I sketch the portrait of a man I used to work with, an executive. You get the sense that even when he’s not at work he still is. Chiseled features, far-off look: a born leader. Hard to see him outside the context of work. Once I ran into him at the Costco in his sweatpants buying a side of ribs. You could tell by his hair he hadn’t showered and he was embarrassed being seen like that. Maybe it’s just that he hadn’t showered, or that someone from work had seen the “real him,” exposed like that.
I meet with a client who’s giving a speech on work-life balance and it’s ironic, we have to laugh, but there’s no time for us to work on the speech. I take a few cues from her and go off to write. We decide to upend the idea: there is no “work-life balance” anymore, it’s been distributed across our lives now to where we can’t separate the two. And arguably we shouldn’t. It’s more a work-life “harmony.” And I realize that sounds like BS, because it is.
Back in a former job there was a time when employees were starting to complain that their one on ones with management were starting to feel transactional, like management didn’t really care. That was hard to hear, “transactional” felt so cold. We thought our work had more meaning than that but here it was, boiled down to a commodity, exposed. “At will” employment, you could separate at any time, either side. We got reminded of that when RIFs came through and it was a real wake-up call, it got to my childhood fears of trying out for a team, when they list who’s made the cut in the locker room and if you weren’t on the list, you leave. A tribal, in-or-out thing. And deeply personal, no matter what they said…
I’ve struggled to separate work and life as I’m often working a problem through my head even when I’m not “at work.” Many who work high-stress jobs can relate, it follows you home. And often I do my best work solving a problem when I’m taking a walk, the same as if I’m working a poem in my head, the best ideas can come unexpectedly at any time of day or night. Is it bad I’ve combined the two, the work and life?
We can point the finger at technology, that it’s changed us as a culture, because it has. But if the work has gotten into you so much that you identify with it wholly, you arguably love the work, then why separate yourself from it? If you reduce it down to a transaction but work occupies so much of your life, are you reducing your whole like down to a transaction too? Don’t we want something more lasting for ourselves and our lives than a transaction?
No, the point of work-life balance isn’t to separate yourself from the work or balance the two: it’s to balance the work against other priorities in your life (family, friends, self-care) so that the work doesn’t dominate or diminish your life outside of work. If we’re not fortunate enough to have other life priorities, then the work becomes the sole focus and there isn’t much to balance it against. It’s a sad day for me to imagine that as a new standard.
Employers are starting to experiment with 4-day workweeks and relax hang-ups on working from home. That will drive employee loyalty, engagement, and employer value. It makes sense to reduce the amount of time we’re physically expected to be at work, because the amount of time that work occupies mentally goes well beyond a standard work week. For better or for worse, we get to decide.