Why Are We So Mixed Up About Work/Life Balance?

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Ever since the recession started, we’ve heard the same things about work/life balance:

  • Jobs are more important than work/life balance;
  • We can worry about work/life balance once we’re back to full employment;
  • The unsaid threat of pushing hard to help an employer out or else; and,
  • Work/life balance may be a myth (maybe a post for another day).

Balance has gone out the window in companies that have struggled in the last few years. The word has been survive. And I think many of us who cover the employment space thought that since work/life balance was out of the mind of employers, it was also out of the mind of employees.

Not so fast.

Business consulting firm StrategyOne has released a survey about work/life balance and employee perceptions and the results were mixed to say the least. Just as a contrast, check out the difference in these results

Question text:  In your opinion, how much of a problem are work/life balance issues in America today?

Answer August 2010
TOTAL PROBLEM 89%
Significant problem 54%
Minor problem 35%
TOTAL NOT A PROBLEM 11%
Not really a problem 9%
Not a problem at all 2%

Yet contrast this with this question later on in the survey:

Question text:  Do you believe that you have an adequate work/life balance?*

Answer August 2010
Yes 69%
No 31%

* Asked of those who are employed (either full time or part time)

So while people generally believe that work/life balance is a problem, they also generally believe that they have adequate work/life balance? Of course, in the press release from StrategyOne, they highlight the negatives gleaned from the survey (what is a business consultant without a business problem?) which is what much of the press have focused on. But let’s dive deeper into the current state of work/life balance.

Influencing factors: industry, career level

Mid level associate attorneys were polled about satisfaction with work and a portion of the dissatisfaction centered around work/life balance:

Nearly 45 percent of respondents said that if they leave their firm it will be for a better work/life balance–a 5 percent increase from 2009. A Morrison & Foerster associate wrote that, “Work/life balance is important to more people than . . . [just] mothers and lazy people.”

Still, other industries are simply trying to integrate it into people’s lives in a more pleasing way. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh describes it:

One way to think about being an employee at Zappos is this: Instead of the work-life balance practiced by many, Zappos strives for work-life integration, allowing people to be the same inside and outside of work.

“Be real and you have nothing to fear,” Hsieh said.

And what’s the net impact of it?

Article Continues Below

Stunting family and work life

Going back to the original survey, they found that 37 percent believed time with family suffered first when work/life balance was out of whack. Not surprising but how about work life?

ThomasNet’s David R. Butcher examines how workaholics (or people with extreme work/life imbalance) can actually lead to a bad employee:

In the Q1 2010 edition of UNC Charlotte magazine, [Bryan] Robinson — who drew on his personal experience to author the book Chained to the Desk — says workaholics “tend to be separatists, preferring to work alone and focusing on the details of their work, to which their egos are attached.” Often, they “create or look for work to do.”

Even when out of the office, workaholics can satisfy their cravings with cell phones, PDAs, and laptops, never leaving work out of reach.

“In the 1970s we were saying our technology was going to free us up, but it has enslaved us,” Robinson tells the UNC magazine. “There are no boundaries.”

Why we’re mixed up

The problem is that everyone has seen how work/life balance has impacted people. They’ve seen moms trying to balance a growing family and career demands. Or maybe a older man who is looking to relax but can’t seem to get out of the grind. And perhaps they are seeing more of it in wake of the recession.

Not everyone is experiencing a work/life imbalance though (in fact, according to the survey, most aren’t). So it seems like the only surprise is that so many people see work life balance as an issue for other people, not themselves.

What’s your take on the perception of work/life balance in the workplace?

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17 Comments on “Why Are We So Mixed Up About Work/Life Balance?

  1. I love the idea of work/life integration. I don't like the idea of “going to work” if it doesn't make sense for the desired end result, takes hours of commuting, or makes the day feel like a waste of time. From that article, it sounds like workaholics and a workaholic culture are actually detrimental to high performance.

  2. I am stuck on the quote “Work/life balance is important to more people than . . . [just] mothers and lazy people.” Lazy people?! Yes, there has been more focus placed on showing that work-life balance is not a “woman's issue”, but when did people start thinking only the lazy want/need work-life balance? I realize this is only one quote out of the whole article, but it makes me think it could be a representation of a larger, underlying belief about support for workplace flexibility and work-life integration in general.

  3. Solid post, Lance.

    The problem with the work/life balance issue is that it isn’t being looked at through a consistent lens and employees and employers tend to define it differently.

