Work-life balance is a tired and fallacious concept that needs to be put to rest. Human resource types that use it to try to up-sell their company’s corporate culture are equally as outdated.
The phrase, though possibly well intended when it emerged in the 1980’s, has become nothing more than euphemistic corporate jargon these days. In fact, the phrase itself makes no sense. Work is a subset of life, not something adjacent to it. Everything is a subset of life for that matter. You aim for a balanced life, not to balance life against something else.
If you are a full-time employee in virtually any mid to large American corporation, you are either keenly aware that there is no such thing, or you have slowly, and sadly, been conditioned into thinking work-life balance does exist but that it is YOU who just needs to make it happen. Only the former is true.
The Japanese concept of ikigai (生き甲斐) illustrates the proper way to think about how work fits into life.
Ikigai, which directly translates as iki (life) and gai (value); more loosely translates to ‘the reason for which you wake up in the morning.’ The idea is best understood by picturing a Venn diagram with four circles. It is the intersection between these four elements: what you are good at; what the world needs; what you enjoy doing; and what you can be paid for, that is the balance to strive for. It is recognized as a personal objective in Japan to find ikigai, rather than a benefit offered to you by any employer.
In corporatized American society that same Venn diagram looks more like this: what you went to school for; what the consumer wants; what you tolerate doing; what you can be paid the most for.
That is why the American corporate worker, and even many non-corporate Americans, struggle with finding balance — because the scale itself is out of calibration and likely is tilted by the objectives of corporations to meet the profit motives of their shareholders.
Another problem with the American analogy of work-life balance is that it simplifies the equation into just two parts — as if it were merely two children playing on a see-saw. That analogy is quickly dismantled by application of basic physics. As we all can remember, for two people sitting on either ends of a teeter-totter, the only way to balance the two in mid-air is for both bodies to be exactly the same weight at the same relative position, or for the one that is lighter-weight to move outward, thus gaining more leverage.
Apply that formula to the hypothetical work-life balance problem. Which one has more leverage? Have you ever been able to move work and the demands of work by shifting life around? The answer for the majority of full-time corporate employees is a disappointing no. Work is always there as an immovable weight firmly planting one end of the see-saw deep in the playground sand. “Life” is suspended up in the air at the other end. No matter how much leverage you try to give life, you’re never going to be able to offset work.
While the analogy is simple, in practicality the problem is far more complex. Large corporations flush with profit (and even small ones with VC funding) understand the importance of building and maintaining the facade of work-life balance as something the company ‘provides.’ For instance, it has now become the norm in most American companies for employers to feed their workers — whether it is through fully stocked fridges, catered lunches, or even on-site delis and cafes. Just thirty years ago the norm was a pot of coffee provided in the break room. So why the dramatic change? If you ask seasoned HR folks they will immediately use the word “competitive” — as in these are benefits and perks required for companies to attract and retain top employees in order to remain competitive with other companies.
It’s a shallow answer that fails to consider what actually is driving that competition. In a consumption-driven society where companies are under shareholder pressure to increase sales and profits using limited resources, the biggest efficiency the company can gain is to extract more productivity from its existing workforce. If a company with 1000 employees can gain an additional hour per day from 75% of its workers, the gain is almost the equivalent of having an extra 100 employees — at merely the cost of bringing in some sandwiches each day.
Now multiply that force by the occasional company-provided dinner; the on-site gym; on-site dental; all night ‘hack-a-thons’ and even the company provided housing which Facebook and others are starting to embark on. And we haven’t even considered yet the perpetual connectivity to work via company provided cell phones and computers.
While it may seem, and surely corporate representatives will echo, that these are greatly beneficial amenities and conveniences offered to its employees — I suggest that in fact they are part of the slow and deliberate corporate indenturing process. These ‘benefits’ actually shape young, eager, and naive workers into thinking ‘this is balanced.’ After all, if I can have a nice lunch, workout, and shower without ever leaving work, isn’t that a great thing?
The problem is that there is immense social pressure in corporations to participate in these company ‘perks.’ The mere opting-out is perceived by many corporate managers as a signal of being less-dedicated, less-participatory, less of a team-player and therefore not as hard, let alone effective, of a worker.
What companies don’t realize is that this model actually erodes employee self-confidence and dilutes productivity. Employees become habituated into blending into the larger group and appearing at all times to be willing participants; rather than standing out, proposing potentially unconventional ideas, and letting their work-product be the sole indicator of performance. Perhaps, however, this is the desired effect as most corporate HR managers aim to manage the organization via a normalized bell-curve approach.
What companies don’t realize is that this model actually erodes employee self-confidence and dilutes productivity.
This sort of pseudo-balance conditioning that happens within the corporation actually extends outside the workplace into what little time we have for “life.”
Look, for instance, at the correlation between the rise in corporate salaries and percent wages spent on housing and cars over the past half-century. The average American home has doubled in square footage and more than doubled in cost as a proportion of wages. Average corporate salaries have also increased proportionally, but non-corporate (teaching, social work, etc) wages have not. When you are not at work, corporations pump a different tune into your head through overt and not-so-overt marketing — that larger is better, that more is happier, and that consumption will provide the balance you seek. We spend more time at work, therefore a larger house and more luxurious car will make up for the less time we have to ourselves.
Do you buy it? Most of us do, and we shouldn’t.
The only way to truly balance work and life is to first recognize that work is a small part of life and it is your and only your prerogative to balance life. If you are convinced by quantitative means, then simply adding the eight hours at work plus two hours commuting plus two hours getting ready plus an hour or more connecting to work will yield at least twelve hours per weekday that you spend on work. If you sleep eight hours that gives you a mere four hours for “life” per day. That is hardly balanced.
Qualitatively, however, the image is far more disturbing. Listen closely in the break-rooms and cubicles of any corporation and you’ll find countless examples each day of workers trying to find leverage over the weight of work. Whether it is the guilt of calling in ‘sick’ in order to volunteer in a son’s classroom or ‘burning a PTO day’ to simply go for a hike on an unexpectedly sunny day, the examples are countless and continuous.
Perhaps more disturbing are the broader trends across America — the corporatization of our society over the last half-century correlates all too well with the rapid increase in obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases, depression, addiction and a variety of other concerning problems. The only permanent solution to reverse this course is to find your ikigai and not leave your life-balancing up to corporations. //