The Work-Life Balance Myth

By: Sumeet Goel

March 10, 2015

My father had a certain expectation of the workplace – he expected to be able to leave the house every morning, work uninterrupted throughout the day and be home in time for dinner, the evening news and Rukeyser’s Wall $treet Week. His generation, in the post-war 1950s, had the “nine to five” ideal of the workday –Then came the 1980s and the ideal of a “work-life balance,” espoused over many years and arguably still the prevailing mindset today.

For many of us – and I’m guessing nearly everyone reading this article – it feels like there’s no such thing as a balance between work and life. When it comes to your career, you’re either all in or all out. Patrick Pichette, the outgoing CFO at Google, is one of the rare few who’s been successful enough going “all in” for years that he can now take the “all out” path and will likely be very happy in the next phase of his life. We just saw three NFL free agents, arguably in their prime, make a similar move, choosing retirement over playing another season. Folks who have succeeded personally & financially have that option – and good on them for taking it. For the rest of us, I’m not sure the “balance” is so easy. We live in a world that now offers summer retreats and vacations that market the “unplugged” nature of the experience. If paying a third party thousands of dollars to scold us into disconnecting from work is really what it takes, can we really say there is a balance between work and life?

That misnomer of “work-life balance” is what I found myself contemplating on a Thursday afternoon while responding to emails and catching a quick call with a HighPoint consultant, in between making the kids an early dinner and taking in the last hour of my daughter’s latest theatre production dress rehearsal. In my own life, at least, I’ve grown a little more comfortable with not trying to force an artificial balance between my work and life and have embraced not feeling guilty when work overlaps life and vice versa. And let’s be clear – there’s an upside to the overlap. I can probably count on one hand the number of times my brother and I spoke to my father while he was at work when I was growing up. Today, I look forward to getting a text or a photo from my children during the day. Similarly, a generation ago, how many of our fathers (or mothers), would have told a colleague – “Can I call you back? It’s my spouse calling,” or step out of a meeting saying, “Sorry – it’s the kid’s school – I’ll be right back.”

What we’re finally starting to realize is that work is a part of life, not a separate entity, and the two should work symbiotically. Often referred to as the “work-life mashup,” better integration of the two is made possible by technology and the increasing availability of jobs offering perks such as flexible hours and remote working. The growing number of contract workers has contributed as well. Originally considered a symptom of scarce jobs during the recession, a growing number of workers are electing to remain contract employees even as the economy improves. What was once necessity is now a choice that allows people to have a fulfilling career while being a full-time parent, pay the bills while starting up a new venture or move into retirement at their own pace.

Companies with a more traditional corporate structure may not be adjusting quickly enough to remain competitive as today’s pool of applicants looks for flexibility in exchange for hard work and dedication. I wonder if companies are asking themselves whether their hiring and HR policies are motivating their workforce and encouraging employees to find the most productive ways of working. Could companies who are not doing this be setting themselves up for high turnover and burnout rates?

What could companies learn and implement from the independent contractor sector and the cadre of satisfied employees there? Creating an environment where employees can craft their own balance of priorities leads to a happier and more productive employee. The more companies and business leaders accommodate these new ways of working, the more fulfilled their employees will be which leads to greater success and a stronger bottom line for the organization. Maybe then our society can stop talking about work life balance and instead focus on really having it all.