Work/Life Balance is Overrated

work-life-balanceThere was a time when the concept of Work/Life Balance was good, but it’s starting to sound like corporate HR bullshit now. The concept was invented to help address new conflicts that rose when technology blurred the boundaries of the traditional workday and workplace. And that’s all well and good, but there’s a flip-side to it that can actually hurt rather than help you.

Work/Life Balance brings attention to whether or not your work and life are balanced. And it should, of course; that’s what it was designed to do.

  • When your email comes home with you, is it bringing the stresses of work with it?
  • Which turns you on more: your beautiful wife or the vibrator that’s going off in your pocket?
  • Are you thinking so much about the client who’s screaming for help that you can’t see your own children are doing the same?

Gag me with a spoonfull of depression why don’t you?

One problem with the concept of Work/Life Balance is that it inherently implies an imbalance and this, in turn, can misguide you into thinking negatively about your work. Especially when your plate is really full, your manager’s urging you to finish it, and the dish of the day is all beets and broccoli. The concept suggests a scale upon which two separate and distinct things are compared – as if that slash between Work and Life is a line in the sand that you should not have crossed – only you have crossed and now you’re screwed.

But work and life are not two separate things. According to somebody on the Internet who has the quote that supports my argument, we spend at least 33% of our lives working – some of us as much as 50%. Now, who in the hell wants to cut a 33% slice out of their life and call it the part that’s ‘not life‘? Oh, that piece is rotten; just throw it away. What are we trying to say here? That it’s common and perfectly normal for your job to suck? And as long as you balance that suckiness with not-suckiness, you’ll be OK?

Well, it’s not OK with me.

If there is one thing I’ve learned in life it is that how you feel depends on how you frame it. And also – that you can only achieve great things when you’re standing on the platform of strength, which is a positive outlook and attitude. Negativity about anything creates weakness and it blinds you from the ability to see opportunity and the good. It’s a hole to fall into, not a platform to stand upon. So, I’d like to suggest a new frame for this whole concept…

Work/Life Integration

The concept of Work/Life Integration embraces the fact that your work is an integral part of your life. I’d even go so far as to say that it suggests work should be an integral part of your life if it isn’t. That is to say, if your job sucks, you are either in the wrong job, or you need to fix your current job, or you simply need to fix your sorry attitude and then watch how things change when you do.

Now, maybe I just love the word Integration because I’m a software Solution Architect, but to me it just sounds more positive. It’s the glass half-full. Instead of asking the question, “What’s out of balance?”, it asks “What can be integrated better?” Instead of saying to run away from work it says to embrace your work and love it. (Or…leave it; if it won’t integrate, tear it down and replace it with a modern system that will.)

If your work really does consume 33% or more of your lifetime, then I’d say integration is a far better strategy. Life is far too short for a large chunk of it to be drudgery. And about technology blurring the boundaries of the traditional workday and workplace? That’s exactly what it’s supposed to do. Technology brings down walls, bridges chasms, and unites people and things. It’s supposed to be a good thing and it is a good thing – a damn good thing. If there’s a problem, its not with the technology – it’s with us and how we’ve been using it.

Work should not suck in such that you merely slog through each pathetic day longing for our next vacation. It should not be drudgery in such that you must separate it from life and all things good. And if it honestly interferes with your ability to be present with your family or other responsibilities, then you should think about quitting that Industrial Age job and find a company that’s more interested in your results than your time.

Easier said than done, you say?

I dunno. I can’t think of anything that’s harder than being unhappy. I think there’s a better way and I think that the technology is actually enabling it. But if we have our minds stuck in a gutter, we ain’t gonna see it. Let’s change the frame and see how we might use technology to embrace things and bring them together better – rather than continuing to try to juggle and balance all those things that are apart.

What do you think?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • MichaelMinardi

    Interesting post. I think the challenge for all professionals is that people make choices in their lives including how much time I will work and how much time I devote to other things. If a person is trying to climb the corporate ladder or run a business and has a family , something typically gives and it is usually less time with the family. Traveling on business means missing the school play, missing the those parent / teacher meetings. So when I think about work / life balance, I think of what trade-offs am I going to make and who else will be impacted by my decisions. Since time is a finite item, trade-offs are made and in many cases, an individual’s choice impacts many others.

