Let’s stop talking about work-life balance

Beth Livingston
Beth Livingston

I’ve lost count of how many companies talk about employee work-life “balance.” Magazine articles, webinars, tweets and emails either bemoan our lack of balance or proclaim they can help you achieve it. 

But here’s something I’ve learned after studying it for 20 years… 

Work-life balance doesn’t exist. 

So why do we keep talking about it? And should we? Does our obsession with achieving work-life balance do more harm than good by making us feel like failures when we don’t?

Balance is difficult to understand and model, so much so that practitioners and academics are still debating how to even measure it. If we can’t agree how to measure it, how can we expect people to achieve it? And if we expect people to achieve balance, how do the people who aren’t paragons of balance feel when they fall short? 

The metaphor of balance implies a person has it all together. They are like stacked rocks on the beach in the sunshine, perfect and pristine. In fact, we are nothing like that. Our roles are always in flux. Someone who feels balanced at 10 a.m. may suddenly not feel balanced when daycare calls at 10:15 and says their child is ill. Should they feel guilty that they are no longer “balanced?” Unfortunately, they often do, because we keep talking about balance as a state of being that one can achieve if they just work hard enough.

So, what do we do to get away from our obsession with balance? First, how we talk about these issues matters. “Balance” is too precarious a term, so I try to avoid compounding the real concerns that employees have by implying such a thing is attainable in the first place. Instead, I say they are “managing” their work and life roles. Or even “integrating” them. Or perhaps, during the pandemic, merely “surviving” them. But I avoid “balance.”

Second, I talk about roles and boundaries. During COVID, we have come to understand that boundaries between work and nonwork are critically important. But what does that mean for how people experience their work while working? 

Each of us are collections of roles and identities, all of which have different expectations and responsibilities. When they conflict, we feel bad. But when they are in sync, we feel in a groove, and it’s that groove we try to attain. Labeling this as balance, however, negates the active work that so many people do to find their groove. And it also fails to recognize how precarious it is. 

That’s why, third, I talk about the dynamics of life. Everyone has a different idea as to how they want their work and nonwork lives to interact, which is why the debate between working at the office and working remotely so often misses the mark. What we want and what we need is specific to each individual’s preferences, and those preferences can vary even from day to day. 

It’s not a policy people need, it’s autonomy over how to do their jobs. This takes a passive recipient of work-life situations and turns them into an active author of their own work-life trajectory.

Finally, even those of us with total control over our jobs do not always have total control over our lives outside of work. Children get sick. Partners get divorced. Parents move in with us. If we are focused on feeling balanced, these shocks can set us back psychologically in ways that compound the lack of control we already feel. But if we foster a culture that acknowledges variance and fluctuation in our daily work/nonwork dynamics, we create workplaces that trust employees to manage their responsibilities in ways that work for them.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I took “mindful childbirth” classes, and something the coach said has stuck with me for a decade: Don’t hit yourself with the second dart. In other words — bad things are going to happen that throw you off course. Don’t make yourself feel worse about it than you have to. Focusing on achieving an elusive state of work-life balance makes it more likely that you’ll face the guilt and shame of not achieving this impossible goal.

Beth Livingston is associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business.

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