Why work-life balance is such a dicey subject

Why work-life balance is such a dicey subject Jim Hessler, Founder/President, Path Forward Leadership Development

Work LIfe BalanceIn our client work, the issue of work-life balance comes up frequently. The subject often carries with it a significant amount of emotion and is usually raised by people who feel they aren’t achieving anything close to it. But if there are two people in the room, there are probably two different definitions, and therein lies the challenge.

Now let me say up front I’m not talking here about people who work 3 jobs to get by, or have unfair and inhumane work requirements pressed on them by employers or by the challenging injustice of the economic system in many places in our society and world. These are extreme or pathological circumstances – and that’s clear to most people. But that’s for another blog.

What I’m addressing here is an environment in which knowledge workers or professionals, on salary, are working in a fluid or flexible environment in which their working hours are not routinely set by their employer. In other words, I’m talking about the circumstances of millions, in which they have to decide, using their own best judgement, how much they can and should work to meet the requirements of their job, or to meet their own standards of performance, or to adhere to their organization’s cultural norms about what constitutes an appropriate work commitment.

And I guess I’d like to add here that I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with working long hours in an environment in which one has the opportunity – or obligation – to manage or set their own work hours. To say there’s a psychopathy among people who work long hours isn’t fair. While in some cases it might be true that working long hours is an indication of something wrong, or missing, in a person’s life, it doesn’t necessarily follow. I’ve known plenty of well-adjusted people, including myself, who’ve chosen at times in their career to work very hard, long hours. It may just be that the person loves their work, or is particularly engaged in the current project, or loves being where the action is.

The problem with work-life balance in these environments is that it’s a subjective concept at best and almost meaningless to many workers. Each person in an organization has a different set of personal and professional circumstances, judgements, and perceptions, and because of this I often see the discussion of work-life balance devolving into one person’s judgment of another, about what it “should” be.

For many people, work IS the balance point on which rests their self-identity, their interests, their passion, or their life energy. For them, putting in long hours is nothing more than doing what they enjoy the most. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to judge a person for loving what they do, or for not having something else they want to do more. In many organizations there is conflict between those who do and those who don’t put in the long hours. This often results in judgments that pit one person against another: you should be putting in longer hours like I do, or conversely you need to get a life so you don’t spend so much of it at work – and besides you’re making me look bad by comparison.

What does make sense is to deepen the dialog in your organization about work-life balance, and to honestly address these questions:

  1. What are the perceived cultural norms in your organization about what constitutes an appropriate time commitment to your job?
  2. How can we prevent an uneven playing field? In other words, what do we do, if anything, about the fact that some people just can work more than others because of their personal circumstances. How do we prevent assessing a penalty for those great employees who can’t or won’t put in the same long hours as some of their peers?
  3. If we declare work-life balance to be a corporate value, (and I believe most would), what does that really mean in actual terms? Should we have guidelines that result in shooing people out the door, or preventing them from sending emails after hours, or from working from home? Should we be telling people who want to work long hours that that can’t, or shouldn’t?

And while it’s healthy to ask these questions in an open forum, don’t expect easy answers to come from asking them. There are many, many layers to this conversation, arising from broader social issues, cultural norms outside your organization’s 4 walls, and the fundamental differences in people’s attitudes towards work-life balance. Please don’t work your people to death, or let them work themselves to death. But don’t presume everyone who puts in the long hours does so under duress or due to some perceived imbalance in their personal lives.

About the Author

Jim Hessler

Jim Hessler bootstrapped his way from retail work into a successful career as salesman, sales manager, Fortune 500 executive, and corporate turnaround engineer. Along the way, he developed The Leadership Platform, a proven model for training managers to become sustainably better leaders. It became the basis of his leadership primer, Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guild to Building Your Leadership Platform. Jim is the founder of Path Forward Leadership Development Services.


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