Debunking Work-Life Balance

I am not a proponent of work-life balance. If my comment just triggered you, please first allow me to explain.

Cindy Gordon
HR Consultant & Former Chief People Officer
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Aug 21, 2022
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Last updated on Dec 20, 2021

        Source: a Google search



I am not a proponent of work-life balance. If my comment just triggered you, please first allow me to explain. The term “balance” alludes to equal parts, an even balance, an equilibrium of sorts. So, to me, the concept of “work-life balance” is a fallacy. There are elements of work that are not totally within our realm of control. And there are certainly a heck of a lot of aspects to life that are far beyond our control. By design, the term “work-life balance” is setting us up to fail. There is little merit in perpetuating a false belief that we can achieve an unattainable goal. Studies show it can actually have the opposite effect and be demotivating. If we leverage work-life balance as our filter, is that truly what needs to be solved for? What sits underneath not having work-life balance? Are we making choices to contribute to an imbalance? Are we passively moving through work and life without unpacking “the why”? 


I’m not saying we shouldn’t find ways to lead fulfilling lives by prioritizing our responsibilities and family lives while setting boundaries at work. That is super important. But I would argue that blindly responding to an imbalance with quick-fixes isn’t going to make us feel any better. It’s another set of priorities that perpetuate this infinite loop of needing to add to an already too-long list of things that then prevents us from what we initially set out to do. 

Work-life balance, deconstructed

The problem with my opinion of work-life balance is that it is purely based on my own definition of it. It can be a nebulous phrase that can hold different meanings from individual to the next. As People professionals, it is oftimes our job to help our employees navigate their work-life balance--at least on the work side of things. When I first started at a company in one of my Head of People roles, I observed that any candidate--who said they were seeking a work-life balance in their next role--was automatically dinged or (wound up interviewing at a deficit) due to misalignment with the company’s values. This was based on an assumption that work-life balance meant the same thing to the candidate as it did to the hiring manager. I’ve seen this happen countless times where we assume we are speaking the same language. 


This obviously doesn’t stop at the hiring stage. The question of where work fits into overall needs in life is a table stakes topic that employers are basically required to address up front in order to attract and retain their talent. So it is something we need to be equipped to proactively talk about and adequately address when questions arise. 


So, like any classic miscommunication, I realized that we actually needed some structured way to get underneath the phrase and in a safe way by assuming positive intent. Here is one construct that I’ve found helpful in unpacking what it might mean to any given person. (And maybe a solid first step is understanding what it means to ourselves!)


“Work-life balance can mean a lot of different things. What is most important is hearing about what it means to you so we can better understand your needs and level-set on expectations.


To explore this comprehensively, I’m going to introduce three different buckets, locus of control, and a brief description/questions to ask. And then we figure out what that looks like for you when it comes to work-life balance:


  1. Company-driven (limited-to-no employee control): What are the existing work norms--both explicit AND implicit at both the company and team levels? E.g. working hours, after hours activity, response time expectations, staffing vs workload, etc.
  2. Self-driven (primary employee control): What are the work norms and practices that you set for yourself? E.g. Do you have boundaries? What narratives exist that contribute to your work behaviors? Where does your work sit on the overall priority list? Do you have a history of overworking/workaholism? 
  3. Development-driven (equal control): What is expected of you in your role? What competencies/skill-sets are new for you but need to be demonstrated in your role? What does not come as easily for you? Have you gotten feedback about any skills that you need to continue to develop? 


Many people assume that work-life balance is this big, amorphous set of things outside of our own control. While the company-driven aspect is something to definitely delve into and better understand, there are other aspects of work-life balance that may benefit from your taking back the power.


This framework can help to shift the perspective and open up some necessary dialogue that empowers employees to do their part in finding ways to feel more fulfilled and aware about how they spend their time.

Taking action

Okay, so we now have a clear understanding of where someone might sit amongst the three work-life buckets. Now how do we tie those employee needs back to their job duties and the needs of the business? One framework that I’ve shared with people team colleagues and in training up people managers, is the “how to have engaging conversations” 3-pillar concept (which can also come in handy for the “how to navigate tougher expectation-setting conversations”). It is a useful tool that ensures employees <> managers/leaders are aligned when it comes to how things are going. I also like to empower employees by arming them with the same framework so they can proactively ask questions if they feel like they are not up to speed on a certain pillar. 


The three pillars are:


  1. Company goals: (This is where the company-driven work-life norms gain more color and context.) What is the company’s mission? What are the OKRs that we need to hit in order to maintain success? 
  2. Individual goals: (This is where the “work-life balance” conversation can be applied.) This can have breadth when it comes to the employee understanding and communicating their work needs and career objectives.
  3. Role expectations/performance: (This is where the employee can learn more about and accept their development-driven aspects of work-life balance.) What are the expectations in the role? How is the employee doing in the role? This is where the direct manager is responsible for coaching, developing, and providing performance-based feedback. 


Side note: The overlap of any two pillars is where specific people and leadership practices come into play. 




This approach can be very powerful in practice. It helps give more transparency to an employee around the natural points of tension that a manager is faced with in meeting the needs of the people and the business. Giving “the why” can shine a light on how decisions are made and, more times than not, lead to co-creation. 


If you want to take this even further, McKinsey & Company has a great article with tips on helping employees find purpose. 

In summary

With any buzzword or catch-phrase at work--especially triggering ones that can be misconstrued--it is important to get to the root of why someone might be raising a concern or a need. It might not always be what you are hearing at face value (similar to people asking for raises or promotions--is that truly the main driver of dissatisfaction?). And even if it is, it is important to collect the details so an informed, intentional, thoughtful set of decisions on the path ahead can take place. 


_____


Thanks to the countless peers, mentors, employees, and employers who have led to the amalgamation of thoughts in this article. For any questions or discourse, please feel free to DM me on LinkedIn.

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