May 28, 2024

Exploding the Work-Life Balance Myth

An image of an elephant balancing on a ball, on a tight rope, there is a man standing on back of the elephant, juggling various household goods and electronics.
“So long as we continue to stigmatise work through the pernicious concept of a work-life divide, nothing we do to try and improve the work experience can really succeed”    

The Dangerous Concept of Work-Life Balance

Each week brings news of companies introducing revolutionary measures to improve “work-life balance”: Four-day weeks, remote working, sabbaticals, there is no end to the variety of solutions being promoted.

A greater interest in employee wellbeing is to be lauded and will benefit both individuals and the organisations they work for. There is an abundance of research which shows how a happy, healthy and motivated workforce delivers superior results, however, we fear many well-intended initiatives are doomed to fail and indeed some could be counterproductive or even damaging.

The problem sits right at the heart of the debate, with the ubiquitous but pernicious concept of work-life balance. There are two key issues:

First the concept of work versus life stigmatises work. Anything outside work is labelled as good and desirable, it is living, while work is presented as bad. It is not living and is undesirable. Most people need to work; we have bills to pay and families to feed. Working is not optional for most people and the constant drip of commentary labelling it as bad only creates more stress.

Many people like their job and some thrive in the working environment. Others may not, but all are negatively affected by the continual diatribe telling us our work-life balance needs to be improved. Social media has magnified and accelerated the issue, creating unrealistic and often unattainable ideals, adding to the stress.

So long as work is characterised as bad, no reduction in the amount of time we spend doing it can ultimately succeed. We may shift from a five-day week to four, but the four days are still perceived to be undesirable. Before long we will become accustomed to the four-day week and the clamour will be for three. We can give people sabbaticals every few years but the people who will embrace them are likely to be the disenchanted and unhappy. They will see a few months off as a break from the drudgery of the workplace and return just as disillusioned as before. The traditional concept of the sabbatical (a year off in every seven) can be productive if used for meaningful self-development, but a break of a few months every three or four years risks being seen as a clumsy disruption by motivated and satisfied employees.

The second major issue with work-life balance initiatives is the way they are anchored to the concept of time; hours worked versus hours not-worked. For those who thrive at work, reducing the hours spent doing it but asking for the same output through higher productivity is likely to lead to burnout. There may be a short period in which the novelty of a little more recreation time seems like a bonus but eventually the cracks will show. For those who are less enamoured with their work, reducing the time spent at work is not going to suddenly make it stimulating or enjoyable. Once again, they will quickly become accustomed to the new norm and expect further reductions, to the point where they are no longer able to satisfactorily complete tasks.

Investing in a Better Life

“The best way companies can improve people’s quality of life is not by simply reducing the amount of time they spend at work, but by creating a more meaningful work experience.”    

At MindAlpha, we have created a model in which we initially referred simply to life-balance, its underlying premise being whole life balance. However, we found when discussing it with organisations, many were so deeply rooted in the concept of time-based work-life balance, they failed to appreciate the difference. We now to refer to our framework as Life Return on Investment (Life ROI).

The model presents three key dimensions in our lives: work; recreation, which includes social and family time; and self-time, which we use for rest and recovery. We measure the balance between them not in days or hours but in the return we feel we get on our investment in each domain. This investment can be in the form of time, but also includes physical and emotional energy and even more tangible things like money, if that is what motivates us.

Imbalances can occur in two ways. The first is when we find we must invest more than we expect in a particular domain of our lives, to get the return we desire, forcing us to reduce the resources we have left for the other domains. The second type of imbalance occurs when we do not get the return we expect on the effort we have put in.

If organisations want to improve employee wellbeing and reduce stress, they must embrace the Life ROI model. They must stop stigmatising work and treat the three domains as equally important and equally positive aspects of our lives. They must strive to create an environment in which work is as satisfying as other forms of recreation.

People thrive when their work is well matched to their interests and abilities. Life satisfaction is strongly correlated to having a sense of pleasure and purpose, simply cutting working hours will not lead to more satisfaction unless it is replaced by something else purposeful. The best way companies can improve Life ROI, in a way which makes employees happier and more productive, is not simply by reducing the time they spend at work, but by working to improve the return people feel they get from their jobs by creating a more meaningful work experience.

The MindAlpha Motivation Metrics model covers all aspects of individual and collective motivation and is designed to help organisations create a more rewarding and purposeful working environment which will increase employee satisfaction and improve productivity.

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