Has the idea of work-life balance evolved?

Written by
Laurie Cohen

06 Sep 2016

06 Sep 2016 • by Laurie Cohen

Nowadays the concept is an accepted part of the zeitgeist and central to how women think about and arrange their lives. Yet it could be argued that overuse has left the whole notion in grave danger of becoming meaningless – a knee-jerk and rather thoughtless cultural shorthand for an ill-defined set of lifestyle choices and workplace responses.

One fundamental problem with “work-life balance” is that it suggests a conveniently divisible whole that we should be able to segment as we see fit. Countless books, guides, journals, programmes, courses, coaches and campaigns offer us the distinct impression that there’s precious little difference between carving up our lives and cutting a cake.

Far from the truth

If only. The truth is that we can never hope to quantify one or the other. We can’t simply equate four hours at work to four hours at home. We can’t plot parallel trajectories over the course of a year, a week or even a day. We can’t chat to a colleague about home matters or to a relative about work and then expect to determine precisely how the encounter tipped the scales this way or that. It’s all too neat to be real.

There may well be people whose existence remains entirely untroubled by random and unforeseen events, but for everyone else the supposedly competing spheres of “work” and “life” intrude on each other almost constantly. That’s why the quest to achieve what passes for “balance” demands dynamic adjustment rather than the cool, considered calculations that we’re habitually led to believe are possible.

It’s actually less a question of balance and more a question of control – or, if you prefer, a question of maintaining order. There are times when “work” and “life” can be separated and we’re pleasantly aware that we’re succeeding in keeping them apart; and there are times when one crashes into the other and we’re painfully conscious of the fact that our demarcation efforts are collapsing all around us.

Consider the following simple framework for understanding the ever-shifting relationships between “work” and “life”. It charts the slide from a high level of control to little or no control, with the first three categories broadly indicative of order and the second three illustrative of growing disorder.


This is the putative ideal that we hear and read so much about. Everyone strives for it. It’s why we head for the office even when we could work from home, why we put on our smart clothes, why we talk about the nine-to-five. And occasionally, of course, we manage to pull it off.


Sometimes we try to amalgamate our “work” and “life” identities into one seamless whole. We actively seek opportunities to span the boundaries – say, by working at home during school holidays. There may be an element of disruption, but we still retain control.


When it suits us, we’re happy to import things from one sphere to another. It could be something as straightforward as discussing work at home or gossiping about home at work. In these instances, crucially, we decide how much to give and when. 


This is where we start to lose a measure of control. Despite our best efforts, the two worlds begin to collide. Thinking about the kids during a meeting, thinking about work at the breakfast table – the effect is sometimes positive, sometimes negative. 


In circumstances such as these the sense of disorder and the consequent loss of control become significant. The impingement of one sphere on another can be both physical and emotional. A loved one suddenly being rushed into hospital is an obvious example.



Now imagine the loved one is diagnosed with a serious condition. Where’s the “balance” now? Suddenly the emotions associated with one domain totally swamp the other. The scales appear permanently tipped. Disorder reigns. Control is at best elusive and at worst lost.


In the balance

The chances are that we can all recognise the above scenarios more readily than we can identify with the romanticised epitome of “work-life balance”. And there’s no surprise about that – less still any shame – because the reality is that “work” and “life” are elastic constructions: they exist in a state of perpetual tension, and we’re almost always reinforcing or redrawing their boundaries in light of both our own agency and the constraints we find imposed on us.

It’s an ongoing process – one we have to manage every day – and it’s not easy to stay in control. That’s just the way it is. The mystical “balance” that has gone from nowhere to everywhere during the past quarter-century or so can never be fully achieved. Maybe if we just accept that – if we acknowledge that ebbs and flows are much likelier than glorious equilibrium – we’ll feel a little better equipped to handle anything less than unattainable perfection.