What exactly is work life balance anyway?

Every time I read about or hear someone talk about work life balance, I get a scary mental image of myself standing in front of scales similar to the ones Lady Justice holds that require equal weights on either side for the scales to balance, waiting to be judged.  Is your life balanced?  Let me see . . . how many hours on each side?  Too many on the work side?  You fail the work life balance test!  You are therefore doomed to the purgatory of an imbalanced (therefore unhappy and unfulfilled) life.

In addition to the image being intimidating, research we’ve done at CCL about how many hours people are actually connected with work every day suggests that the “balance” metaphor isn’t a particularly constructive way to think about it.

Let’s do the math.  Assuming we sleep 7.5 hours a day (the approximate amount recommended by scientists to manage stress and health effectively), for the scales to be “balanced” we would need to split the remaining time: 8.25 hours for work and 8.25 hours for life every workday (it isn’t clear where commuting fits in).

But we have research that shows that executives, managers, and professionals (EMPs) routinely spend substantially more than 8.25 hours involved in work every workday (see white paper Always On, Never Done?  Don’t Blame the Smartphone). In a survey of 483 EMPs, we found that 60% of those who carry smart­phones for work are connected to work 13.5 or more hours a day five days a week, and spend about five hours on weekends scanning emails, for a total of about 72 hours a week connected to work.  If someone is connected to work 13.5 hours a day, and sleeps about 7.5 hours a night, that leaves 3 hours a day Monday-Friday for the awake “life” part of work life balance. That is 5.25 hours less per workday than would be needed for balance, for a total deficit of 26.25 hours every work week.

Some might point out that this doesn’t include weekends, which is true.  So, let’s do that calculation. If there are 168 hours in a week, and someone spends 52.5 hours sleeping, that leaves them 115.5 hours a week to do other things.  If they spend 72 of those hours connected with work they still only have 43.5 total hours per week to do with as they will.  Better, but still not balanced, if we think about balance as equal hours.

Thanks in part to the smartphone, the line between work and other aspects of life has all but eroded for many EMPs. They are almost always “reachable.”  So I think the phrase “work life balance” presents a false (and unhelpful) dichotomy.  I will always fail if I think of work life balance as balancing a scale with equal numbers of hours doing work and life.

So I’ve decided to think about work life balance differently.

Instead I think about whether I can do (most of) the things that are important to me, and thus have a happy life.  Being able to do the things I want to do isn’t just about hours; it is about whether I have the energy to do them.  I spend far more hours connected with work than I do not connected with work. However most of the time I have enough energy to do the things that are important to me, even if sunset makes it difficult to finish my gardening, or an early call eliminates my morning exercise.

In his book Give and Take, Adam Grant explains how people can maintain or increase energy.  In it he describes research which shows that people have more energy to give when they are doing things they think have a real impact on something that is important to them (whether volunteering, or work, or other activities). That’s true even when they are working long hours. It is certainly true in my case.  On days when I feel I am doing something that has a positive impact I am much more energized both at work and at home than I am on those days when I’m doing something that I feel has no impact at all – regardless of the actual number of hours I’ve spent doing it.

So, I’ve stopped thinking about work life balance as equalizing the number of hours I spend doing my job and/or away from my job. Instead, I’m thinking about it in terms of feeling energized by what I’m doing in all parts of my life. This allows me to channel that energy into taking care of what is important to me – both at work and outside of work.

How do you think about work life balance?


About Jennifer Deal

Jennifer Deal is a senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL©) in San Diego, California, and an Affiliated Research Scientist at the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California. Her work focuses on global leadership and generational differences. She is the manager of CCL's World Leadership Survey and the Emerging Leaders research project. In 2002 Jennifer Deal co-authored Success for the New Global Manager (Jossey-Bass/Wiley Publishers), and has published articles on generational issues, the strategic use of information in negotiation, executive selection, cultural adaptability, global management, and women in management. Her second book Retiring the Generation Gap (Jossey-Bass/Wiley Publishers) was published in 2007. An internationally recognized expert on generational differences, she has spoken on the topic on six continents (North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia). She holds a B.A. from Haverford College and a Ph.D. in industrial/organizational psychology with a specialty in political psychology from The Ohio State University.
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12 Responses to What exactly is work life balance anyway?

  1. Give and Take is definitely the standpoint to take toward work-life balance. Call it integration or whatever you like – we’re consuming information and communicating with work everywhere now. You’re more accessible than ever before no matter where you are in the world. If the rest of life is going to flex for work, work can flex a bit for life.

    • A good point. It is amazing how accessible we are to people, almost everywhere, and almost all the time. The question I have been asking people recently is whether they feel (overall) that work flexes for life as much as life flexes for work.

  2. avatar Val says:

    Great article Jen!

  3. avatar Rich says:

    Recently someone said, “If we talk about working from home should we not also talk about homing from work?” The line is blurring, now how are we going to respond to it? Is this a problem or an opportunity?

  4. My approach to balanced living is not about balance at all. It is about alignment. In my coaching work, many of my clients express frustration over perceived pressure to balance their time, as suggested in this article. However, I counsel them to ignore that and instead seek to align all of their life activities around their personal values. The reason that aligned living is more effective than balanced living is that balance does not address the ultimate issues of “why?” Aligned living, on the other hand, is an approach that helps you integrate various responsibilities of life around a core set of values. You can read more about this approach in my article The Fallacy of Balanced Living.

  5. It’s perfectly normal feel as if work/life balance is nearly impossible, especially if you’re trying to equalize your work hours and “life” hours. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when looking for a more flexible work arrangement, as finding work/life balance is an individual process. It’s important to celebrate the work/life successes we achieve along the way and then continuously evolve to find the right mix for each stage of life. Feel empowered to uncover what keeps YOU balanced, whether it be working from home one day a week or cutting back your hours to accommodate your family. -Allison O’Kelly, founder/CEO Mom Corps (www.momcorps.com)

  6. avatar TC says:

    Jennifer, thanks for reinforcing my thinking on this. I just finished debriefing the WorkLife Indicator to 22 talents in Asia. The reframing of relationship between work and life and the ability to manage the boundary certainly got many of them reflecting.

  7. avatar Susanna Statton says:

    The trick I guess is to find something you love to do so much and earn your living from it. Work/life balance is only worth talking about when you do something you hate or is totally stressful in some way. Presumably if people have chosen to take on executive level roles they love what they do, so it doesn’t affect them that they work longer hours as long as it doesn’t impact on family life. I guess the work/life split starts in school when teachers start to tell us that one activity is work and has a value and the other is play and has less value. The younger generation is throwing this off with an insistence on play and work merging into one with a focus on achievement rather than a calculation of hours.

  8. Pingback: Work-Life Unbalanced? Try Work-Life Harmony | Leading Effectively: Official Blog of the Center for Creative Leadership

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