Why we need to stop talking about work-life balance

Beating the deadline like the champ he is
Life balance may be a better descriptor than work-life balance. | Photo: People Images (iStock)

By Shane Rodgers

For decades we have talked about work-life balance and the difficulties achieving that in a complex world.

The old notions of a rigid 9-5 day have broken down in most professional work settings. So have set lunch hours and morning tea breaks, and the notion of clocking in and clocking out.

In knowledge-economy professional and managerial roles, paid overtime is mostly something from the past.

Most of us in senior positions are paid to deliver an outcome rather than paid to do a certain number of hours that are counted and supervised.

Add to that the proliferation of the smart “super phone” and always-on technology and the thin black line between our work and non-work lives becomes so blurred we can barely see it.

There are a few ways of looking at this.

We can consider it a problem and conduct a daily battle to redraw the line. Or we can roll with it and stop getting stressed about things we cannot control. I think it is time to stop talking about work-life balance and start to just talk about “life balance”.

If you really hate your job, you should look for another one. If you quite like your job, you might as well embrace that and try to get as much satisfaction as you can from it.

Life balance is about using the precious time we have well. When viewed through this lens, work does not need to be totally in the chore section. Instead we should all be seeking jobs that we enjoy and that enhance our life experiences.

Work is not recreation. That does not mean it needs to be a total drain on your day. It is where most people make friends and many meet future partners. For the one in four people living alone, it may be their only socialisation.

As a kid I was told that a balanced life consisted of eight hours work, eight hours sleep, and eight hours play in every 24 hours.

These fundamentals are still sound in many respects.

Eight hours sleep is healthy and paid work is still mostly structured around eight-hour days. The challenge is the “play”. With working households increasingly categorised by two people in the paid workforce, the fundamentals have changed.

In a different era, a man might go to work for eight hours while his spouse/partner did similar hours working on “home duties”.

In theory, this left quite a few hours for both to socialise, watch the evening television, pursue hobbies and take part in community activities.

The labour force participation has risen sharply over the past 40 years but home maintenance, household administration and childcare still need to be done outside of the eight hours of “work”.

This has been coupled with working hours creep for most professionals in white collar occupations as well as long commutes and constant connectivity through technology.

The end-result is very little rest or play between work and sleep. The old saying says that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. There is a real danger that in contemporary society we are all becoming dull boys and girls, emotionally and physically drained by the grind.

What’s more, most of the social research suggests that humans have less friends than in the past and, aside from the pseudo friendships and connections we make on social media, our face-to-face social interactions and community engagements are in decline.

There is plenty of research connecting strong social and community engagement with positive mental and physical health. Put all this together and there is something wrong with the picture.

Ultimately people will need to restore their own balance through the right mix of activities that are not boxed into the old world of work and non-work. Governments and corporations are unlikely to lead this, or know where to start.

We actually have more options than ever. The problem may be too many options.

Shane Rodgers is the author of Worknado – Reimagining the way you work to live.