Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 13, Issue 3;   January 16, 2013:

The Problem of Work Life Balance

by

When we consider the problem of work life balance, we're at a disadvantage from the start. The term itself is part of the problem.
A tensile failure of a bottom chord in a covered bridge

A tensile failure of a bottom chord in a covered bridge. For many of us, the word balance brings to mind a pan balance. We put so much "work" in one pan, and we balance it with so much "life" in the other pan. Pan balances, such as the one held by Lady Justice, suspend the two pans from a cross beam. That beam, like all beams, must bear the total weight of both pans and their contents. And that beam, like all beams, will break if the weight it must bear is heavy enough. Balance is thus not the only matter of concern. Photo courtesy the Federal Highway Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

For about twenty years, the problem of "work life balance" has been very fashionable. Briefly, some of us at times are so seduced by work that our personal lives suffer. We devote too much of ourselves to work and working, and too little to building and maintaining relationships with friends, loved ones, and ourselves.

Although I agree generally with the goal of the "work life balance" movement, I'm uncomfortable with the subtle message we send ourselves when we use the metaphor "work life balance."

Word choices can convey subtle messages that can distort our view of the world. Consider, for example, the word mother as a verb. In U.S. English, when we think of mothering, most of us think first of looking after, caring for, protecting, or nurturing. Mothering connotes an ongoing process that is fundamental to the relationship between a female and her offspring, or her adopted offspring. More rarely, mothering can denote the process of giving birth.

Now consider the word fathering. To most of us, what comes to mind first is begetting offspring, or creating, founding, or establishing something. Fathering usually connotes an act of procreation or creation. More rarely, fathering connotes the process of acting as a father to somebody, by providing, protecting, or giving advice.

Both mothering and fathering can connote acts of creation or relationship. But in their usage these two words couldn't be more different. Those who seek to change the family roles of mother and father must contend with the subtle messages conveyed by our language. It isn't a small problem.

So it is with the term "Work Life Balance," which carries with it two very serious problems.

Work and Life are inseparable
Contrary to fact, the term presumes that Work and Life are separable. They are not. We might not like the work we do, and we might be planning a change, but whatever the Work, it's part of Life.
Seeing our work as Contrary to fact, the term
Work Life Balance presumes
that Work and Life
are separable
part of our lives is essential if we want to make conscious choices about how we live our lives.
Balance implies an impossible metric
Balancing two things requires a one-dimensional metric by which we measure them both. But there's no such metric for "work" and "life," even if we concede that they're separable (which they are not — see above). Measuring them in hours or even waking hours won't do, because the quality of time spent with loved ones can be more important than the quantity.
We cannot measure Work or Life. Instead, focus on what matters most: the health of relationships with loved ones. If those relationships aren't right, what else matters?

Even if Work and Life were separable, and even if we could find a way to "balance" them, the question of total load remains. Any beam, if overloaded, even in a balanced way, will fracture. The Work Life Balance metaphor says nothing about that. Go to top Top  Next issue: Preventing Spontaneous Collapse of Agreements  Next Issue

Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunLove the work but not the job? Bad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? This ebook looks at what we can do to get more out of life at work. It helps you get moving again! Read Go For It! Sometimes It's Easier If You Run, filled with tips and techniques for putting zing into your work life. Order Now!

For more about metaphors, see "Metaphors and Their Abuses."

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenGBFYqdeDxZESDSsjner@ChacmtFQZGrwOdySPdSsoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Emotions at Work:

Hard at WorkThe Tweaking CC
When did you last receive an email message with a "tweaking CC"? Probably yesterday. A tweaking CC is usually a CC to your boss or possibly the entire known universe, designed to create pressure by exposing embarrassing information.
The unappreciative bossThe Unappreciative Boss
Do you work for a boss who doesn't appreciate you? Do you feel ignored or excessively criticized? If you do, life can be a misery, if you make it so. Or you can work around it. It's up to you to choose.
A brainWhen You Can't Even Think About It
Some problems are so difficult or scary that we can't even think about how to face them. Until we can think, action is not a good idea. How can we engage our brains for the really scary problems?
Computer-generated image of the third stage ignition for Mars Climate OrbiterConfirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part II
We continue our exploration of confirmation bias. In this Part II, we explore its effects in management processes.
Many different viewpoints make for many different choicesOn Differences and Disagreements
When we disagree, it helps to remember that our differences often seem more marked than they really are. Here are some hints for finding a path back to agreement.

See also Emotions at Work and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A possibly difficult choiceComing April 21: Choice-Supportive Bias
Choice-supportive bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to evaluate our past choices as more fitting than they actually were. The erroneous judgments it produces can be especially costly to organizations interested in improving decision processes. Available here and by RSS on April 21.
Two people engaged in pair collaborationAnd on April 28: The Self-Explanation Effect
In the learning context, self-explanation is the act of explaining to oneself what one is learning. Self-explanation has been shown to increase the rate of acquiring mastery. The mystery is why we don't structure knowledge work to exploit this phenomenon. Available here and by RSS on April 28.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenGBFYqdeDxZESDSsjner@ChacmtFQZGrwOdySPdSsoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.