Throughout my HR career, ‘work-life balance’ comes up in discussions countless times. People have different interpretations of what work-life balance means. Whatever the views on work-life balance, it remains a hot topic for HR departments, given that a common frustration from people in workplaces is the lack of perceived work-life balance.
People feel that working hours and high workloads can take over their lives. The ‘always on’ digital access culture is a big factor here. Given HR’s desire to reduce stress and proactively address mental health issues, we encourage people to strive for a better work-life balance. We want to convey that we care about people because we care about their ‘work-life balance’. Often, however, the focus is on how to achieve more leisure time rather than addressing the root cause of people’s experience whilst they are at work. Maybe the question needs to be ‘what needs to be in place for our lives to feel more balanced’?
I believe it is important to think about the terms we use and the meaning behind them. Whilst the intent behind ‘work-life balance’ is no doubt positive, I believe it is inherently contradictory as a concept. It implies there is a distinction between work and life or vice versa that there is some sort of neat balance to be struck between the two. Life isn’t really like this, it doesn’t always follow neat linear patterns. The reality is sometimes the balances may feel tipped towards one side or the other.
The last time I looked I was still [thankfully] alive at work, although some days perhaps maybe slightly more alive than others. I aim to live my life as fully as possible when I’m at work and when I’m not at work, different contexts and different situations but still very much living my life. There can be no other option if we think about it logically. I was reminded at this point about Spock saying to Captain Kirk ‘It’s life Jim, but not as we know it’. That’s the logic of Vulcans for you and seemed like a good excuse to weave in a Star Trek reference within this article. I’ve reached the conclusion therefore that the reason work-life balance feels so elusive for so many is there is no balance to be achieved, whether we are at work or not, we are simply living our lives full stop. As Spock might say ‘It’s illogical Captain’.
To state that we are ‘alive’ when we are at work sounds obvious, but for many people, their working experience can feel anything but this. Some workplaces and work situations can become crushing to the human spirit. Dehumanising work practices can cause people to feel like life is on hold or suspended whilst they are at work.
The phrase TGIF or ‘thank God it’s Friday’ is an example of people literally wishing their lives away. Numerous research studies show chronic low levels of employee engagement revealing an underlying trend for many people, that they do not feel they are living their lives at work. I’ve seen people over the years who literally seem to ‘come alive’ at the end of the workday when they feel they can escape and get back to living and enjoying life again. I have also seen people who feel so relentlessly busy that they simply want to escape for some respite.
Work-life balance could, therefore, be framed around how to build workplace cultures where people can feel fully alive and enjoy being at work. I believe this is an issue about the environment we create in workplaces more than anything else. Maybe a new way of thinking about our workplaces as environments where people can feel fully alive, with meaningful work, having some fun in the process is the way forward? I once heard a manager state to their team ‘you’re here to work, not enjoy yourselves’ and thought deeply about the impact this had on the people in the team. This is important as the biggest proportion of most lives is spent at work or within our workplaces. For our organisations to be successful we need to have people who want to actively contribute to organisational success, rather than counting down the hours until work is finished for the day in search of that elusive ‘balance’. We want to create environments for people to enjoy being at work, feel safe and derive fulfilment through what they do. We want people to live their lives fully through their work.
Anita Roddick once said that workplaces should ‘primarily be incubators for the human spirit’. This captures perfectly my thoughts behind this article. To live our lives fully we need to nourish the human spirit when we are at work. It is also healthy for people to nourish their human spirit whilst not at work. An experience at work should be shaped by feeling valued, with opportunities for growth and personal development. This should be the norm in workplaces and not the exception. With lots of discussions taking place about the future role of technology and artificial intelligence, it may be the organisations that embrace the human spirit and allow people to feel fully alive whilst at work achieve the ultimate competitive advantage.
With the nature of work changing rapidly, traditional patterns of work and boundaries regarding working time are disappearing.
The fluid nature of what constitutes ‘work’ and how and when we do work is likely to accelerate further changes. For many people, there is no longer a clear distinction between work and the rest of life, it’s all one integrated life. This presents opportunities to rethink outdated approaches to work-life balance and instead focus attention on providing a fully human experience within the workplace. In Star Trek parlance, this would then be pushing new frontiers. In doing so maybe we’ll also get much closer to Anita Roddick’s inspiring vision of what workplaces could truly be.