I’m calling it: “work-life balance” is dead.
RIP, work-life balance. Laterz!
There are two key reasons why “work-life balance” has to be jettisoned from our vernacular, pronto.
- We still have a pulse when we are at work.
A strict interpretation of the term places work in the left column, and life – i.e. living, breathing, experiential life – on the other side of some magical line in the right. This insinuates that work is some kind of deadening, soulless undertaking that is entirely separate from human existence, namely what happens between birth and death.
I hated being a lawyer, but I never considered myself literally dead at work and alive at all other times. It wasn’t as if my heart stopped for the time I was at the office and kicked back in as I strolled out into the cool Amsterdam night to inhale a relieved gasp of air.
There was certainly an imbalance in my existence during that period. I spent an enormous amount of time at the office. There were weeks at a time where I ate dinner at the office every night (always Sushi Kings, a delivery place that had done their research – when you called, they asked for the matter number, an internal office reference code which meant the costs were automatically charged to whatever transaction I was working on). I was there weekends and public holidays.
My relationship, my friendships, my sense of self shriveled and died due to lack of nourishment and attention. Balance was not in my vocabulary.
But approaching my situation from the perspective of getting my work and my life back into balance would have felt insultingly simplistic. Work was my life. If life only starts after hours, what are we doing at the desk for all those hours, exactly?
- Work is an inextricable part of identity, and life.
Work-life balance is nostalgic and archaic. It harks back to a time in our work culture when we drove in, clocked in, completed the requisite tasks, clocked out and drove home.
Work is no longer limited by location. As long as we are constantly attached to our cell phones, work is everywhere. I’ve overheard people take work calls in every conceivable place, at the peak of snow-capped mountains and in remote Saharan desert. Our phones glow at the dinner table and on the treadmill; they vibrate when we are about to board our flight or standing in queue at the supermarket. They wake us up and for some they put us to sleep.
Our identities have become inextricable from our work. What we do for gainful employ contributes to what defines us – which is part of the reason there is so much pressure to get it right. We want to feel pride when asked what we ‘do’, which is generally the first question asked when we meet someone new in our society. There is cache in answering with something that reflects our intelligence, uniqueness and empowerment.
We need to reframe how we talk about work
Using a term which alludes to a neat split between ‘work’ and ‘life’ is outdated. Pithy quotes like ‘work to live, don’t live to work’ are also unhelpful.
I’m alive every minute I spend working, and I want my life and my work to be meaningful. Having been through a burnout once, I definitely want to focus on a sense of balance in my life too – not a balance between work and life.
We need to view balance as being flexible – for me, expecting every day, week or year to look the same is fraught. Instead, I need to ensure that when a particular phase is heavy with one aspect of my life (whether it’s work, or family obligations, or – god forbid – personal admin), I still take care of myself in simple, quick ways. 5 minutes of meditation. A quick stretch. Leaving my phone alone for half an hour before bed. Focusing on good sleep. Being kind and polite to self and others.