The Work-Life Balance Myth

The work-life balance discussion seems to be at a fever pitch these days. Here is what Psychology at Work had to say about it last year in a post you may have missed.

While we all sing the praises of work-life balance and look for it in our own careers, I am sorry to note that the United States of America doesn’t agree with us. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” reads the sign over the gates of Hell in Dante’s Inferno, and it might as well be plastered over the door at work, according to a recent decision by a U.S. district court judge. At least if you want to have a life. In EEOC vs. Bloomberg,  Judge Loretta Preska threw out a class-action suit by women at the financial services firm claiming that taking maternity leave was the equivalent of committing career suicide. It might be true, she found, but it wasn’t illegal. Her legal reasoning was sound, but what was dispiriting about the opinion is that she used her judicial platform to issue a Dante-like warning to those who dare speak of work-life balance:

“The law doesn’t mandate work-life balance …  much is expected of employees at work, but (you) have options.

In other words, you can quit. Choose between happiness and fulfillment, or a paycheck. I think there is a third way, to borrow a term.

I have never really liked the term “work-life” balance. It is a false construct, based upon the underlying premise that all of “life” is perfect and all of “work” is horrible. As we all know, nothing can be further from the truth. Life can be pretty tough at times and an engaging job can seem like an oasis. The key is for you to find that engaging job, one where your strengths and your challenges are aligned. That is where top performance and happiness reside. I know that sounds a lot easier than it is, but this is the third way – as long as you are going to have to work hard, you’d better love your job.

To understand the third way, one must understand the difference in work as a job or a calling. Amy Wrzesniewski is a professor at Yale who studies work patterns, and has identified what she calls “orientations,” or psychological motivations, toward work. They are three: Job (money),  career(advancement, power, prestige), and calling (meaning, purpose and fulfillment). Not surprisingly, individuals with a calling orientation tend to have higher life and job satisfaction and miss fewer days of work, she found in her research.

Why? When your job is a calling – and if you are lucky, you are in such a job now or remember when you were – time flies by. There are times you don’t want to go home. The best part of the “work-life” balance equation is the work.

Another way to think of it is through the concept of flow. Turn on any sporting event, particularly one which focuses on singularity of performance, and you will hear an announcer prattle on about so-and-so being in the “flow” of the game. Military pilots talk about being in flow when they are in tight formation, musicians in playing a favorite virtuoso piece, golfers when every putt is dropping.

Flow is a word used so commonly in our society that it might surprise you to know it was coined less than three decades ago by a Hungarian psychologist named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a slow-moving, Hemingway-esque man who is a giant in the social sciences. Csikszentmihalyi was the first to identify flow as a measurable psychological state. What exactly is flow? It is when a person is operating at his or her highest capacity, doing something at which they are good and they love. It’s when you are at work, working on a project that consumes you, and you can see and feel the results in your bones. At these times, there is alignment of ability and task, and the work becomes effortless and unconscious. Time flies by. Hard work becomes fun.

What are we to make of all of this? It is that you can’t have always have an expectation of a job that strikes a perfect balance between your work and home life. It is better to look for work that has meaning to you, work in which you can use your strengths, work that is personally fulfilling. You are going to have to work hard, no way around it. But there is no reason to “abandon all hope” at the office door if your job is a calling.