The myth of work/life balance

Don’t bother striving for work/ life balance because it’s probably not going to happen, says Erin Reilly. Instead, integrate the two.

The term work/life balance was coined in the UK in the 1970s; in New Zealand it’s been a big part of the Kiwi dream.

But look at the stats, and it’s blindingly obvious it isn’t working. Only 66% of New Zealanders are either satisfied or very satisfied with their work/life balance, according to the 2012 Quality of Life Survey, down from 78% in 2008. The news is even worse for Aucklanders: a tiny 12% are very satisfied with their work/life balance and only 46% are satisfied.

The harder you work at creating a successful life, the more you work, which ironically reduces the amount of time you have to enjoy the rest of your life. Herein lies the paradox of work/life balance. Forbes contributor Kevin Harrington says that while work/life balance enables you to allocate your time so you can ‘have it all’, the problem is that “work usually ends up coming first, neglecting life entirely”.

Add to the equation studies showing that (in the first world at least) the rich now work harder than the poor, and you’ve got a total economic about-turn.

“In the 19th century you could tell how poor somebody was by how long they worked,” says University of Zurich economic historian Hans- Joachim Voth, quoted in The Economist. These days, “the share of college-educated American men regularly working more than 50 hours a week rose from 24% in 1979 to 28% in 2006, but fell for high-school dropouts. The rich, it seems, are no longer the class of leisure.”

The American Time Use Survey, released last year, shows Americans with a degree work on average two hours more every day than those who left school without any qualifications.

Gone are the days when Kiwis could switch off from work when the clock hit 5pm too. According to the OECD’s 2013 Economic Survey, about 13% of employees work very long hours; the OECD average is 9%. Data from the 2006 census also shows that nearly one third of the 1.4 million New Zealanders who work full-time, work 50 hours or more a week.

Why? Since the 1980s the salaries of highfliers have risen sharply, while those at the lower end of the salary spectrum have remained unchanged or fallen. If rich people take time off work, they give up more money. Therefore, rising inequality encourages the rich to work more and the poor to work less – they’ve got nothing to lose anyway.

The rise of the remote worker has also significantly blurred the boundaries between career and family. Forbes’ contributor Dan Schawbel says 30 million Americans work from home – many in their bedrooms – at least once a week, with the help of remote technology. And according to Statistics New Zealand, over 12% of Kiwi employees worked from home in 2013.

James Kemp, director of New Zealand SME development agency Growth HQ, blames the increasingly-omnipresent characteristic of modern technology for contributing to work/life balance inequality. “Mobile phones have a lot to answer for changing people’s expectations about our availability.”

So how does the average employee balance work and home effectively? Often, they don’t. Instead, one option is to give up on balance and just integrate the two.

As Schawbel says, work and life cross over so much it’s easy to underperform in both, so professionals should “blend what they do personally and professionally in order to make both work.”

Three tips for better work/life integration

Work/life balance is a myth. Work/life integration unites the different facets of your life. Here are some ideas how to do it:

Rethink the 9-5 week

The traditional Monday through Friday, 9 till 5, working week is an artificial construction. Try inserting some non-work activities into work hours (exercise, lunch with friends, even a movie), then catching up with emails or report-writing later in the evening – from the peace of the couch and in your PJs. You might find it makes you more productive.

Setting aside a couple of blocks of time during the weekend for focused work (inbox clearing, for example) can ensure a less stressful week. But don’t get grumpy about working at the weekend – take some time out during the week to make it up.

Make friends with your co-workers.

Don’t put your associates into two camps: friends and colleagues. You’ve probably got more in common with your colleagues than you think, which makes it easier to socialise over a drink and weekend plans – while swapping business ideas or professional contacts.

Work smart

Reply to emails or prepare notes for a presentation while you’re taking the bus or train to work. Read up on meeting notes while you’re at the gym, or take the kids for a run so you can hang out with them while you all exercise.