Work-life balance - an unattainable dream?

Written by
Laurie Cohen

06 Apr 2016

06 Apr 2016 • by Laurie Cohen

When I began my research in the field of careers a quarter of century ago, the idea of ‘work-life
balance’ was in its infancy. It had virtually no resonance among women, who were still expected to work at work, and work at home.

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

You can't divide 'work' and 'life' equally

One fundamental problem with work-life balance is that it suggests the existence of a conveniently divisible whole that we should be able to segment as we see fit. Countless guides and courses give us the impression that there’s little difference between carving up our lives and cutting a cake.

Instead of aiming for balance, look to maintain order, a day at a time. In truth, we can never hope to quantify one or the other. We cannot simply equate four hours at work with four hours at home, plot parallel trajectories over the course of a year, or even a day. We can’t chat to a colleague about home or to a relative about work and expect to determine precisely how the encounter tipped the scales this way or that. There may be people whose existence remains untroubled by unforeseen events, but for everyone else, the competing spheres of ‘work’ and ‘life’ intrude on each other constantly.

That’s why the quest to achieve ‘balance’ demands dynamic adjustment rather than the cool, considered calculations we’re led to believe are possible.

It’s less a question of balance, more a question of control, of maintaining order. There are
times when ‘work’ and ‘life’ can be separated; but there are times when one crashes into the other and demarcation efforts collapse.

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 none, with the
first three categories broadly indicative of order, the second three of growing disorder.

6 steps to understanding shifts between work and life

1. Segmenting This is the ideal. It’s why we go to the office when we could work from home,
wear smart clothes, refer to the nine-to-five. Occasionally, we succeed. 

2. Integrating Sometimes we try to amalgamate 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 retain control.

3. Importing When it suits us, we’re more than happy to import things from one sphere to another. It could be something as straightforward as discussing work at home or gossiping about home with colleagues at work. We decide how much to give and when.

4. Seeping We start to lose a measure of control. The two worlds begin to collide: thinking about the kids during a meeting, thinking about work at breakfast.

5. Invading 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. For example, a loved one being rushed into hospital.

6. Overwhelming Imagine the loved one is diagnosed with a serious condition. Where’s the ‘balance’ now? The emotions associated with one domain swamp the other. Disorder reigns. Control is at best elusive, at worst lost. It’s likely we all recognise the above scenarios more readily than the romanticised ‘work-life balance’. This should elicit no shame, since ‘work’ and ‘life’ are elastic constructions: they exist in a state of perpetual tension and we’re almost always reinforcing or redrawing their boundaries.

An everyday process to maintain wellbeing

It’s an ongoing process – one that we have to manage every single day – and it’s not easy to stay in control. The mystical ‘balance’ that has gone from nowhere to everywhere during the past quarter century can never be fully achieved.

Maybe, if we acknowledge that ebbs and flows are a lot likelier than glorious equilibrium, we’ll feel better equipped to handle anything less than unattainable perfection.