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Volume 13, Issue 3;   January 16, 2013: The Problem of Work Life Balance

The Problem of Work Life Balance

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Last updated: August 8, 2018

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

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

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