On July 11, 2009, Eric Lam of the Financial Post asked, “Whatever happened to touted work-life balance?” I say that it doesn’t exist, probably never did. I prefer that we aim for work-life integration. Work-life balance presumes a clear separation between work and the rest of our lives, which is impossible. Creating rigid boundaries often increases stress and a sense of being fragmented.
Work-life integration removes these boundaries. When we are integrated, we see how everything we do, including our work, is related to our deeper purpose. Everything is connected. It is not fixed. There is give and take. We accommodate. We integrate. So when we are called at work by the daycare to pick up a sick child, we pause our work and pick up our child or make alternative plans without guilt. We are clear that caring for our child is part of our deeper purpose. Similarly, when we need to bring some work home or stay late to finish a project, we expect to do so, because that too is part of our purpose. When we are integrated, there is an ebb and flow so that all priorities are accommodated. This is important because there needs to be room for all our priorities. If we focus all our energy and attention on one priority, we begin to cut ourselves off from the things that matter to us and we begin to lead a fragmented life.
This is not to say that we give equal attention to all priorities in our life all the time. That is the concern I have with the notion of living a balanced life. It assumes that everything is equal. When I think about balance, I think about trying to balance a teeter-totter. It is very difficult to get the exact balance where both sides of the teeter-totter are at the same height from the ground. One side is always higher than the other. And the energy expended in trying to make them equal can be enormous. Not to mention the frustration that goes along with “not being in balance” or the guilt about “not living a balanced life.” Not everything is in balance. Not all priorities carry equal weight. There are times in our life when we are called to give more attention to particular areas, be that raising children, helping elderly parents, developing our career, pursuing secondary education, living our passion or regaining health.
Practicing integration is different than striving for balance. People view family, work and personal interests, for example, as part of a larger and connected whole, rather than as separate and competing parts. Moreover, each of these life tasks provides an opportunity to fulfill our deeper purpose. Rather than attempting to maintain an equal balance, we need to give varying emphasis to each responsibility as need and priority dictates over time.
To the employee. Is your life fragmented or integrated? Is your work and the rest of your life separated or connected? Give yourself permission to let go of the need for a balanced life and live your life in line with what you have identified as your priorities. Honor what you know is important to you.
To the employer. During the economic recession, many employees are happy just to have a job. In these situations, they often put aside other priorities and focus solely on work. Some tolerate working conditions and expectations that are less than ideal. While this is understandable, it can and will take a toll – on both the employee and the company. The recession cannot be used as an excuse to take advantage of or ill-treat employees. Instead, companies need to find ways to support work-life integration. To show employees that they care. The number one driver of engagement is a sense that senior management is sincerely interested in employee wellbeing. It is time for employers to rethink work in spite of the economic situation. For more ideas about how to rethink work, order Rethinking Your Work: Getting to the Heart of What Matters.