    For example – Take the employee who leaves at 5pm everyday so they can be home to feed, bathe and put their kids to bed. They have a Blackberry and a laptop and sign on every night after their kids are asleep to check messages, wrap-up the day and prepare for the next day.

    Is this work/life balance? I think you’d get very different answers from different people.

    My take: The long hours are not the problem; it is the stress from perceived work/life conflict that causes problems. The issue is control.

  4. Interesting and amusing.

    All Individuals choose where to place priorities. We also choose where to focus blame. “Work” can be whatever we choose it to be until we choose to define it as a “have to” instead of a choose to. Once we define it as a have to naturally “victim” “balance” “necessity” and a plethora of other words come into play. Regardless of circumstance and conditions we get to create our own lives and whatever balance we choose to employ in it.

  5. Although I don't disagree with the premise of this article, I am waiting for someone to come forward and define exactly what “work/life” balance means. I think it is one of those terms we throw around loosely when describing our discontent with our company or job. It is lack of flexiblity in hours, the denial of telecommuting opportunities, excessive hours, too much stress, lack of direction?

  6. Definition for me of work/life balance: when you have to forego something that is important to your values (not just something that you want to do) for the sake of completing a deadline. This sort of cognitive dissonance causes stress and we are bad at drawing those boundaries sometimes. However, we often do not help ourselves. Rather than let my work/life balance suffere, I let things fall off the table – I am confident enough of what I bring in terms of productivity and I have a lot of the productivity documented – therefore if we get past that boundary then we need either (a) more resources or (b) to decide what is not going to get done.

  7. I believe the contradiction between feeling that work/life balance is a problem and yet feeling that we have it is the problem.

    Meaning, trying to keep work and life separate but equal. It doesn't work. Whether you're an hourly employee, a contractor or an executive, work/life integration garners the only semblance of sanity in a non-stop insane world.

  8. I'm one of the skeptics re the work-life balance search, for several reasons:

    1) Work is part of life! If someone's doing work right, s/he jumps out of bed in the morning to tackle it because it's productive, worthwhile, interesting, engaging, and, yes, fun. The challenge is not as much work-life balance as finding the right work — the kind that feeds the mind, heart, soul. When that happens, everyone's the better for it.

    2) I realized long ago that “balance” happens over a lifetime. When I was a young, widowed mother of a 2-year-old, mothering was everything to me. Later in a job that I loved, I was stressed thinking that I wasn't paying enough attention to my daughter. She turned out all right — actually, superbly all right — and so did my career.

    3) It seems to me that people are spending more energy and angst on figuring out an arbitrary work-life balance formula than on the quality of either. Too bad, too sad!

  9. I'm a skeptic about work being life. Sometimes work is something you do, not something you are. And I hesitate to say one is “right” or “wrong.” No matter the role, perhaps working 60 hours a week isn't someone's cup o' tea. Isn't that alright? Or do we have to be in constant persuit of something that we want to spend 60 hours a week on?

  10. I don't see why the idea that the term may have different meanings to different people is so consequential to the point.

    What does fair compensation exactly mean?

    What does living healthy exactly mean?

    I think we generally know what we want the end result to be but that is reached using different techniques and standards per individual. So in the case of your argument it may be some, all or none of the above.

  11. That seems just a bit on the optimistic side, don't you think?

    Saying that no outside circumstances have impacted our ability to function in society and that our fate is all just a matter of choice sounds fishy to me. Our lives aren't completely self-determinant.

    So yes, for many folks work is a “have to.” I think blaming the person wholly for that is a mistake.

  12. Haha, I liked that part of the quote too. Lots of folks see the work/life balance argument as simply an excuse to work less. For me, it is about working the same (or more) on a better schedule. For others, it may be reducing time at work.

    Nobody should put lazy people in the same sentence as mothers though.

  13. Honestly I think the way work life balance is communicated is all mixed up. When Zappos' Hseih says, “Be real and you have nothing to fear.” he is trying to paint a succinct picture of their “policy.” Unfortunately while many employers have taken all the time in the world to clearly articulate their Internet usage policies, paid leave policies, and other benefits, they rarely take the time to articulate broader issues of cultural values and what wellness means in the context of their company. So, people come in with their own ideas of what wellness means to them and it ends up being at odds with the company's defacto but never-explicitly-defined philosophy.

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