Culture & Competency

Forget Work/Life Balance

The implication of an always-on work style means never-off. Life begins to revolve around a singular aspect—working—and everything else has to compete for the shrinking plate of leftovers. Engagement with civic pursuits, hobbies, leisure, family members, friends and just being shrinks into oblivion. The rich colours of everything beyond work are ignored, leaving a monochromatic experience which dulls the senses to possibility, the heart to passion, and the body to tone. When we should be present with those around us, we are far away through the portals of our phones and tablets, plugged in for the next dopamine-hit from work updates on Slack and likes on social media.

I called a friend over the weekend I haven’t spoken to in over 8 years. Some friends are like that – very long stretches between contact – but with whom you can pick up where you left off. We both have busy lives. We both have family commitments. We now live in different cities and our pathways intersect very rarely. The last time we met was in another city for breakfast. In 2013. While the dominant intent of the call was to check in with him as an individual, I did ask about how his work was going.

“Terrible work/life balance,” said he. “With living on campus, it’s almost impossible to get away.”

I read him the paragraph above – not quite as bad as reading him the so-called riot act I guess – something I had written the day before in the second instalment in my report series on Re-Imagining Effective Work. And then said something like, “work/life balance is your responsibility, not your employer’s responsibility.”

In many ways, we all “live on campus” or “live at work” now. A laptop and smartphone with work apps gives us the ability to always be plugged in, and nearly impossible to get away from. A study in the UK found that some high percentage of adults check their phones within the first five minutes of waking up. “Work, share the bed with me.” That’s just weird and has got to stop.

We need to rethink our nomenclature. Life is more important than Work – that capital “W” version where we invest of ourselves and our gifting and receive payment in return. At minimum, therefore, we should be talking about life/work balance, not the other way. The first in a list is usually more important than what follows, and if work takes the preeminent placing, then life is relegated the leftovers.

But even life/work balance doesn’t go far enough. Since work (the capital W version) is now so omnipresent due to devices that tether us to its machinations, we need boundaries not balance. Taking back life and hobbies and leisure and uninterrupted family time and disconnected vacations doesn’t need balance – it demands boundaries. Hard ones. Fixed ones. Really, really big ones. Like – turn off the work phone and throw it in the drawer until tomorrow boundaries. Like – refuse to think about work except when deliberately and explicitly at work, and in every other moment of time, to be present with yourself and those you are with. Like – find a new hobby that demands a significant input of time and energy, and that disallows engaging with the ceaseless low-level hum of work tasks.

Forget work/life balance. You need some boundaries.

Categories: Culture & Competency