Throughout my HR career, ‘work-life balance’ has come up in discussions countless times. People have different interpretations of what work-life balance means. Whatever the views on work-life balance, and how best to achieve it, the subject remains a hot topic for HR departments. A common frustration from people in workplaces is the lack of perceived work-life balance.
Whilst the intent behind ‘work-life balance’ is positive, I believe it is inherently contradictory as a concept. It implies there is a distinction between work and life, or vice versa.
People feel that working hours and high workloads can take over their lives. The ‘always on’ digital 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 in the hope this will be the answer. 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 happen for our lives to feel more balanced’ rather than how can we achieve a better work-life balance? Whilst the intent behind ‘work-life balance’ is positive, I believe it is inherently contradictory as a concept. It implies there is a distinction between work and life or vice versa. It can imply that there is some sort of neat balance that can be struck between the two. As we all know, the reality of life isn’t really like this, life rarely unfolds in neat, linear patterns with clear boundaries. The reality is that sometimes the balances may feel tipped towards one side or the other at different stages, and it will be a fluid situation that fluctuates over time.
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 prompted at this point when writing down my thoughts to imagine Spock on the bridge of the Enterprise 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 a conclusion therefore that a 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 like stating the 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 their life is on hold or in some way 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 that an underlying trend for many people is 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, being happy and enjoying life again. I have also seen people who feel so relentlessly busy that they simply want to escape work for some much-needed respite.
Work-life balance as an issue could be less about the pursuit of leisure time and become more centred on the environment we create in our workplaces.
If we create environments where people enjoy their work and derive fulfilment, then seeking leisure time away from the workplace is less of a consideration. 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? This would mean work-life balance is no longer seen as a binary choice but a concept which is much more fluid and looks at our lives more holistically.
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. It was reinforcing a message that work was not an experience to be enjoyed. This is important as the biggest proportion of our lives is spent at work or within our workplaces. When working lives are not filled with meaningful, purposeful work, what does this do to our mental health over time?
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 to the fullest extent we need to nourish the human spirit when we are at work. Of course, it is also healthy for people to nourish their human spirit outside of work. Our experience at work should be shaped by feeling valued, with opportunities for growth and personal development. This should be the norm in all 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, tap into what it is that makes human beings unique, 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 fast disappearing. The fluid nature of what constitutes ‘work’ and how and when we do work is likely to result in further changes.
For many people, there is no longer a clear distinction between work and the rest of their life. For our organisations to be successful we need to have people who want to actively contribute their talents and best efforts to our organisational success, rather than counting down the hours until work is finished for the day in search of some elusive ‘balance’. We want to create environments for people to enjoy being at work, feel safe whilst they are there and derive fulfilment through what they do. We want people to live their lives fully through their work.
This change in mindset 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 mean we are pushing new frontiers. If we can achieve this, maybe we’ll also get much closer to Anita Roddick’s inspiring vision of what workplaces could truly be.