Does Work-Life Balance Really Exist?

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I spent a good part of a recent weekend doing a final edit of an upcoming project management book. Ironically, one chapter referenced a 2004 Fast Company article called "Balance is Bunk!" ('Bunk' being a slang term that basically means 'absurd.')

There I was, giving up my well-earned leisure time on a beautiful fall day, but wanting and needing to get the job done. So I went to the article, which states:

"The truth is, balance is bunk. ... The quest for balance between work and life, as we've come to think of it, isn't just a losing proposition; it's a hurtful, destructive one."

Now we're really getting to the core of the dilemma, I thought to myself. The author then quotes John Wood, who at the time the article was written, had been working seven days a week, 365 days a year. In regard to the elusive, so-called state of "balance," Mr. Wood said:
"I don't look at balance as an ideal. What I look at is, Am I happy? If the answer is yes, then everything else is inconsequential."
That made a lot of sense, I thought. I love and am passionate about what I do. I want to get this book published and out the door -- but what's on the other side of this supposedly unachievable quest for balance?
Rodney Turner, PhD, recently made a presentation entitled  "Work-Life Balance in Project-Oriented Organizations." A preview states:
"Companies should treat their employees with respect and allow them to have a work-life balance. It is good for their physical and psychological health and therefore good for social sustainability. ... The need for profit and responding to client demands often takes precedence over employee wellbeing."

So is work-life balance bunk? I think the answer is both yes and no.
Sometimes when a project grabs us or is imposed on us, we have to say, "I surrender" -- either out of passion, guilt or intense pressure. I chose to give the book I was editing my all -- even when a "balanced" work-life scenario would have had me walking in the woods on that beautiful day. But I know it was worth it, and I know other beautiful days will come. I need to make sure I take advantage of them -- at least once in a while.

What do you think about the work-life balance challenge?
Posted by Judy Umlas on: October 21, 2010 02:12 PM | Permalink

Comments (10)

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Bob P.
Balance is what you make of it. I maintain a work/life balance, and it has never impacted my ability to progress in my career. I once had a boss who like to call 7:00 PM meetings. I told him I was not able to have meetings at 7, but was wiling to come in early to meet him. He said he has breakfast with his kids every day (and would stroll in the office at 10). I told him I have dinner with my wife so I can't do evenings. The meetings suddenly started during the day. A good project manager knows where and when to apply effort in a project, and working longer hours is no guarantee of success. In fact it is probably a guarantee that the person who lacks work/life balance is a poor time manager, and inefficient. The fact that you wanted to work all weekend on a book you are writing, not one your boss is telling you to write is proof that you have work/life balance. You chose to work, instead of having it imposed on you by someone else's idea of what is appropriate. No one on their death bed says 'I wish I'd spent more time working on my projects".

John Pitcher
The degree of Work-Life Balance ultimately is directly proportional to the executive management's commitment to it. If there is a conflict between a work need and a life need that results in escalation where executive management decides, their commitment is what's tested. Also, their attitude either emboldens or intimidates subordinates into following what the practice, not what they preach.

One other point. It is not healthy Work-Life Balance when any life need is chosen over a work need with the understanding the absence and work focus will somehow be 'paid back' later. Compensation time, flexible work schedules, etc. in return for work demands that intrude on life almost always get trumped by newly emerging work. But the expectation of 'pay-back' for some past deference to a life need is never trumped by emerging life requirements.

At least, this is my experience in a large company environment.

Brent Senette
The work life balance issue is a complex one and there's no simple solution for or remedy to the pressures we all feel in this day and age to "get the job done".

I think Mr. Wood comes closest to hitting the nail on the head with his comment relating to balance, per se, being inconsequential as long as one is "happy". Being "happy" would imply, I assume, that a given individual is doing gratifying work for which appropriate compensation is being given, and that the individual's family and other pursuits are somehow receiving the time and nurturing they require to grow those relationships and pursuits, too.

The balance / "happy" issue is one that ebbs and flows throughout a work career or lifetime and it is so very important for families and loved ones of those of us compelled to "push the envelope" of the 40 hour work week (!ha!) to be understanding and supportive of our efforts to feel worth by leaving our blood, sweat, and tears on the production floor or office cubicle. It's also incumbent on us, as individuals, to take advantage of the "ebb" and "flow" nature of our respective jobs (seems so much more "flow" than "ebb" in my world!) and, when there's some down time, that we commit to spending quality time with our wives and kids and church members and youth groups, etc.

