josh Levs is a business consultant, former journalist for NPR and CNN, and the author of All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses — and How We Can Fix It Together. He tweets about modern fatherhood and the workplace @JoshLevs.

 
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