When I hear the phrase “work-life balance” it is like hearing nails on a chalkboard. And just like chalkboards, “work-life balance” is also outdated. The language we use is important and these words are problematic in a few ways:
- The phrase perpetuates the myth that we leave our “lives” at the office door, in other words, work is not (and shouldn’t be) part of our lives.
- When we assume that work is separate from “life” we set up a zero-sum game where work and life are battling against each other.
- When we hear “work-balance” it almost always refers to parents and specifically working mothers, implying that dads and non-parents don’t need a life outside of work.
These problems are all related and contribute to the “us versus them” mindset that so often crops up in conversations around culture and supportive workplaces. Instead, we need language that fosters empathy and understanding so that all voices are heard when discussing systems and structures that allow people to bring their whole selves to work.
Why I Strive for Work-Life Peace – or even more simply, “peace”
Peace can also mean happiness and satisfaction, but it also includes acceptance.
I’ve seen a few alternatives to balance being used occasionally, like “fit” and “harmony.” I agree that these words are better, but to me, they imply a level of happiness and satisfaction that can be hard to achieve, particularly if we continue to assume that work is separate from life. So, I’ve started substituting in “peace.” Peace can also mean happiness and satisfaction, but it also includes acceptance. Even if you feel that you don’t have the right “work-life fit” and your life seems less than harmonized, you can still be at peace if you accept that the situation is what it is. And there are many reasons we structure our lives in a way that is not harmonious or balanced. Sometimes it is because a job allows us to support our families or gives us a lot of flexibility to pursue our other interests.
Maybe the problem is not the last part of the phrase, but actually the first two words. If we keep calling out “work” and “life” as two distinct things, it makes it that much harder to balance, integrate, or fit them together. If on the other hand, we recognize that life includes our work, we can take a holistic view of what is or is not working for us any longer.
In the book Designing Your Life, authors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans ask us to consider four areas of our life: work, play, love, and health with the understanding that there will be spillover. Instead of pitting them against each other, we measure our satisfaction with each area. A high level in one area does not require us to take out of another area – it is possible that all four can be high. Looking at it this way gives us a better sense of where we are in our lives and where the gaps are between where we would like to be and where we are. I believe peace comes when each area is as good as can be expected given the circumstances. If one area is low, it may be possible to take action to move it up, but peace does not necessarily require action – sometimes there is simply no action to take.
When we accept where we are and stop striving for some mythical sense of balance, we can be at peace.
When I work with clients, we talk a lot about all the different areas of their lives, and depending on where they are, we may spend time working to improve one, two, or all four areas. Balance is not the goal – it’s way too challenging. The peace that comes with knowing what you are living your life is consistent with your values and priorities, on the other hand, is much more achievable.