Why we need to get rid of the term ‘work life balance’

We need to move on from the term ‘work life balance’, says Jane Sparrow.

Reading time: 5m 30s.

I was recently coaching a board director at a large blue chip organisation who was just back from maternity leave and was facing some challenges.

She’d diligently worked on a life strategy to ‘do it all’, which on paper looked good but after just a few weeks back at work, she had started to feel incredibly strained while trying to manage her career, her young family and everything else that life entailed. ‘How am I going to achieve and maintain some kind of work-life balance’ she asked me, exasperated?

It brought to the forefront of my mind the issue I have always had with the term ‘work-life’ balance. Such a familiar plight to so many of us – working mums, working dads, those who care for others outside work, students working to fund further education, the list goes on. Yet, is the holy grail that is work-life balance even a feasible possibility or does the very notion of it simply set us up to fail?

The first problem is the very word, balance. As a verb, to balance is to ‘ensure an even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady’.

This seems to suggest that all work and life needs can be balanced and met simultaneously, which is totally unrealistic and feeds the guilt and failure that so many of us feel towards our varied responsibilities. Alternatively, to balance is ‘to offset or compare the value of one thing with another’.

In today’s always-on world, life can’t be made up of parts in isolation, nevermind on opposite sides, but rather, has to be managed as connected, integrated pieces

This is problematic again.

Of course it’s important to make sure we spend enough time with our children, and even more importantly, that they feel valued during that time. However, just because we may spend more time working one day than we do playing with our children, it doesn’t mean we value our children any less.

The next issue with work-life balance, is the fact that work, for all of us who do it, is simply part of our life.

Whether you have a 9 – 5 job that simply pays the bills or whether your work is a calling and plays a leading role in defining your existence, the idea that work can be something on the opposite side to the rest of your life seems absurd. In today’s always-on world, life can’t be made up of parts in isolation, nevermind on opposite sides, but rather, has to be managed as connected, integrated pieces of the same life pie.

So let’s imagine our own individual life pies. We’ve all got a range of pieces that may include our role as a parent, a grandparent, a friend, a sibling, a business director, a people manager, a volunteer, a carer – there’s many more that factor into people’s lives.

When we list them all out and then put them into a life pie (whatever flavour or presentation you like!), what’s important is not that we try to balance and meet the needs of all of those slices every day (although so many of us do and end up feeling like a failure). 

What’s important is that we are aware of the segments of our pie, the size of them (generally) and where we are perhaps neglecting or over servicing (impacting ourselves and others). On some days, one of those segments, for example, work, might need most of what you’ve got.

On a different day, you may be able to spread yourselves across more segments. It’s when we strive to ‘balance’ of all of these segments each day that we are undoubtedly setting ourselves up to fail – we need to think much more about successful life integration, rather than balance.

I did this exercise with a group recently and I had to remind every single one of them that one of those life pie segments should say ‘me.’ The role that you play for yourself to really make sure you are investing in yourself so that you can be the best you can be across all of those other segments in life.

Unsurprisingly for all of those in the room (and for many people reading this, no doubt) that segment was extremely small. Of course,  there was a dawning realisation that something needed to be done about that.

Here’s my top five tips to focus less on work-life balance and more on life itself: 

  1. Create your life pie, take the time to review it and consider what it tells you. Nothing is static in life with careers, family and life circumstances all changing all of the time so make this a regular practice. Is it the right shape for you right now?
  2. Make sure a slice of your pie says ‘Me’. Yes – you! This is the role that you play for yourself, to make sure you are investing in yourself to be the best you can be, so that you are able to deliver across all of the other slices. This slither is usually extremely small!
  3. Get comfortable at saying ‘no’. Be kind to yourself and those around you with the commitments you make, across all segments of your pie.
  4. Get comfortable at saying ‘help’! So many of us, especially us ‘do it all’ types (!) refrain from asking others for help with an inner narrative that tells us ‘I should be able to do all of this’. Life pies (and relationships) are so much better for making an ask.
  5. Forget the art of balance and accept that slices of our pie will always get more and less of you from day to day – it’s the overall picture that matters (and how successfully they integrate). It’s when we try and be everything to everyone all of the time that usually ends in no-one feeling happy.     

Work-life balance is outdated as a phrase. Let’s think more about life – life and what it gives us and how amazing it is, if we live it intentionally.

If we make sure we’re putting the right effort, into the right areas, at the right time, across all of our roles, instead of feeling over anxious and badly stressed because there’s too much on, we get back feeling in control of our lives and making sure we’re putting the effort in where it really counts.


About the author

Jane Sparrow is founder and director of The Culture Builders.


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