Is Work-Life Balance a Myth?

Work-life balance. It’s something we’re all familiar with, but do any of us know what it really means? A hot topic online and across professional spheres, you don’t have to look far to find varying interpretations of this concept. Despite its many definitions, however, there tends to be one common theme: most experts agree that we are looking at work-life balance all wrong.

OSPE’s Women in Engineering Advocacy Champions Task Force (WEACT) and The Women in Construction Chapter of the Toronto Public Service Women’s Network (TPSWN) have both opted to explore the concept of “work-life balance” to share advice with their colleagues in STEM, discuss women’s dual challenges and provide recommendations for workplace accommodations.

Let’s consider some popular interpretations of work-life balance:

A balance of all-in, uninterrupted experiences

When thinking about work-life balance, many people envision a mix of work and personal activities in our daily routines. Picture working from home on your laptop with your child or dog on your lap. Robert Glazer, Founder & CEO of Acceleration Partners, however, suggests this definition of work-life balance is not achievable, nor is it what most people actually want.

Glazer reminds us that attempting to do too much at once involves compromise on both ends, typically resulting in frustration, and sub-standard outcomes in our personal and professional lives. He feels what we really want is the ability to be truly present to enjoy meaningful, uninterrupted moments at work and home. Our focus will inevitably go through cycles of prioritization where one area will demand more energy or attention than another. Balance means having the flexibility to integrate our professional and personal lives like puzzle pieces, in a manner that makes sense for us, and makes us feel fulfilled.

  • Workplaces that give employees the autonomy to set their own schedules see a boost in performance and productivity. Instead of operating on a traditional 9-5 workday, research suggests employees should have the flexibility to attend a class or run errands during the day, so that when they sit down to do the work they are accountable for (at the most convenient time of day for them), they are more motivated and less distracted.
  • Workplaces can support employees with technology. The right tools will help employees stay organized, collaborate and maintain more flexible work situations. Instant messaging and videoconferencing options, for example, support work-from-home options, so that business trips aren't required as frequently, and so family sick days or snow days are no longer hurdles for employees – especially for women, who statistically take on more of these family responsibilities.
  • These technological solutions also require new workplace policies and boundaries, as the separation of work and home life can become increasingly blurred. While some overtime is inevitable, encouraging staff to unplug in the evenings boots morale. Setting boundaries around times when emails should not be sent can support this.

‘Work’ and ‘life’ should not be in competition

German designer Tobias Van Schneider prefers not to use the term work-life balance because it implies that one side is negative and unenjoyable (work) and must be balanced out with the other side (life) that is enjoyable. Van Schneider suggests that if you don’t look forward to your work or find it meaningful, you should consider changing your field of employment or adjusting your perspective. We only have one life and work is a part of it, not competing against it. To be happy with our work, it usually comes down to our mindset and the quality of our experience while at work.

  • To reduce the notion that work and life are in competition, many organizations are offering employees undefined paid time off (PTO).
  • Offering onsite childcare options or readily available resources on local babysitting or daycare services can make life easier for employees and reduce the work-versus-personal life dichotomy.
  • Promoting healthy living routines boosts employees’ sense of balance. This can mean ensuring that staff have time to go home and exercise or meal prep if they wish. It can also mean offering quiet spaces, ergonomic supplies or healthy options in workspaces.
  • Team building through company outings and volunteer opportunities can also help staff bond in a stress-free capacity, again breaking down the divide between work and personal lives.

‘Working more’ versus ‘working smart’ to feel fulfilled

Author Brigid Schulte argues that today’s widespread culture of “busyness” leaves most of us feeling like work-life balance is out of reach. Rather than work longer hours to keep up, the solution is to work more effectively. Research shows that multitasking and working for too many hours straight are less productive in the long run. In fact, if we try to do too much at once, our productivity drops by 40% from task-switching.

Since the 1908s, North Americans began glorifying not just hard work, but overwork to achieve our goals and live a ‘happy life’. We financially and psychologically reward those who sacrifice everything for work. Surveys show that thanks to technological advancement and the age of emails, many professionals consistently take their work home and are finding it difficult to disconnect. Likewise, many professionals are no longer taking all their entitled vacation time.

Taking time to unwind is not the antithesis or enemy of work. Neuroscience demonstrates that we need to be in a calm and refreshed state to support “A-ha moments” and to thrive at work. Schulte also reminds us that we need to adjust our workplace policies to ensure that everyone – regardless of gender, socioeconomic status, job title etc. – has access to the supports and resources needed to experience the downtime we all require to be successful.

  • Employers should encourage employees to practice interval blocking, where periodic breaks for a personal phone call or a short walk help break up the workday. This is shown to improve mental and physical health. Studies also show that being in a positive mood triples creativity, increases productivity by 31% and increases the likelihood of a promotion by 40%.
  • Employers should also encourage ongoing professional development by affording employees opportunities for training and workshops. This allows employees to pursue their bucket lists and can put them on the path to leadership. It also prevents a generational gap in the workplace, as all employees have an opportunity to master new technologies and processes.

Closing the leadership gap

Anne-Marie Salughter, who was the first woman director of policy-planning in the U.S. State Department, feels that women in leadership positions must recognize that even though women are blazing trails and breaking ceilings, they must not reinforce a falsehood that “having it all is a function of personal determination.” According to Salughter, empowerment should be celebrated, but there needs to be more honest discussion among women about the real barriers and flaws that still exist in the system. She believes that women and men can have it all, but not with the way our economy and society are currently structured.

A study by Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson shows that although women have made great strides in areas like wages and educational attainment, women are reportedly less happy today than in 1972. The study determined that a “new gender gap” must be addressed – measured by well-being instead of wages. The gender leadership gap must be closed to create a society that truly works for all people.

  • The “default” rules that govern a workplace must change to consider women’s dual challenges. For example, when teleconferences only happen on an ad-hoc basis, it can create guilt among those calling in and resentment among those in the office. Declaring a policy that in-person meetings should be scheduled during the school day wherever possible would go a long way normalizing call-ins for those rarer meetings in the late afternoon.
  • These default office policies should not advantage parents over other employees either. If done right, all employees should feel a sense of fairness and a better awareness of each other’s unique circumstances. Parental leaves and flexible work arrangements should become “family leaves” to address the needs of anyone who might have family commitments, including caring for a spouse or parent – a burden that, again, statistically falls on women.
  • The definition of a “successful professional” must be broadened, so as not to disadvantage women. Typically, those who climb the corporate ladder in the shortest time on an “upward trajectory” are considered the ideal. Women should be able to climb to leadership in an “irregular stair step” pattern to accommodate periodic plateaus if required. This could include turning down a promotion, taking up a role with a reduced workload, taking a leave or working on a project-by-project basis to accommodate a family’s schedule. These should be viewed as “investment intervals,” according to Salughter.

Workplace policies need to keep up with new economic and social trends. Today, many people are starting families later, adopting entrepreneurial paths, taking on multiple jobs in their lifetime, retiring earlier, or working later in life if they embark on an encore career. Traditional workplaces and workdays cannot meet the needs of the modern workforce.

At the end of the day, the primary suggestion for employers is to ask the source – their employees – for guidance on making effective changes that will help them achieve their notion of work-life balance.

What does work-life balance mean to you? Have you faced any barriers to achieving work-life balance? Do you have any tips for employers or employees when it comes to establishing work-life balance?

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