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Why there's a growing backlash against the reality of a work-life balance

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Buddhist monks have a lunch next to a lake. Photo: REUTERS/Jorge Silva

We’re constantly told that achieving a good work-life balance is the key to happiness, but as we all know, it’s not easy.

For most of us, leading a healthy, fulfilled personal life and being completely on top of our game at work can be extremely difficult, or arguably, impossible.

Our energy isn’t finite and our ability to focus is a limited mental resource, so we have to divide our time wisely, depending on our circumstances and what we consider most important to us.

We’re only human, so if we’re struggling through a busy period at work, it’s only natural that other things – our social lives, for example – are going to fall by the wayside.

If you do manage to reach that perfect equilibrium of work and personal life, the effort of doing so may well takes its toll elsewhere, including on your health and mental wellbeing.

One of the reasons there is a growing backlash against the term “work-life balance” is down to the phrase itself, which suggests that work is something entirely separate from the rest of our lives. In reality, though, “work” and “life” aren’t mutually exclusive but intrinsically linked.

A survey of 250 high-achieving working mothers in 2014 suggested women’s wellbeing and their fulfilment at work are linked – and if they are unhappy at work and home, they will be less productive and less likely to fulfil their career potential.

Anna Rasmussen, who produced the Keeping Women In report, discovered that the concept of work-life balance was outdated, overly-simplistic and needed redefining.

“Work-life balance is a tired term. Our work and home lives are interconnected – each directly impacts the other,” she said at the study launch.

“As a mother to two small children I became increasingly frustrated with the task of balancing my work-life and my home-life. It felt like another job in itself. I was determined to make it work so I decided to replace the myth that is the work-life balance with the work-life ‘blend’, and my level of productivity at home rocketed.”

Others have criticised the terminology too, suggesting “balance” places too much pressure on reaching unattainable perfection when it comes to our work and personal lives.

On several occasions, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has said he prefers the term “work-life harmony.”

“I get asked about work-life balance all the time. And my view is, that’s a debilitating phrase because it implies there’s a strict trade-off,” he said an interview with Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner.

“And the reality is, if I am happy at home, I come into the office with tremendous energy. And if I am happy at work, I come home with tremendous energy. It actually is a circle; it’s not a balance.”

Others have suggested the term “work-life fit” as it allows more room to find what works for you. Work culture strategist Cali Yost told CNN she prefers the phrase because it helps people “see the possibilities, instead of focusing on what they can’t have.”

However, the problem remains that all of these options still separate work and life into two distinct categories with equal weighting.

Crucially, even those who love their jobs, feel fulfilled and turn up with renewed energy every day can suffer from overworking.

According to a Gallup study published earlier this year, organisations are facing a crisis when it comes to burnout. Of nearly 7,500 full-time employees, 23% reported feeling burnout at work, either very often or always. A further 44% reported feeling burnout sometimes.

It’s clear that we can’t perfectly divide our energy between work and the rest of our lives. Quite simply, we can’t have it all, all the time. And trying to create this artificial balance only leads to internalised pressure, which can take its toll on our health. So what is the answer?

Maybe ridding ourselves of the term work-life balance is the key. Maybe it is recognising that we aren’t perfect and that sometimes work gets in the way of life – or vice versa – because of factors that our out of our control. Most importantly, it’s about making small changes to improve the quality of our lives without the pressure of unrealistic expectations.

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