Should Work-Life Integration Replace Work-Life Balance?
People have a love for fads, whether it was the Hula Hoop in the late fifties, the big hair bands of the 80s, or the moon shoes of the nineties. When it comes to workplace issues, we become enthralled with new ideas which often get blindly adopted without first thinking through the implications. Work-life balance has been one hot topic that’s been talked about ad nauseam for the past few decades. Indeed, the concept was conceived in Great Britain in the late seventies, but didn’t find its way into Canada and the US until the mid-eighties.
Your correspondent became a follower of the work-life balance concept many years ago as part of leadership development and change management work. A few years before retiring from the Government of Canada, I was a member of an interdepartmental advisory committee on work-life balance. In addition to public servants on the committee, some other members included academia and not-for-profit organizations.
As we proceeded through a series of meetings, supplemented by analytical studies on the scope of the problem of work-life imbalance in different sectors of the Canadian economy, I began to realize that this was a case of the converted talking to the converted. What became glaringly clear to me over time was that despite all the hype being espoused by senior management about the importance of work-life balance, the reality was that it was all talk.
What is valued in the Government of Canada, as typically with provincial governments, is serving upwards, namely, the deputy minister and minister via senior management. The situation is undoubtedly no different in the United States, Australia or Great Britain. The senior management mantra that citizens are the core focus of government is a feeble attempt to deflect public servants from what they know is the truth: serve upwards and you’ll stay out of trouble and get promoted.
However, as our advisory committee discussed, sometimes quite animatedly, the reality in government is not work-life balance but rather working long hours which encroaches into the personal and family lives for those who wish to advance and be offered stimulating assignments. In other words, what’s actually valued by senior management is not the pursuit of balancing work with personal life, but a slavish devotion to the organization.
Some companies have tried to address work-life balance for their employees, such as shutting off email servers after work or limiting the use of mobile devices. However, what we’ve seen over the past two decades, and increasingly so, is the impact information technology is having on people’s lives. Many of the well-known technology firms recruit very bright young university grads with the lure of such features as teleworking, game rooms in the workplace and free cafeteria (or subsidized) food and gourmet coffee stations. Work is your second home–scratch that, work IS your home. Now, in 2020, overlay this with the Covid-19 inspired pandemic.
What such arrangements do to a degree is divert the employee’s head space into that of the employer’s needs. Employees spend more time at the office, and when away from the workplace they’re tethered by mobile devices and technology setups at home. Now, this is not all bad. Some of the positives of these types of arrangements are helpful to employees raising young children or those who must commute long distances to work.
The notion of work-life balance in today’s workplace, whether in the public or private sectors, is outdated. As a Dilbert cartoon puts it when the boss is speaking to Dilbert: “We’re no longer using the term work-life balance because it implies that your life is important.” Cynicism has become so embedded in the failed adoption of this concept that a new perspective is needed.
Perhaps, then, a better way to look at the challenge of determining how to best address the demands of work and those of outside of work is to frame it as work-life integration. However, before we get too excited and carried away with a new fad, and before your correspondent gets admonished for being sucked into a new management void, let’s step back and turn to someone who understood the importance of centring one’s life by identifying priorities and letting go of the unimportant.
Meet Stephen Covey, who unfortunately died in a cycling accident in July 2012. Covey wrote and spoke on leadership and learning over several decades. One of his best known books is The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Let’s look at one particular aspect of his work in the context of the 7 Habits: the four quadrants. (If you’re not familiar with the 7 Habits, take a moment to review them here.)
With Covey’s perspective and unique way of framing how we approach work and life’s challenges by identifying what’s important and not important, and what’s urgent and not urgent, the issue therefore is for each of us to determine where we wish to be. One person’s bad stress is another’s good stress. Introverts function differently from extroverts, in that one key distinction is that the former require down-time to recharge their personal batteries and to reflect. That was one of the key points of disagreement on the work-life balance advisory committee: determining work-life balance is a very personal decision. What may appear as an untenable working arrangement by one employee may be warmly welcomed by another.
Covey’s important work transcends workplace-organizational fads. Sometimes a framework, such as Covey’s four quadrants and his 7 habits, can help us achieve clarity in our personal lives, and in the long-term effectively address the continuous events that confront each of us. This brings us back to the title of this post: is it about work-life integration, or something bigger?
Take a moment to share your thoughts and suggestions.
The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities. – Stephen Covey