The Myth of Work-life Balance

For years, our attention has been drawn to the tension between “work” and “life.” Employers and their employees, superiors and their subordinates, leaders and their managers all have been told to focus or even fixate on how to jam the demands of a full-time job and the demands of a full-time family in a day with just 24 hours.  

Many countries and companies have responded to the dilemma, tried to address it by offering a range of family friendly policies and programs including part time, flex time, leave time, subsidized childcare, subsidized eldercare, and greater freedom and flexibility.  Women particularly have taken advantage of these offerings – far more often and for longer periods of time than men – though the problem of how to divide time and cope with the relentless demands, especially on families with young children, persists.

But the conversation is based on an unproven assumption – that balance is Nirvana. Balance in all things all the time. Leaders are encouraged to live a balanced life, to wit leadership expert Bill George, in whose view “balanced leaders develop healthier organizations.” More generally, followers as well as leaders are forever being encouraged to strive for work-life balance, all because of the conventional wisdom that balance is best.

Setting aside the question of whether balanced leaders are better leaders – a question that seems still open – is the matter of whether work-life balance is all it’s cracked up to be. Is it, for example, all it’s cracked up to be in the event either work or life is of primary importance? Is it, for example, all it’s cracked up to be no matter the circumstance at work or at home? Is it, for example, all it’s cracked up to be both at age 25 and at age 65? Or are there, personal and professional circumstances in which work-life balance makes no sense? Or even is detrimental as opposed to beneficial?

These questions came to mind recently, while I was reading the Financial Times of July 22nd. In one part of the paper was an article by a Brigid Schulte, who directs the Better Life Lab at New America. Worried that gender equity had “stalled,” she advised companies to make work-life balance a “key performance metric.” But, in another part of the paper, was an article whose message was quite the opposite. It was a piece about the fabulously successful media mogul, Jeffrey Katzenberg. Katzenberg, it was reported, famously had a motto – “If you don’t come in on Sunday, don’t bother coming in on Monday.”

I am not defending Katzenberg’s personal or professional choice – or his leadership style. What I am defending is the position that balance and bliss are not the same. That while balance might work best for most, it does not necessarily work best for all.

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