Work/life balance: A misnomer masking the real problem

Health care professionals are especially susceptible to having work overtake their off-duty hours. So, is there truly a separation, a balance?

Work/life balance is a concept I love to hate. Here’s why:

The notion of work/life balance is artificial at best, and at worst, it’s a false way of describing a very serious problem that exists in our workplaces.

Work is part of life—no work, no money, and no money, no food or roof to live under or (insert other necessity of survival here). Work and life aren’t separate; they never have been.

Work is part of who we are and what we do. We spend more time working than we do any other activity except sleeping. So, to suggest that work is separate from life is ridiculous.

A lack of fulfillment

Here’s the real problem: Most people are working in jobs or at organizations they hate.

OK, maybe that’s a little strong. Maybe they don’t hate it, but they certainly aren’t getting fulfillment from their work, it doesn’t connect to their passions, or they just aren’t happy.

I won’t restate all the research out there that suggests employee engagement levels are shockingly low, but that’s just another indicator of this bigger problem. So, when people say “work,” all too often they mean to depict an unnatural, not-such-fun set of activities that you are required to do in order to have the money you need to support your lifestyle.

Thus the birth of the notion of “work/life balance.”

Work/life balance assumes that the work part of our day is burden, and the life part is where we get our joy and fulfillment. Life is where the stuff that matters happens. When we say someone is out of balance, about 100 percent of the time that means that the person is working too much (too many hours, too much travel, etc.) and that there is too much burden, not enough joy.

Teaching people that work doesn’t have to suck

I’ve never heard someone say that they needed to work more in order to improve their work/life balance. This is really dysfunctional thinking because it ignores the most basic and most important truth about work: It doesn’t have to suck.

In my experience, people who love and excel at what they do never talk about work/life balance, because it doesn’t make any sense to them. They don’t need this artificial equilibrium, because work feels good and natural to them.

Instead of work/life balance programs, what if we instead started teaching employees and employers alike how to fit people into jobs that are natural to them, that they would love? What if we taught people that their responsibility is to find their way to a job that was fulfilling?

Clearly, this isn’t a natural path, as so many people are so unsatisfied with their current roles. Even further, what if we started teaching people some personal accountability so that they could begin to take ownership of their own work experience? You have a lousy boss? Well, do something about it. I hate my work? Guess I had better find a new job.

Now, I know that there will be arguments that work/life balance is more about making time for the priorities in your life that have greater importance than work: time with family, attending to our spirituality and health, etc. Work/life balance programs don’t fix this problem.

If you don’t have the skills to seek self-awareness, clarify your values, and then act accordingly in your life, it doesn’t matter how much time off or flexibility I give you. If your priorities are out of whack, giving you more time off isn’t going to fix that. Broken people aren’t fixed by work/life initiatives; they just get more benefits and time off in which to be dysfunctional.

It’s about job fulfillment—not work/life balance

I know I personally have felt the most out of balance in my career when my work wasn’t aligned with my values, regardless of how many hours I was working. Today, I travel more than I ever have before, but I feel (and my wife agrees) like my life is more “in balance” today than ever because I’m doing what I love and pursuing a dream despite the fact that I’m away from home more than is ideal.

So, here’s my bottom line: We have to stop talking about work/life balance and instead start working to make work suck less. Individually, we need to stop accepting that our work should feel like a burden and instead find our way to work that gives us joy and fulfillment.

As leaders, we must teach people the skills they need to get clear on their values and then encourage them to have the courage to align their lives around them. As employers, we have to be more committed to creating workplaces and experiences that attract the right kind of people for the work we do-situations where people can bring themselves fully and feel natural and fulfilled in what they do. We must also make it painless and without penalty for an individual to opt out of the job when it begins to feel too heavy.

When we treat work as a part of life, and not a hiatus from it, we will unleash real magic.


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