Why Work-Life Balance Doesn’t Work

It’s always great when you stumble upon a golden nugget of workplace insight, and that’s how I felt today reading The Washington Post‘s great On Leadership column.

And, it’s even better when that shiny nugget is about a topic that is widely debated and very near and dear to so many people’s hearts. Today’s example: work-life balance, or more specifically, Why Work-Life Balance Doesn’t Work.

It’s a great topic because it’s one that everyone seems to talk about yet very few have found a way to master or come to grips with. Work-life balance is something everyone seems to strive for, but really, how many people actually are able to achieve it?

That’s why Harvard Business School Leadership Prof. Leslie Perlow makes so much sense when she writes:

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When people hear I am writing a book about “work-life balance,” their eyes glaze over.

But when they hear I am writing a book called Sleeping with Your Smartphone, people perk up. They say: “I need that book. That is the story of my life (or my spouse’s, or my boss’s).”

That “sleeping with your smartphone” elicits a much stronger reaction is a powerful example of how problematic the “work-life” lexicon, as well as the approach most organizations use to solve the dilemma, has become. We tend to relegate anything labeled “work-life” to the domain of mothers struggling to perform the ubiquitous act of juggling their professional and personal demands.

Yet when we talk about the always-on mentality of work today, we’re talking about a problem to which everyone—men and women, parents and non-parents, CEOs and entry-level professionals — can relate.”

Like the search for the Holy Grail

Yes, it IS a topic we can all relate to because it is something we all desperately want but can’t seem to really find. Work-life balance, like the search for the Holy Grail, is a noble pursuit that, for most of us, seems to be just beyond our reach.

Prof. Perlow seems to have drawn a good bead on why work-life balance never seems to work, so it’s well worth reading her On Leadership column in The Post if you want some smart perspective and insight. But, her final thoughts are pretty sobering for all of us who work and toil and try to help manage others (as well as ourselves) into a greater work-life balance.

Solving the so-called “work-life balance” dilemma won’t come simply from H.R. handing out more flexible schedules or accommodating longer maternity and paternity leaves. It won’t come from reading more time-management books on how to prioritize your life and empty your inbox. And it won’t come from setting up your own personal Blackberry boycotts in the evenings if everyone else is expecting you to respond.

What it will come from is having regular candid conversations about work and personal issues; making sure people are valued, rather than penalized, for taking time off; and getting groups to actively participate in changing the way they get their work done. And it will take changing the labels we use so they’re not loaded with mommy-track associations. Only when it becomes everyone’s problem, rather than a women’s problem or a parents’ problem, will we find more than a marginal fix.”

For more on Why Work-Life Balance Doesn’t Work, click here. 

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


2 Comments on “Why Work-Life Balance Doesn’t Work

  1. I agree work-life “balance” is not possible, however, there are companies that have made work+life flexibility part of their culture and business strategy. In doing so, they accomplish the objectives that have to be part of any a new work+life model. I just wrote about an example of a company that’s done this in The Atlantic “The 10 Keys to Building the Flexible Workplace of the Future”  

  2. Prof. Perlow has the right idea—work/life issues have to be considered in a holistic manner. We won’t find any resolution until both organizations and professionals look at it as everyone’s issue, acknowledging that a lack of mindfulness for work/life integration hurts not only the working mothers, but all employees and organizations in lost productivity and employee satisfaction.–Allison O’Kelly, founder/CEO of Mom Corps 

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