The corporate myth of work-life balance

The concept of “work-life balance” is an invention of the workplace not the life-place. Have you ever heard of those with an enjoyable home and personal life saying “Darn, I really have to put more time into my work”? I doubt it. But I have heard it from some.

The statement comes from those whose personal and home life is wanting for many reasons. It’s an indication that there are issues within our emotional and social state that are driving us to escape, and “work” is considered a perfect escape to many. The irony is that the workplace can also be an unrecognized aggravating factor to the turmoil felt in our personal lives away from work.

Where you often hear the phrase “work-life balance” is in the workplace. It appears in the snappy human resources brochures, in well-intentioned managers and supervisors, and in the zillions of articles and books espousing a healthy lifestyle. But it is also a lie.

Today’s workplace is placing greater stresses than ever on employees. It comes from exponential advances in technology, in information overload, in under-staffing, in under-training, and in higher expectations of quick results. The bar for employee “productivity” is now set higher than ever to meet increasing demands of senior executives, clients, and customers.

Those who feel the anxiety of maintaining their self-image, keeping a job, getting promoted, and currying favor with managers, run faster than ever on the treadmill. Soon running faster and faster seems like the norm. Until the inevitable popping of the rivets and collapse of our human systems.

I have seen this destructive dynamic in my years of work with physicians, employees within the public and private sector, and with police officers.

The fact is, there is no “balance” to be had in work and our personal lives. The conditions of our workplace invariably affect our personal lives and our personal lives inextricably pour into our work lives. Human emotions are not neat ingredients that can be calibrated according to the needs of a workplace thermostat. They are in most part free-flowing with the only controls being our ability to moderate behavior to adapt to each circumstance. And again the irony is that this moderating behavior is directly impacted by the severity of condition at work and home.

“Work-life balance” is a mechanistic, linear construct based on the outdated Frederick Taylor model of “scientific management” (1911) wherein employees were described as interchangeable cogs on a wheel that could be made more productive through time-motion studies.

In reality our work life and our personal life is a “complex adaptive system” to use the language of complexity science. The two interconnected components ebb  and flow with measures of each reflecting the changes in our workplace and personal life which can occur hourly, daily, or whenever.

A great deal of the emotional angst that people feel is when they are convinced that they must “balance” what they feel at work with what they feel outside of work, as if some perfect scale of justice must be maintained. This expected calibration certainly serves the workplace well, especially managers who like Frederick Taylor see emotions as messy and negative intrusions on their neat, linear vision of how things must be.