It probably has large colored boxes blocking off sections of your days for certain activities. There’s a project meeting from 9:01 a.m. to 10:59 a.m. Then back to your desk to answer emails from 11:01 a.m. to noon. From there it’s off to lunch with a colleague to discuss quarterly performance. The afternoon is dedicated to paperwork until the clock strikes 3:25 p.m. and it’s time to make the mad dash to your child’s soccer game regardless of whether the report is done.
Some employees consider this work-life balance. It isn’t.
“True, everything is scheduled and everything is slotted,” said Robert Preziosi, professor of leadership and human resources management at Nova Southeastern University in Miami. “You’ve made time for work and you’ve made time for family, but blocking off time like this creates an unbearable tension in an individual where they’re more focused on where they have to be than what they should be doing. The work didn’t get done.”
Furthermore, according to Tom Gimbel, founder and CEO of LaSalle Network, a Chicago-based HR consultancy, not only is balance stressful and unachievable, but also it’s not optimal.
“I don’t know too many things that are actually in balance,” Gimbel said. “Even if you look at the scales of justice, they are imbalanced. If something is balanced, it’s not necessarily excelling in either area. It’s static, and that’s not what you want out of work or your personal life.”
Adding insult to injury is the fact that American workers seem to rebel against the idea of balance. According to a 2014 study conducted by economists Daniel Hamermesh and Elena Stancanelli, 29 percent of Americans work weekends and about 27 percent of Americans take work home.
Given U.S. employees’ penchant for long hours, striking the perfect balance between work, family and leisure is like riding a unicorn — something that will never be harnessed. Yet that myth is touted by engagement experts as the elusive pot of gold, a recruiting and retention tool that will cure all workplace ills and make employees eternally happy.
But industry experts such as Preziosi, who has spent the past 25 years working and conducting research in the human resources field, and Gimbel say the biggest hurdle to achieving work-life balance boils down to a single word: balance. The two agree that the concept of “balance” puts work and life in two separate spheres and challenges employees to find a way to make them numerically equal. Rather, the real goal should be to find a more fluid combination that feels right for the individual employee instead of one that makes sense in an employer’s Excel spreadsheet.
The solution, they say, again comes down to a single word: integration. More accurately, work-life integration blurs the line between work life and personal life in a way that optimizes performance in both arenas.
“In integrating, what you’re looking for is less of a precise, minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour scheduling,” Preziosi said. “It’s about finding the right ebb and flow of work responsibilities and personal accountabilities. What you have is a mixing together of work and life that you manage consciously based on what is most important in the moment.”
While employers can do their part to create a set of operating norms that allow employees to achieve such work-life integration, the onus is on workers to set their priorities and work to achieve them.
Employers who want to foster a culture of work-life integration must first understand that creating such an environment begins with the individual employee. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to making sure every employee is able to realize both their work and personal goals, said Jennifer Patel, director of wellness engagement for Hallmark Business Connections, a subsidiary of Hallmark Cards Inc. that designs workplace wellness and employee engagement programs.
“There is a very individual feeling and way of approaching your work-life balance,” Patel said. “What may feel comfortable for me may not feel comfortable for you. Understanding that perspective is the first step to achieving that ebb and flow between work and life.”
This means accepting the fact that there will never be a moment when an employee stops and says, “Yep, I’m in balance,” Patel said. Before taking any steps to better handle all the responsibilities in life, employees need to understand that no one can tell them exactly how to achieve it.
Gimbel agrees that there’s no single solution to integrating work and life. It often begins with accepting the right job.
“In my experience when people say ‘work-life balance,’ what they’re really saying is: ‘I want to make sure that I don’t have to do this job that I’m not great at,’ ” Gimbel said. “To look for balance at something you’re not great at doesn’t make sense.”
Knowing whether an employee is going to be great at their job takes time, so setting arbitrary benchmarks such as leaving work by 5 p.m. or not answering emails on the weekend won’t generate work-life integration from the moment an employee accepts a position, he said.
“It’s like me saying I want to take a photography class, but before I take the class I’m going to plan my whole year around taking vacations and leaving work early to go do photography,” Gimbel said. “What if I hate