Warning: Rare grumpiness, followed by hyperbole and a little bit of snark.
In the dream there was a tightrope and it seemed to me that the rope was suspended above a place that represented balance but the tightrope walker wasn’t exactly sure which side would land her on the side of balance so she continued walking the rope, feeling uncertain. As the dream faded I was left with the question of balance. An internal word association game started up in my sleepy brain and up popped that celebrity word couple, work-life balance.
Work-life balance is typically depicted as a circle. The circle is segmented into different sections or slices of equal size, like a pie (make mine pear, please) and typically, the names of the same-sized slices of pear pie tend to reflect the general interests and concerns of the culture of corporate employees in the English-speaking world, with slight variations, as the following two images demonstrate. The top image is from a site geared toward women, the second one a site geared toward men.
Interestingly, the second image is to be used mathematically: guys use it and shade in the degree to which they are happy with each segment and to the degree that a slice is NOT shaded, that is the degree to which a life is out of balance. Gotta hand it to the guys to make it quantifiable.
The concept of work-life balance is a curious one with its history just beginning to be assembled on Wikipedia, although social scientists who look at labour, economics, work culture have been looking into this for a while.
We make decisions about work and our working life when we’re young, when we don’t know ourself very well, when we’re a bit selfish and idealistic and ready to take on the world and believe we can change the world that we see but don’t understand very well.
As some of us mature, we come to see that there is more to life than the unidimensional younger self realized but that we didn’t make much room for. We were so focused on one or two things only, but now we need to make room and find we don’t know how, not without something having to give or change. And we don’t like that, giving up one thing for the other, or changing.
It’s true that between our 20s and mid-40s we’re building a career and are willing to make sacrifices and perhaps suffer a few a**holes and fools along the way. It’s also true that we have come to equate work with sense of self, with community, with purpose and reason for being; the workplace as the new church, the work we do a form of personal ritual and devotion, so imagine the disappointment for some when work and working life turns out to be just another human invention and a flawed one at that.
Let me be blunt: it’s propaganda. Work-life balance is not about work-life balance. It’s a reaction to feeling overwhelmed in the current situation. Work-life balance is about finding ways outside of work to cope with a challenging working life, and finding a way to be in some degree of control. If work is nuts, goes the psuedo-theory, then working out like crazy and having a great social life and supportive friends and a rocking spiritual life will make you feel that you are paying attention to all of the various aspects of you. It’s like finding ways to cope in a dysfunctional relationship, enabling the codependency.
People start talking about work-life balance when they want to scale back on work and have a life, when work gets to be too much, when they leave work feeling depressed and depleted. We tend to hear about work-life balance in toxic work environments, where management is weak, ineffective, or just plain mean; where there is bad leadership or no leadership, where communication is confused with information, and where there are dysfunctional work teams, or employees who can’t or won’t work together productively.
In constructive, effective workplaces, you don’t hear about work-life balance, because people are allowed to maintain their healthy emotional boundaries between working life and other aspects of their life.
Work-life balance is also raised by parents, typically mothers. Non-parents look unkindly at the parents in their midst who have to leave at the crack of 4:30 p.m. to pick up the kids, when there is work to be done and deadlines looming. Non-parents implicitly question the commitment of parents in their midst, and that’s patently unfair.
At the same time, work is changing. The heavy production labour and manufacturing work is gradually being shipped off to other countries and work today is about giving of our self, as well as our time and talent. Our economies are shifting and the demand is for emotional, relational, mental labour in what’s called the information economy. There’s no stop and start, on and off in this new economy. We give huge mind share to our working life so the boundary between work and life in the information economy is non-existent. We can’t turn off our brain, leave our self behind and we’re encouraged not to: we’re encouraged to be our authentic self at work, to be fully engaged and give, give, give more of ourself.
It’s possible that sweatshops have never really gone away and that the combination of business models based on competition and growth together with financial market speculation, clashing worldviews and black swan events from every which way make today’s workplaces and work sites a reflection of what life actually is: uncertain. And yet, nothing* prepares us for working and living with inherent uncertainty.
Work-life balance is a catchy little jingle, a placebo, a packaged idea that supports yoga classes and supposedly parent-friendly policies, but skirts the core of the issue: today’s working world, today’s changing and challenging work environment, the increasing conformity and madness to be a superwoman or a superman, and a supermom and a superdad, and a superfriend and a superachiever.
The net impact of that? For large companies, terms and work phenomenon like Presenteeism, workplace violence, mental health issues, stress leave and worse. Business’ answer? Town hall sessions with the CEO full of rah-rah, internal communication plans and Employee Engagement strategies and disability management programs to get those workers off on stress leave back to work fast and off the insurance books.
So about that balance
We have to work at balance: it is not something inherent in our world, in our culture. And because it isn’t, we don’t actually understand it or know what it feels like, or think about it until we feel off-kilter. And because we do believe we can have it all and do it all we believe that there’s a place in the middle that we can get balanced and so we buy the service and the time for someone to pamper us and help us re-anchor on the ground: we buy a massage, a mani-pedi, a Reiki session, instead of doing the work. For those who can’t afford such balancing acts, there’s always dreams and affirmations.
How helpful is it, really, to look at that partly shaded segment of a circle that points out we’re giving 20 per cent to fun and enjoyment as defined by us as having carefree time and no responsibilities doing what we love, which is travelling the globe, because we just bought a house and have 2.5 kids and just took a promotion and one of our parents is sick? What does that do in a meaningful, helpful way, exactly?
It seems to me that each stage of life and living brings with it different things to go for, different interests and different demands. Knowing that can inform a balance that’s healthier, personal, and unique to the individual. Balance, harmony, groundedness are good things. That’s not to say that at times and with good reason, things aren’t going to be intensely focused on one thing and one thing only, skewing balance for a while.
I imagine balance a lot like standing on a teeter totter: it can look at times as if you’re standing still, but really, every muscle is engaged and active and focus is such that it’s possible to respond immediately and appropriately to however the board moves, allowing a shift in body weight and focus to stay standing, grounded and present and keep the board standable on.
For anyone interested in balance, and not everyone is, perhaps balance is an internal way of being, regardless of the place or setting or people or time. And perhaps it’s about balance over a lifetime rather than balance on a day-to-day basis.
* purposefully not touching faith-based approaches to managing life’s uncertainty.