The path to “work-life balance” is an almost certain path to failure.
Listen to me.
For years now, we’ve heard endless discussions about how to make work-life balance a reality, and time and time again, we’ve seen those concepts put to the test. challenged, redefined, and utterly labeled as impossible. And then you hear from the occasional person that it’s achievable. But there are so many variables, including family life, earning capacity, proximity to support and help, roles and responsibilities at work, that approaching balance in any way is a surefire. Definitely won’t work for everyone. What the balance looks like for a 25-year-old, single and childless software engineer working in San Francisco will be vastly different than the balance for a 38-year-old single parent who has to work three hours a day.
With such congruence between so many definitions of work-life balance, can company management find a way to make it nearly achievable for their entire workforce? Or are we forever chasing something unattainable? One thing is for sure, the era of almost self-sacrifice and “work to death” to achieve excellence at work is over. Some consider this to be a uniquely American professional trait. So, when leading a global team, what worked for one part of the world certainly didn’t work for the rest (leading to resentment). And if we’re being honest, it doesn’t really work for Americans either. People are increasingly realizing the importance of mental and physical boundaries and being healthy in the workplace. And that can make leaders sweat.
As a C-level executive for a long time — and as a wife and mother of two — I have also struggled with giving and receiving work and family. Trying to find the best possible solution when I have to attend a board meeting and look forward to following my son’s field trip to the state capitol. Both are equally important to me and both are pressured by the expectations of those around them.
Here’s what I’ve realized: There’s no one right answer, but there are plenty of wrong answers. Being inflexible is wrong. Leadership without empathy is a mistake. Unrealistic expectations of self-sacrifice by your team members are wrong. Refusing to admit that people have different needs is wrong.
But what is true? How can leadership support employees in healthier ways? How can leadership categorize what people really value and need, to help bridge the work-life balance gap that we all recognize as unhealthy? How can we address the unspoken expectation of being a workaholic that everyone feels? I think the answer lies in the need to throw the whole concept of work-life balance in the trash, and really think about work-life integration instead.
What that might look like for business, how it can help employees, and how to chart it toward personal ownership, autonomy, and empowerment where people are generally just happier, less more stressful but also more productive, if not more. A system based on balance is extremely fragile. Instead, it is completely possible to integrate life and work…
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