What Does Work-Life Balance Even Mean?

Work-life balance has been a topic of intense discussion for decades. It’s no surprise, given the wide range of challenges faced by busy professionals. These challenges include:

  • Expectations of being “always on”
  • Time constraints caused by back-to-back meetings all day
  • The constant distractions of communication technology and open-office floor plans
  • The pervasiveness of work given our constant connectedness.

These challenges cause pressure, stress, and burnout.

Work-life balance can be the solution we are searching for, but only when we know what “work-life balance” actually means, and how to implement it.

To some, work-life balance means the convenience of being able to manage a personal life during the work day, without the hassle of having to get permission or explain our activities to others. Another common definition of work-life balance is “equal time or priority to personal and professional activities.” But both of these definitions have weaknesses that are preventing work-life balance from being the solution it should be.

It’s true that leaders can’t give their employees work-life balance. Each person has to decide for themselves whether they will take it. But a major consideration in their decision is how their work-life balance will affect their career and how they are perceived in the organization. And that means that leaders have a lot of influence over the decisions that employees make.

Instead of being a buzzword that is vague and open to interpretation, leaders need to provide for their team members a definition of work-life balance that is relevant to the current business environment. Then this clarity can serve as a guidepost to employers and employees alike. It can be useful in crafting policies, attracting and keeping talent, and, if adopted as a company value, can guide employee behavior at all levels of the organization.

Three Factors Critical to High-Quality Knowledge Work

Knowledge work depends on optimal brain function, and optimal brain function depends on physical and emotional well-being. We can’t get a fresh perspective from something we never step away from. Time away from work allows the opportunity to engage in activities that improve brain function, such as sleep, exercise, spiritual practices, and time with family and friends.

Time away from work also allows the opportunity to engage in activities that stimulate creativity—travel, dining, conversation, books, movies, hobbies.

Knowledge work is likely to improve when your physical well-being, emotional well-being, and creativity are optimized.

“Convenience” Is Not the Same As Balance

Some employees are more likely to say that their “work-life balance” improves when they can work from home. But in my experience, what this really means is that working from home makes managing one’s personal life easier and more convenient.

I wholeheartedly agree that it’s helpful, convenient, and easier when we can manage our personal lives without interference from work. For example, when our workplace is our home, we can walk the dog, work out, run a quick errand, throw in a load of laundry, prep dinner, go to a doctor’s appointment, and care for a sick family member, all while still doing varying amounts of “work” AND—the real benefit— while mostly keeping these behaviors hidden from others, so there is no need for explanations or permission.

Conversely, when we must report to an office for work, some of the personal activities listed above are impossible, and the rest require us to receive permission from, provide an explanation to, or balance the expectations of, other people. This freedom from permission/explanation/expectations is what makes working from home easier and more convenient. It allows us to fill small gaps in our work day with personal tasks and activities, so we can get more of those done. We might say that working from home allows us to be productive in our personal lives while working. And this is why many people like it—especially primary caregivers in a household.

Often, this benefit of freedom and convenience is referred to as a better “work-life balance.” But “balance” and “convenience” aren’t the same. Studies show that remote workers often work more hours than people who report to an office, taking their time away from other things. Also, remote work doesn’t alleviate the challenges described above of back-to-back meetings, always-on expectations, or constant distractions. So while remote work can offer convenience and freedom, this shouldn’t be mistaken for balance.

“Balance” Doesn’t Mean “Equal Time to Everything”

I also hear some people—especially entrepreneurs, business owners, and others who derive primary satisfaction from work—bristle at the term “work-life balance.” These people tend to fall into the category of “workaholics,” and often define work-life balance as the requirement that we give the same amount of time or priority to “working” vs. “not working.” But this “equal time” doesn’t sit well with those who want to work and say they “love” their work. Their work inspires them in ways that other parts of their lives don’t.

So this “equal time” positioning fails as a useful definition of work-life balance because it is too easily dismissed by the “workaholic” crowd— often, those who need it the most.

