Is work life balance an out-of-date term?

2 different kinds of shoes next to each other.
Lisa Portolan
Tue 17 Sep

The concept of work life balance is an often bandied about one. Ask your colleagues at any given time what they want more of and they’ll respond, work life balance. But what does that actually mean? What does it even entail? It kind of feels like the type of maxim that has been said on repeat for so long that everyone has long forgotten the intended meaning. If you pick it apart you come to think that work must be the polar opposite of life. The pair need to be balanced, which puts them instantly in binary opposition. If work is not a part of life, what are the components which constitute life? Children, a partner, family, a home, hobbies? But what happens if you don’t have any of the above, or just a couple, does that make your life any more life-worthy? 

Further to this confusion is, if life is good, then work must be bad – that is if the pair are set side-by-side dualistically. Work must be the very bane of our existence: strange, given we gear so much of our life towards it, from study through to practice, it shapes and constitutes the majority of our years. But such a statement implies exactly that. 

Beyond the semantics, the sense of it is that people want an equal amount of time spent relaxing and conducting other leisure activities, as they do in the office. 

However, the term most definitely needs a review. 

Traditional work place structures have been broken down, and will likely continue to be hacked at and re-distributed. Working the old 9-5pm in the office used to be a norm, now large portions of staff work in different ways – for example part-time, flexible hours, from-home, or even from shared spaces. The notion that everyone needs to be in the office at the one time with their bums on their seats has virtually disintegrated. New work styles in many cases mean greater productivity, as staff are less distracted by the office goings-on and generally more pleased and connected to the workplace.

It’s this connectivity which can cause the greatest issues. Working from home means our laptop and smartphones are constantly connected. We receive email and chat push notifications, which means work seeps into the traditional non-work hours as well, weaving a clever web into our personal lives, so soon we cannot decipher the former from the latter. 

Increasingly though we find human resource managers and authors steering people towards vocations, rather than jobs or work. The idea being that we all have a few things (and these may change as we do) that we’re deeply passionate about. Selecting a job in these professions might mean that work is less like work and more like life. 

In Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility, Patty McCord, Netflix executive and HR manager tells us in a chapter titled, The Greatest Motivation is Contributing to Success, “Great teams are made when every single member knows where they’re going and will do anything to get there. Great teams are not created with incentives, procedures, and perks. They are created by hiring talented people who are adults and want nothing more than to tackle a challenge, and then communicating to them, clearly and continuously, what the challenge is.” 

So perhaps it’s not work per se, but the workplace which might leave some of us feeling like it’s a labour rather than a pleasure – which leads to the conclusion if we loved our work would we still be calling for greater work-life balance? 

Perhaps the new maxim should be, vocations we love, lives we love.