Unicorns, Straw Men & Work-Life Balance
I’m a work-life balance researcher, so as you can imagine, I get a lot of articles like this from friends, colleagues and family. There are various iterations, but the point is the same: work-life balance is a hoax or myth.
I usually have mixed feelings about these articles. I want to be clear that I think they are well-intentioned, with the goal of keeping people from setting themselves up for failure due to unrealistic goals and expectations. Ultimately, these messages are not truly beneficial or empowering and often have more of a fatalistic theme. For example, Ms. Bronstein notes, “don’t worry about balance or leaning one way or another….work-life balance is about learning to enjoy imbalance and seeing the long view of your life.” This kind of “acceptance” message is damaging because it goes against everything we know from research about how to improve balance (for example, active control rather than passive reactions).
My central issue with these types of articles is that they are based a logical fallacy called the straw man argument—a tactic of disagreeing with a broad assertion that someone else never actually made. If we were to define work-life balance as leading a perfect life and getting everything you ever wanted, then of course it’s going to be a mythical unicorn. On top of that, if you argue that having work-life balance means that you have this perfect scenario at all times, then that moves you away from just finding the mythical unicorn to riding it to work every day. Seems like a pretty ambitious goal, wouldn’t you agree?
But my question is…who exactly is defining work-life balance that way? For one, it is not researchers. It’s true that we have trouble defining it ourselves or even using consistent terminology, but I assure you that having it all has never been even close to the definition. Moreover, when someone scores high on a work-life balance measure, that’s also a snapshot of how they feel at that moment about their recent experiences. To be fair, we do see that some people generally report better work-life balance than others, but we are also asking their perceptions over a longer time frame. Here are various ways that researchers conceptualize work-life balance (with ‘domains’ meaning work and family or personal life):
- Satisfaction across domains according to one’s priorities
- Feeling control over how one manages the domains
- Reduced conflict between domains and increased facilitation across domains
- Feelings of personal growth and progress in achieving goals across domains
Work-life balance isn’t an achievement; it’s not a trophy you get to place on your mantel, or a medal you get to wear around your neck that says, “Look at me, I have it all figured out.” You don’t get to quit working on it once you think you have things under control. It is a constant management process of shifting and restructuring your time and energy in a way that meets your personal priorities at that time.
Maybe we should think of it more like work-life management. This is analogous to financial management, relationship management and performance management. Nobody really expects you to manage your finances perfectly every day or every week. We don’t expect our marriages and other relationships to be perfect all the time, and we know we have to continuously make compromises and readjustments to keep them healthy. When we say, “That person is a great employee,” we certainly aren’t implying that a particular individual does top notch work every day or on every assignment. The same thing applies whether we are talking about parenting, or managing our health habits like eating right, exercising and having a good sleep schedule. All of these things are components of our work-life balancing process. We intuitively know that it’s impossible to achieve perfection (and keep it), even WITHIN domains. So why would anyone jump to the conclusion that we can do this ACROSS domains, as well?
If researchers aren’t defining it this way, who is? When CEOs say there’s no work-life balance and that you either have to work or take the “easy life,” who are they arguing with exactly? My perspective is that the “straw man” definition of work-life balance provides an easy excuse for defending lack of organizational change. First, it creates a false justification for doing things a certain way, even if they are dysfunctional. It lets people disregard work-life balance initiatives as a waste of time and ignore what science has taught us about the beneficial effects of these practices. This immediately sets up work-life initiatives to fail due to lack of support, much like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Second, it creates a false dichotomy between someone’s “work” and “home” self, as if we just turn one thing off or on depending on the domain. This is completely disconnected from what we know about human behavior and psychology. An employee’s experiences outside of work are intricately tied to their well-being and performance at work. When you make employees give up healthy habits and relationships outside of work, they are less effective over time and less satisfied (even at work).
Thus, I think we should frame discussions of work-life balance similar to the way we talk about any other kind of “therapy” for improving ourselves. We don’t go to a therapist to be perfect, but we also don’t ignore the therapist’s suggestions for improving dysfunctional behavior because we think “things will work out over time” and “that’s just the way it is.” The same is true for work-life balance. We need to stop making it synonymous with “work-life perfection” and seeing it as a stable achievement rather than an ongoing, active management process.
There are no trophies for work-life balance, but there are indeed fleeting bits of satisfaction for feeling that you are getting it right sometimes and feeling in control. We can take an active role in this process by not just setting priorities, but taking active steps every day to manage them. There is good work-life balancing and poor work-life balancing, but never the feeling of having it all figured out—that last part is a side effect of being human. Good work-life balance is real though, and we get a chance to choose our strategies that define that process every day.
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