Recently, I received a question from a contact on LinkedIn. She asked me whether I thought work-life balance was dead. My answer: I hope so!
To be clear, I’m not advocating that you should give up your quest to have a fulfilling career and a thriving personal life, and I am definitely not saying that you have to give up one to have the other. I also acknowledge that we have a work-life problem, but I’m arguing that the concept of balance has never been helpful, because it’s too limiting.
You see, our language makes a difference, and how we refer to things matters because it affects our thinking and therefore our actions. My son is learning about linguistic determinism in school. (Yes, it sounds fancy, and it is.) The idea is that that the words we use shapes how we think. Inuit people have 50 different words for snow, and the Sami, who live in Norway, Sweden, and northern Finland have 1,000 different words for reindeer. Their needs to know, survive, and understand the environment shapes their language. The way they speak and express ideas affect their thinking and actions.
You might be wondering, what’s wrong with the word “balance”? And what are these alternatives that supposedly help us frame the work-life problem better? Here are three compelling reasons.
1. Work-life balance artificially separates work and life
At the minimum, most of us work because we want to be able to support ourselves, our families, and the people around us. In the ideal world, we’re all doing work that we’re proud of and that provides meaning and purpose to us. But even if your job doesn’t give you shivers of joy with each new day, working is a part of what each of us does and the contribution we make to society.
When you separate work and life, it’s a little bit harder to make that connection. But when you think of work as part of a full life and a holistic experience, it becomes easier to see that success in one aspect often supports another.
2. Work-life balance suggests a precariousness that isn’t helpful
Losing your balance and falling isn’t pleasant. A goal to balance suggests that things are hanging in the balance–or could quickly get off balance, and that causes terrible outcomes.
It’s more constructive to think of solutions that continue to evolve over shifts in life and work. Rather than falling or failing, you may have good days or better days or not-so-good days. These variations are normal, and it’s more useful to think of life as an always evolving and changing from day-to-day or year-to-year, rather than a high-risk enterprise where things could go wrong with one misstep.
The thing is, most days probably won’t look like an equilibrium. You might have to stay late at work and grab dinner on the way home one day or skip your work retreat this year because it coincides with your parents being in town. And there is nothing wrong with either of those choices.
3. Work-life balance doesn’t allow us to think big enough
Lastly, I think that everyone deserves more than just balance. Balance is a limiting concept, and if we set the bar too low, we won’t demand enough of ourselves, our leaders, and our companies. Right now, too many companies are still operating in an either/or mentality (though thankfully, it’s starting to change). That’s why there are still workplaces that penalizes parents who choose to take parental leave or assume that employees who don’t put in as much “face time” aren’t committed to their jobs.
I always like the mantra that “you can have it all, just not all at once.” There are seasons of life where you’ll have less time for yourself and will devote more to school or family or work. This is part of the normal ebb and flow of life. When you think big and expect that you can have a positive experience with all that work and life have to offer, you’ll be more likely to make that happen.
How we talk to ourselves matters, and how we talk about issues makes a difference. This is a linguistic determinism. Let’s bury “work-life balance” and think bigger and better about work-life fulfillment to do a little less balancing and a lot more living.
Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCRw, is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, working for Steelcase. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the correct terminology in reference to “Inuit people.” We apologize for the oversight.