Work/Life Balance: Do We Really Need It?

One great thing about work/life balance is it reminds employers that we have a life outside work. I'm all for that.

But beyond that I'm not so sure. Ruth Billheimer of Virtual Balance emailed me today to ask if I could fill in her survey. She'd noticed that people are seeking fulfillment in their work rather than balance and wanted to know more.

I've had two babies in the last two years, so I'm still trying to thrash out what my new work and life will look like. As for balance, well I'm totally unbalanced  – my life is 90% babies and 10% business. 'Me' time? I'm lucky if I get time to plug in a hairdryer these days!

Unable to make a meaningful contribution to Ruth's survey, I thought I'd write this post instead.

The times in my life that have been the least balanced have also been the most productive. Like the time when I worked full-time and studied part-time at the same time, or now, being mum to a 22 month old and a 6 month old. Intense times, but times that are really rewarding as well as shattering, frustrating and challenging (in a good way).

I've noticed this in other people too. When I used to hang out with physicists  (that doesn't make me a bad person, see 'the best advice I have ever been given' if you want me to explain… ) the best scientists weren't the ones that had balance in their lives, in fact they were the ones  who were bordering on being obsessed.

I know there's more to life than achieving things, but it does suggest that aiming for balance isn't going to guarantee success or even satisfaction.

From time to time I read about someone who feels her (it's almost always a 'her') life is out of balance. She thinks that if all the different parts of her life rolled along in harmony she'd be happier. I think that misses the point. If you put your efforts into making all the aspects of your life cancel each other out, life might just pass you by.

Much better to accept that life is a rollercoaster and enjoy the ride. During the frantic times you could feel stressed, stretched, challenged, a sense of satisfaction, confusion, fear, proud of yourself, focussed. During the quieter times you might feel relaxed, calm, frustrated, bored, as if you're going nowhere, peaceful, demotivated.

Calm isn't necessarily better than being frantically busy. Both states have their good parts and their bad parts. Of course you need to take care of your relationship and your health or you'll be heading for divorce or worse.  Being a workaholic and hardly ever spending time with your children would be a terrible shame. If you're working too hard and it's making you unhappy, change it if you can.

But if we actually balanced our lives, I'm not sure we'd be any happier than we are now.

Live your life, don't try to iron it flat.

Do you have any thoughts? Drop me a comment!

Creative Commons License photo credit: stachelig

18 Replies to “Work/Life Balance: Do We Really Need It?”

    1. I’d be really interested to hear what people say. You definitely have a service there that people could use – the important thing is that you’re asking people questions about what they really want.

  1. We all have a limit to the number of balls we can juggle at once – even this changes due to which “ball” demands the most attention at any one time! For me it is all about having realistic expectations of oneself and others. If things get too much and something has to give, albeit temporarily, give yourself a break and don’t beat yourself up about it. Ongoing evaluation of what you’re doing can be really tiring but it’s better than losing the plot!!

    1. Helen – I have ways of measuring if I’m overdoing it. When I see those signs, I know it’s time to take my foot off the accelerator and rest a bit. I wasn’t always this way and I think I got to my early thirties before I knew how hard I could push myself. Before that, my expectations of myself were far too high. (If I’d known all this earlier, my twenties would have been much more fun!) So I agree that ongoing evaluation is a good way to go. Thanks for leaving a comment.

  2. Balance is a subjective thing and one person’s idea of balance is not someone else’s. Personally I think the whole work/life balance thing is a fallacy. I strive to enjoy my life and yes, sometimes I do work really hard (OK often) but it balances itself out. I have a 33 month and 10.5 month old and whilst it has its challenging times, I wouldn’t change anything. I’m far more productive and creative than I’ve ever been despite the chaos and flying by the seat of my pants mode – and I’ve also never been happier. Result!

    1. Natalie – first of all, thanks for re-tweeting about this post. I’ve had a fabulous response to this one and much of this is because I had a re-tweet from such an expert blogger. It sounds llike you do what feels right and let the balance work itself out? I’ve been reading your posts on and your experience of working with small children around is very familiar. I can relate to the chaos and flying by the seat of my pants!

  3. I agree that there are enormous benefits to those moments of extreme creativity … when we work through the night, throw everything into our work. I’ve done it as a mother of twins who has worked full-time without taking a break. But I had the support of a partner who helped and someone who helped with the babies while I worked for a few hours.

    The ability to have these intense bursts of creativity is still a gift. Many people aren’t free to do so … they don’t have the resources or that kind of work or even the passion. Some of us are lucky to find something that we are passionate about.

