Work-Life Balance or Unachievable Myth?

18 June 2018 Laura Barratt

Ear Buds

How do we manage to have a work-life balance when we are expected to be always available?

Work-life balance is a funny thing.

The term was first used in the UK to describe the equilibrium between an employee’s work and their out of work (personal) life. The United States started using the term in the mid ‘80’s when many industries experienced prosperity, others never gaining momentum from the two recessions. Work/life balance was pushed to the side when the work hard / play hard mentality came into full force in the 90’s where a delicate balance of work and play was necessary and actively promoted in the workplace.

Now, work-life balance is on the forefront of every professional’s mind. We strive hard for work-life balance while technology rules our life and we are contactable 24 hours a day.

So how do we manage to have a work life balance when we are expected to be ‘always available’, scrutinized by managers for not checking your emails before 7:30am and expected to respond said emails again at 10pm? Is that work/life balance or just what it means to work in a corporate environment?

If you work full time, you are in the office for a minimum of 40 hours a week. That means you have 128 hours outside of the work for your ‘balance’. If we were to all sleep 8 hours a night, that allows for 64 hours for ‘balance’. It sounds like a lot of hours but this hasn’t taken into consideration the daily commute, the overtime (which will vary from job to job) and all of life’s necessary and essential tasks.

How are we to achieve work-life balance when we live and breathe work? You work emails are on your phone; your phone number is on the staff directory; your boss asks you to come in early; you need to stay late to reach that deadline, and lets not forget the pressure that is often felt by employees to attend work events out of hours. How will we ever achieve work life balance when we are always contactable and never fully removed?

In June 1940, American Congress amended the Fair Labour Standards Act, which limited the workweek to 40 hours. Prior to this the norm was working 48 plus hours a week so you can imagine the celebration when the 40-hour work week was put in place. Now we look for flexible working, part time positions, working remotely – anything to allow us to achieve a standard 40 hour working week, yet most of us still struggle with this. We have noticed a huge increase recently in the number of legal secretaries applying for part-time positions, and not in the traditional sense because they have small children to take care of but as an attempt to achieve more balance in their lives. That leads us to ask the question is work-life balance actually achievable? Or just a myth that can never really be attained? We all want to get ahead and do well in our chosen profession but at what detriment to the life outside of work that we are living.

Is technology to blame for us not achieving work-life balance or is the concept of work-life balance totally unachievable in itself, especially in the technological work we live in?

Technology has changed our lives in a way we never thought possible and yet has also made us slaves to our work. It’s fantastic having the ability to work from home on the odd day and check emails on the go in between meetings, yet most of us are then expected to check said emails before and after we clock out. Perhaps the answer is to set more strict boundaries with ourselves in the way we access our work through technology?

No matter your profession, the truth is that working longer hours can be counterproductive because you start putting out lower-quality work as time goes on.

Everyone is motivated by something different. Money is the obvious motivator for a lot of people, however a lot of people are wanting to also make a difference in the organization. Surely both can be achieved while working 40 hours a week? As a manager I know that a happy employee is a productive employee, so shouldn’t happiness be the main driver of what we do?

Are we actually happy with having an idea of work-life balance or do we need to do more to actually achieve it? Lastly, can work-life balance actually be achieved working five days a week or do we need to start discussing an ideal world, where we work 3.5 days and weekend for the other 3.5?

Think of the happiness that balance would bring.