  • Vinraj

    I personally think that when we are talking about work/life balance, we are talking about both areas being keep separated from each other. With the advent of more technology, we are virtually connected to our work place. A smart phone allows one to get called by the boss, to check emails, view documents, check statuses etc. Even when one is enjoying a quiet dinner with one’s family, the ring of a new message/SMS, email causes one to go into an ‘office’ mode.

    That is precisely what work/life balance intends to address. We need to switch off once we are out of office. In some organizations your superiors expect you to be always connected and always available. Whats the point of being at a family outing if you are constantly on your phone  either talking or chatting or typing away? 

    • Cody Burleson

      Great comment, thanks. In our family, we instituted a rule that devices simply aren’t allowed at the dinner table – any dinner table, within the home or outside of the home, unless it is used used by request to support the discussion (e.g. look up the definition of a word or some historical fact). 

  • I think that it’s all a matter of perspective, age, and priorities. When you’re older, your perspective changes, and so your priorities. Your family becomes more important than your work and so you won’t be able to handle the same load of work that you did before, and you start adopting this “work/life” balance concept, which more or less means doing less work and spending more time with the family.

  • Jose

    40 work hours/week with 128 total hours/week =  23.8%, if you work from when you’re born until you die. If you assume working from 18 to 68 and a lifespan of 80 years you have 50/80 = 0.625 * 23.8%, which is < 15% of your lifespan spent working. That is a big gap from 1/3rd, and its a gap I intend to maintain.

    I don't want my work and "life" to be integrated. I love software development, but that doesn't mean I want to spend 80 hours a week at the office. No one on their death bed looks back and thinks they should have worked more. I go in to the office, I don't goof off, I put my head down and work hard, but when I've put in my 8 hours I'm done.

    When I ask a potential employer about "work/life balance", I'm really asking "do you expect me to work more than 40 hours a week?" A $50k/year job at 40 hours a week isn't equal to a $50k/year job at 60 hours a week.

    The interesting thing is that just about every employer says their environment is very work/life balance friendly, but their interpretation of "good" differs greatly.

    • Vinraj

      @itoctopus:disqus , I agree that as we grow older or more mature ;-), other areas of our life take priority. As a youngster we want to be constantly running ahead of time and believe that life is a 100m dash. After working for some years, seeing the ups and downs, it makes one realize that work is not a 100m dash but a marathon and one needs to pace ourselves to survive and also to flourish. At the same time, the person might have settled down and have a family to look after, so other priorities kick in.
      @3c4bf9cbda62609a24aad1f896cdc0f7:disqus , I agree that definition of work/life balance varies across organizations and also within various tiers of organizations. However talking about work/life balance is more about corporate branding and about making the right noise and has very little to do with being genuinely concerned for the employee’s health. If work/life balance was so important to an organization, there would be formal forums to redress issues related to work/life balance. Has an HR person asked your boss as to why your team works on Sat/Sun or puts in long hours daily? I doubt it. You might be asking the right question Jose but I doubt you will get a ‘genuine’ answer.  

  • Patrick Curtis tweeted to point out that has more opinion on this topic in the post, 
    Why are we Obsessed with "Work/Life Balance"?

  • Cody Burleson

    Perhaps Anne Bogel has better expressed my point by calling it “Work/Life Blending” in her book, Work Shift: How to Create a Better Blend of Work, Life, and Family.

    From the book description on Amazon:

    “Ten years ago my husband and I threw work/life balance out the window. We aimed to blend them instead of balancing them, and we were nothing if not surprised at how well it worked for our family. We love this holistic blend, and we’re never going back.”


  • carolynkcarlson

    Work life integration, it’s about understanding your behaviors, discovering who you are (or who you want to be) and taking control. Work and life are not two different things, work is part of your life regardless if you get paid for it or not. Work is exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something. What do you want to accomplish in life?