Beyond the work-life balance illusion
It's a mess, but there are ways to thrive within it
On how we needed a global pandemic to realize that work and life can’t be balanced.
There’s no such thing as work/life balance. There never was.
For a simple reason: work is life. Not all of it, but definitely a significant component. In the same way that family is life, leisure is life, friendship is life and learning is life.
We invest in our jobs too much time to dismiss it as a side-effect of survival. We need to learn how to turn into a source of satisfaction, wisdom and personal development.
Moreover, the idea that work and life are separated is a damaging outlook on life. We can learn how to work better from what brings us happiness at home, and we can learn how to deal with personal challenges by the way we solve problems at work.
I think I had no clue what “being resilient” really means before I had children: I didn’t know what it means to be responsible for someone or something for the long term, and stick to that responsibility even when it can be challenging or even frustrating.
When I realized that it’s a challenge that I can deal with, I translated that insight to my everyday job: I learned not to get rid of annoying projects only because they were frustrating, but to care about their success enough to stick to them and overcome any eventual difficulty.
Getting used to walk that road continuously, moving from personal to professional and back, is the only healthy approach to some kind of work/life integration. The alternative is to always look at one at the expense of the other: working will always feel like a price to pay for being able to survive and have a good personal life; and the time spent with our families, friends and with ourselves will always feel like an obstacle to our professional success and realization. That won’t work in the long term.
The Covid19 lockdown took down the last divider between work and life.
We do both in the same space, and even the artificial divider of going to an office or meeting clients and colleagues in public places is gone. It might come back, but until then we’ll have to get used to integrate “work” and “life” while being in the same space.
Donald Super wrote about how we adopt during our lives different life roles, and on how we always wear more than one at a time: when we are 15 years old we depend on our parents, and the “Child” hat is very present; the “Student” hat is also a big part of our lives; the “Citizen” and “Worker” hats are in most cases minimal; and the “Parent” hat is in most cases non-existent.
Fast forward 20 years: at the age of 35 we are still wearing the “Child” hat, but in a whole different way — now it comes with responsibilities, we have to take care of our parents and we usually don’t depend on them anymore. The “Student” is in most cases very minimal, if existing at all; the “Worker” and “Citizen” hats are now much more present in how we perceive who we are, and the “Spouse” and “Parent” might have entered our lives heavily and changed dramatically our priorities.
But if previously we could be Students by going to school or college, Workers when we went to the office, Children when we visited our parents at their house, and Parents and Spouses in our own home — now we have to wear all the hats from our home. It’s not easy. It requires us to alternate the hats at a much more hectic pace: we can’t be Workers for eight hours and then go back to being Spouses until the end of the day.
We have to alternate two hours of online meetings, an hour of playing with the kids, 30 minutes of house chores, another 90 minutes of answering e-mails and reviewing documents, then again time with the family — and so on and so forth.
It can be overwhelming, frustrating, and when it works, highly satisfying.
Still, it strengthens and grows our capacity of integrating our professional and personal lives. And it obliges employers around the world to develop empathy towards their workers’ needs and personal challenges.
There are tactics that we can use to deal with the new routine more productively: we can design a corner of our home to become our office; we can schedule upfront different times during the day for work, family, me-time, etc; we can have regular check-ins with our boss and colleagues, and with our spouse and children to discuss how to work in a less stressful and more efficient way, given the situation.