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

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

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

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!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenZFyAmziZbsGZsmLEner@ChaccABjTHjDOLnFeFDuoCanyon.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:

A bumper stickerEmail Happens
Email is a wonderful medium for some communications, and extremely dangerous for others. What are its limitations? How can we use email safely?
Bull Elk Antler Sparring for Dominance in their herdBelieve It or Else
When we use threats and intimidation to win debates or agreement, we lay a flimsy foundation for future action. Using fear may win the point, but little more.
Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site in Yonkers, New YorkGood Change, Bad Change: II
When we distinguish good change from bad, we often get it wrong: we favor things that would harm us, and shun things that would help. When we do get it wrong, we're sometimes misled by social factors.
The field of vision of a horseA Review of Performance Reviews: Blindsiding
Ever learn of a complaint about you for the first time at your performance review? If so, you were blindsided. Reviews can be painful. Here are some guidelines for making them a little fairer.
The FBI wanted poster for Evgeniy Mikhailovich Bogachev, a Russian cyber criminalToxic Conflict in Teams: Attacks
In toxic conflict, people try to resolve their differences by eliminating each other's ability to provide opposition. In the early stages of toxic conflict, the attacks often escape notice. Here's a catalog of covert attack tactics.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Office equipment — or is it office toys?Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
Tim Murphy, official photo for the 112th CongressAnd on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenMYqxVNKRsMfyEEZCner@ChacnsDeoYYFehEXuualoCanyon.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 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.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post 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.