    And even passionate Nobel prize winners of the future/Mann booker prize winners/tomorrow’s political leaders need people to back them up; to look after their kids, to clean their houses, to walk their dogs when passion and a big idea takes hold.

    When we talk about the need for balance, esp. in the work place, I think policy makers, legislator, activists, etc. are worrying about:

    People who have regular jobs and regular hours. Giving a mum some flexibility to leave early for a kid’s school concert. Some workplaces still provide no flexibility at all.

    People in low paid jobs. Giving a man the opportunity to take some time to look after a sick kid without fear of losing his job. That is still the reality in many parts of the world, including the United Stats where paid sick leave remains rare.

    But when we have times when we want to throw ourselves into work, we also want and need good and affordable childcare or back up care as well.

    1. Julie – writing this post has made me see that work/life balance has two sides. The first is concerned with employment rights and the second is a personal development goal. My post was concerned with the personal development angle, so I only touched on the employment rights side.

      I agree that we need to have flexibility at work to have a full family life and we’re very lucky in the UK to have made progress in this area in the last ten years or so. There’s still a way to go, but we’ve got much better maternity rights than the US and we now have the right to ask for flexible working and for that to be given serious consideration. Employers also have the right to refuse, though. If keeping work/life balance in the minds of employers and the government means more flexibility for working parents, then that’s got to be a positive thing.

      Unfortunately, we still don’t have affordable childcare, especially for the under-threes, which is one good reason why many mums consider self-employment. By working the opposite ‘shift’ to their partners (weekends, evenings), mums of pre-schoolers can earn an income with minimal or no childcare costs. We have two children under age two in our family – a nursery in our area costs £80 a day for two children, which isn’t that much less than my salary used to be once I’d paid tax etc (and I’m a graduate who had a decent job). This means that I can’t afford to work a 9-5 job for the next few years, but we can’t live on just my husband’s salary either. Can’t afford to work, can’t afford to not work. But I consider myself very lucky that I have the education, confidence and experience to be able try a different way of working.

  4. Thanks, Helen, for writing this article and thank you all for replying. I hope you don’t mind if I use your answers in my research? None of them will be attributed, just aggregated in an anonymous report. I’ll keep Helen posted on progress as she’s a member of my focus group, anyone else wants to contact me, please feel free.
    By the way, just a general comment to you all: well done! I wish I’d had the initiative to go it alone when I was younger. I call myself a “granpreneur” as I’ve just gone 60!

  5. The murmurs of dissent against the holy grail of work-life balance are fast turning into a furious roar! This is great news. It focused too much on the whole concept of time management, simplifying it into an equation of “Equal work time & Equal personal time = work-life balance”. Which consistently means people are chasing ‘time’ as if it’s something outside of their reach – so the feeling of being constantly out of breath just continued.
    Whereas if we look at work-life purpose, it brings up a whole different set of questions. What do we want from our work? From our families? How can we express what we’re passionate about throughout every aspect of our lives? How are we contributing to others and feeling fulfilled as a result of being ‘of service’. These questions are much more meaningful, and actually feed the soul… so that we’re connected to a source which gives us the energy we need without leaving us drained and exhausted. We’re ‘in flow’.
    Less stressful. Much more rewarding.

    1. Joolz, I know what you mean about ‘flow’. When you feel that way about your work, balance just isn’t an issue – although finding work that is like that isn’t easy for many of us. For me, trying to achieve balance sounds like just another item on my to do list, and I want to make my to do list shorter!

  6. Balance doesn’t always mean there’s an ‘equal’ balance between work and life. It’s made up of more than two halves. I was just asked why I have personal, home based questions on my Time Audit – it’s because work has an impact on our home lives (whether or not your run your own business or work from home).

    Fulfilment comes from balancing ALL aspects of our lives. While my main focus is on time management – it’s not about cramming more into the time available, although that’s what some people want to do or helping them to be more productive so they can get even more done. It’s about making sure that we’re focusing on the important things in life, getting the right things done, so that you can actually spend LESS time at work and more time doing the things you enjoy. This is particularly important if you’re a Mum, running your own business and fitting it all in between children, family and finding time for yourself.

  7. Hi Clare, thanks for leaving a comment. I agree, it’s much better to focus on getting what’s important to you than to balance out what you’ve already got in your life.

  8. Ooh I see the comments are still growing strong. Have to agree with you Helen – when I think about work/life balance, it’s in the context of personal development, not employment rights. If anything, it shows that each person’s experience is individual. Personally I’ve found it takes more effort for me to stress about ‘balance’ than it does to listen to myself and adjust accordingly. Like you said, it can become another item on the todo list.

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