“Integration” and “Blending” Aren’t Helpful Alternatives

The combination of the freedom and convenience I described above and the “equal time requirement” is probably why the terms “work-life integration” and “work-life blending” were coined, and why they are often seen as more appealing alternatives to “work-life balance.” They more adequately describe the freedom and convenience, and more favorably position the allocation of time to work vs. non-work.

However, when I think of “work-life integration” and “work-life blending,” I’m more likely to imagine parents checking their email from the soccer field than I am to imagine the situations I described above. Integration and blending sound more to me like work intruding into all aspects of our personal time than the other way around.

Defining Work-Life Balance for Your Team

I have a specific definition of the term “work-life balance” that has been helpful for my clients to adopt, share with their employees, and use in making decisions about remote and hybrid work environments.

The definition of “work-life balance” I use with my clients is simple: don’t work too much. Wondering what’s “too much?” A variety of studies show that working more than 45 hours per week is detrimental to both physical and mental health. A 2014 study by John Pencavel of Stanford showed that productivity per hour declines around 50 hours per week, and working more than 55 hours is pointless. And a study by time management author Laura Vandercam showed that around 38 hours of work per week produces the happiest employees.

The Source of Creativity

When we do something often, we strengthen the neural pathways in our brain that are related to this activity. This is why practicing a skill makes us better at that skill. But knowledge work is less a skill than it is a way that we uniquely combine inputs—ideas, analysis, knowledge, data—into unique and coherent outputs. The more diverse the inputs, the more creative and unique the outputs. The more we do other things in addition to work — movies, television, books, travel, conversation, new sights, tastes, smells, experiences —the more new neural pathways we can create, and this is an important way of increasing creativity. Additionally, when our focus is narrow, creative changes are more likely to be incremental, based on what is already known—more like refining existing ideas. But divergent thinking based on a greater diversity of inputs causes more transformative thinking.

Since creativity is important to most knowledge work, and leaving sufficient time and energy for other things promotes creativity, it’s fair to say that sometimes the best thing we can do for our work, is not work!

Therefore, the definition of work-life balance I propose—limiting work to between 38-45 hours per week—allows a focus on the three components critical to optimal knowledge work: physical well-being, emotional well-being, and creativity. It also overcomes the failings of the other two definitions, because it makes clear that the location of work is not the primary problem, nor is the level of enjoyment one gets from work.

How to Change Behaviors to Promote Work-Life Balance

In our digital age, it’s all too easy to message employees outside of business hours,or even when they’re on vacation. And employees feel increasing pressure to respond to messages from the dinner table, the kids’ soccer game—even from bed in the middle of the night! These behaviors sound to me like “work-life integration,” illustrating why this isn’t a useful term. They create a downward spiral in your culture and promote burnout. But if “don’t work too much” is a company value, it provides context and alternatives to an “always on” environment. It even addresses the problem of distributed teams in global companies, where it’s always “business hours” somewhere.

All businesses have “crunch times,” and dedicated employees can be expected to extend their work hours to get the business through. But burnout often comes from too much pressure for too little reward, so “crunch time” can’t be “all the time.” Employees need the opportunity to cycle high-pressure, long-work -hour periods with periods of lighter schedules and fewer hours. In these times, the work hours can be averaged over a month instead of calculated in individual weeks.

So let’s adopt the definition of work-life balance simply as “not working too much,” realizing that engaging in any type of work activity, including emails and other work communication counts as “working.” If you’re a CEO, incorporate this into your company values. If you’re a leader, work with your team members to set expectations around how many hours they work per week. If you’re an individual contributor, use this definition to guide your work hours, and keep track, at least for a few weeks until you can get a view of how many hours you work, so that your decisions are evidence-based. While it may seem counterintuitive, there is ample research showing that your work will benefit, not suffer, from a reasonable work week of 38-45 hours.

Work-life balance, when defined this way, can not only be the solution to the negative consequences of work (pressure, stress, burnout), but it can also provide the key to unlocking creativity and innovation that will give your business, or your career, an advantage.

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