The companies we work for also need to be flexible in allowing us to "decompress" during lulls in the storm and maybe take some afternoons or Fridays off during times of quiet, even if we don't have any comp time accrued or vacation saved, in recognition of the sacrifices made during those times of high "flow" and in support of the elusive balance (even though I don't ever see the scale being the balance defining point, but the "happy" criterion being the governing factor here).

Well, I've got to get back to work this fine Saturday morning culling thru emails to clean out my Inbox and making plans for the upcoming week. Even though it's Saturday and I work pretty darned long hours during the normal week (just like everyone else who comes to sites like these to see how the rest of the work world is doing), I gotta admit that, on "balance", I'm pretty darned "happy".

Vidal A. Castillo
Judy, I have read many articles about keeping balance to ensure health, and I agree that we need some time to rest by performing some other activities other than the daily "job" so we both do not overload our brains and we have time for reflex.

Nevertheless, I see that the problem is whether we are enjoying what we do or not.
If one is enjoying what we do either a job or being on holidays, then we will be happy, and in the end this is what we are all striving for. Balance is for me giving your self a break on what your overly doing, whether at work or at home.

What is balance for you?

Thanks for this wonderful article and the take on "being happy" about what you are doing.

The problem with happiness occurs when I would rather complete my work and feel happy about finishing it while my child wants me to play with him. So I play with him while my mind feels uneasy with the time getting lost.

Work-Life balance is not only about me being happy but my family too being happy with me. They will be unhappy if we always take support - mental, physical, emotional, time - from them and give nothing back.

So the question is are we in a position to give back when they need us? Our work will always demand all our time and energy due to a term called as "raising the bar of performance". :-) That is why we need to seek/ask for work-life balance from our organizations.

Atul Jadhav
Hi Judy, Good thought. If your plate size remains same and you keep adding more stuff on it, its going to spill. This is what happens on Work Life Balance. At one point its going to spill and affect either. With Due Regards Atul

Bernadette Bell
Work life balance is very critical, not just for us, but for our families. The more time spent at work the less time you'll need to spend at work.

I think in the grand scheme of things we have to look at what our work life does to our home life. Ultimately, the work will be there but your children grow up and become older people and your spouse changes and you can never get that time back regardless of what you do. I don't know that anything I do at work today is worth missing out on those moments.

I have made a personal commitment to myself and my employer and that is while I am at work, I will focus on work and when I leave to go home, I will focus on home when I get there. If it means working later so that I don't take work home, then I do that. But when I walk in my door, my undivided attention is given to my children and husband and I don't run to check email, voice mail or PDA device to see what is going on, while at work I don't call the sitter to ask so that I'm not tempted to leave and go get them and miss out on my deadlines at work.

I think although work demands a lot from us, each person has to decide what does work life balance look like for them. There's no clear formula for it, we have to create that balance for ourselves based on our circumstances.

Dmitri Ivanenko
I agree with Bob and will add that when you choose your actions they are yours, regardless of what you choose. When choosing to do activities that are aligned with what you are up to, it's not really just "work", it's something you are doing towards what matters to you. Balancing that act with various activities that focus around your commitments rather than working too much on the same activity does not give your brain enough rest, and usually your brain will tell you when that time is. Spending time with your kids or your significant other is something you will include in your agenda, but only if it's your true commitment, something you are truly interested in. If you are committed to doing something because that is what you want to do, you will find the time by making the time for it and claiming it out of your day or week. I tend to spend a lot of times on things that I really like doing, while there are other commitments that I made to others or myself. It takes me refocussing on what I committed to and refreshing it for myself as to why I committed to those things, what ultimate goal do those commitments associate with, in order for me to just jump into the action of getting those things done. And I do like the comment above on how we can often take the support from others but not always look for when it's needed from us. That type of action is about us looking at why we committed to have a family or be with someone if we don't make the sufficient time in our schedule to spend the time with them. And often we run on reactive basis, reacting to requests from those in our family, rather than proactively generating our experience with them.

Jim Shaffer, PMP
This is an interesting article and one that really has no right answer in my opinion. The "work-life-balance" is really subjective to each individual.

I loved the statement " 'Companies should treat their employees with respect and allow them to have a work-life balance.' " The key word here is "allow." Each project manager needs to balance their life according to the needs of themselves, their families, and then their work.

Are there times that a little extra has to be given for the success of the project? Absolutely, and I think there are few families out there who would have an issue with that.

David Hendrickson
I think Jim is on target:
Different people place their fulcrum at different places on the continuum; and that is where it balances for them.

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