Is work-life balance still relevant?

In some circles, the concept of work-life balance is very mid-2000s.

There are many who shake their heads at the term, before evangelising instead about the importance of work-life blend, fit or integration.

If it sounds like a cynical mix (blend? Combination? Entanglement?) of semantics and posturing, that’s because it mostly is. However, there is some substance to it.

The objection to the concept of work-life balance is generally along the lines that work is a part of life, and that therefore the goal should be to make work more enjoyable rather than just limiting how much of it people do. It typically comes from founders and super-committed CEOs whose work is their passion, and who can therefore happily work 60-70-80 hour weeks and never go on holiday.

Leaders should therefore absolutely aim to make work as enjoyable as possible for employees, or at least to make sure it isn’t unnecessarily unenjoyable. However, we cannot use our efforts to improve the experience of work to justify pressuring people to work longer and longer hours.

Most people need other things in their lives – relaxation, leisure, hobbies, family time, alone time. This can be difficult for leaders, and founders in particular, to understand. If your work is your passion, which it often is at this level, it may seem natural that it also ought to be the passion of the people you work with, yet this is wholly unrealistic.

For the vast majority of people, work will never be a passion like golf or restoring classic cars, no matter how enjoyable you try to make it, for the simple reason that work, unlike other forms of exertion, is involuntary.

We may enjoy attending meetings or poring over marketing data, just as we may enjoy cooking dinner, doing the school run, or washing the dishes, but no one enjoys having to do them, or even worse being told to do them, in the knowledge that they can’t refuse without facing some form of dire consequence.

For the CEO mindful of the work-life question, this means that alongside making work satisfying on both an emotional and an experiential level, it is still important to make sure it doesn’t unduly interfere with a person’s capacity to live a full life outside of their job.

Achieving that balance – and it is a balance – isn’t easy, in the heat of collective struggle that characterises dynamic businesses. That’s because leaders in such businesses tend to have a single-minded focus on a vision, and that means we often get carried away.

So too can dedicated employees, who may choose to work longer than is actually good for them, or for the business – workaholism helps no one in the long run.

Setting the tone

Getting work-life balance right begins with a recognition at the top of the business that outside time is important. Higher levels of wellbeing at work are strongly correlated with improved productivity, and inversely correlated with absenteeism, presenteeism and staff leaving. Having outside interests and connections helps people to be more creative, while sleep, diet, exercise and relaxation can make them more resilient.

This means the CEO needs to send clear signals firstly that they understand this fact, but also that they themselves don’t work all the time and don’t expect others to either. And that means role modelling work-life balance.

Talk about the shed you’re building in the garden or the novel you’ve started reading.

Stop half-jokingly asking if people are taking half days when they leave the office or log off early to pick up the kids.

If you must send an non-emergency email on a Sunday, preamble it with a clear message that people don’t need to reply until after the weekend, or better yet just schedule it for Monday morning.

Ask team leaders to do the same: you want wellbeing to become part of your culture, from root to branch.

Then, if you really want to support your people in their work life-balance, blend, fit, combination, integration or whatever you choose to call it, start measuring how they feel, to get a sense of their wellbeing and the role their work plays in it.

If nothing else, you’ll sleep better knowing there are robustly targeted interventions to make your business a better place to work – even when people aren’t working – and therefore better placed to thrive in a troubled, changing world.

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