The Problem With Work-Life Balance

I think the concept of ‘work-life balance’ is deeply flawed.

The phrase suggests that:

  1. Work and life are somehow different. Now, that is patently stupid. If you aren’t feeling alive when you are working, then your problem isn’t lack of work-life balance. You probably need a good career coach – I hear that this fellow is quite good.
  2. There is a state where everything is in balance and there are people who have achieved that state. I have honestly never been in that state. have you? Do you know anyone who has been in that state?

I think a much better strategy involves a fundamentally different approach.

(Enjoying the Beach with Albert – Two valued domains (Relationship and Health) at the same time!)

1. Instead of just balancing work and life I think the task is much more complex. We need to work on balancing different life domains (or what Kelly Wilson would call ‘Domains of valued living’). Most of us have a few of these. Mine are: family, work/achievement, learning, friends, relationship, health and wellbeing, contribution/community.

2. It would also help to view ‘balance’ as a verb  – ‘balancing’. An ongoing process that involves:

  • Deciding on the areas of life that matter to you and what values and actions you want to take in each area.
  • Noticing how you are doing over time. Getting better and better at noticing when you are focussed too much on one area of life and neglecting other important areas…and then making a correction.

You can take the Valued Living Questionnaire here to see how you are going in balancing your life.

11 thoughts on “The Problem With Work-Life Balance

  1. Thanks Rachel – I love your post! I agree that it is not possible to split work and life as they are both interconnected.
    I really like the idea of understanding what I value and then making sure I have those things in balance. It provides a more holistic approach to life and reminds us that we have a choice.

  2. What an important point you’re making here, Rachel…

    To look at this from another angle : it is as though, with the current (or rather recurrent) crisis there is a new rule taking over that « we can’t afford risks in worklife because we can’t afford to loose our job, and so we have to resign to the demands imposed on us ».
    Thinking about the values we can bring to our work and can embody there, at least to some extent, then might seem like a « luxury » or « illusion » that « has to » be given up in order to cope with « the grim reality »…
    It is here, too, that the difference between « needs and values », or « goals and values » is so crucial…
    Whereas « goals » and especially « needs » depend to a large extent to the circumstances, it depends very largely on us how far we are willing to embrace the challenges and fear that go with choising for what matters most deeply to us. Similarly, the flexibility in how we express our values depends very largely to us.
    Is it really naive to believe that we can still actualise our values in the workplace, despite it all ?

  3. Rachel, I do think it is a little harsh to say that “the concept of work-life balance is deeply flawed.” As always language is shifty and hard to pin down, and here I think the intent of most persons who use this phrase (e.g. those writing about time and its use) aren’t saying that “life” is something monolithic and indistinguishable upon further reflection into various domains. And more than that, the phrase suggests something else which is really felt to be true: namely, that for most persons, work is indeed a very distinct activity, one that takes a great many hours and is often our most public sphere of activity versus other domains. E.g. in leisure, family life, etc., we are generally much less public-facing than we are in school or work. So there is a difference here that makes a difference.

    In short, although it may not be ACT dogma to speak of “work life balance” but rather of domains, nonetheless the phrase is a useful one in recognizing some tricky and important social and cultural practices.

    By coincidence, I am currently reading Mihaly Csizkszentmihalyi’s book for laypersons, “Finding Flow,” 1997. It builds on his previous books with their now familiar theme of the flow experience as a valuable and reliable indication of productive engagement with life. Csizkszentmihalyi’s work is interesting because he does not approach his topic from a merely psychological perspective, but a sociological one as well – something ACT neglects almost totally, by the way.

    Some of the chapters I have enjoyed most in “Finding Flow” have to do with the division of time into different pursuits across history – e.g. not only how baboons spend their time, but how persons from rich vs. poor classes spent their time in 13th century France, etc., and how (based on a huge mass of time diaries collected over decades by Csizkszentmihalyi’s lab) most of us tend to spend our time today. This is valuable and illuminating information, not least because it suggests how precious time really is for us.

    With all this data to back him up, Csizkszentmihalyi is better equipped than most commentators to make meaningful generalizations about work being in many ways different from other domains. E.g. he begins one chapter by observing, “Work generally takes up a third of the time available for living. Work is a strange experience: it provides some of the most intense and satisfying moments, it gives us a sense of pride and identity, yet it is something most of us are glad to avoid.” He is half-teasing here, course – but his overall intent is quite serious, and he has the data to back up his points about work having in some ways a contradictory or troubling nature. And from what I can see, the phrase “life-work balance” is hinting at something quite similar to what Csizkszentmihalyi has to say – even if in a less sophisticated manner.

    – Randy

    1. “a sociological one as well – something ACT neglects almost totally, by the way”

      Randy, are you aware of the work of somebody like Tony Biglan?

      1. Yes, I know a little of Biglan’s work. And I know he & Steve Hayes are interested in working with David Sloan Wilson on getting out of the therapy box and into larger issues of community and culture. I’d still say, though, that ACT and RFT are pretty firmly stuck inside therapeutic & educational perspectives. This is not “bad” per se – just an observation.

    2. Hi Randy,
      Thank you for your thought provoking comment.
      I really do think that many people would see their work as paying for their life and I think that is tragic. As you say, work takes up so much of our time. I totally agree with your quote from Csizksentmihalyi (whose work is just wonderful IMHO) that work provides opportunity for some of the most satisfying moments of our life and I think that the dichotomy of ‘work-life’ isn’t helpful in seeing and creating that.
      We live in a complex time. Things have changed dramatically even since 1997 – there are very few people now who leave work ‘at work’ – most of us our checking emails and taking calls at home and at the kids cricket game. So I think we need to approach this important problem differently.

      re a sociological perspective – ACT is just starting to move into broader contexts (Maarten’s has given some links to where that is happening) and this blog is also an attempt to do that.

      I also do need to make clear that my challenge to the ‘work-life’ balance isn’t ACT dogma. The views expressed here are my own!

      You have touched a nerve with your comment about ‘dogma’ though. I recently wrote a post about my concern that I sound like an ACT evangelist.

      People who are interested in ACT have a strong commitment to empirical testing of the ideas – if the research finds that ACT is unhelpful or another approach comes along that seems to have more convincing evidence then I will be right there blogging furiously about that. So I really, really hope that I don’t come across as dogmatic – just enthusiastic!

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