Why Work/Life Balance Isn’t Enough
For work/life balance policies to succeed, work culture must change.
For many millennials, work/life balance is the holy grail. More than ever before, people are willing to work hard in exchange for flexibility and personal time. The freedom to have a life outside the office is quickly becoming a bigger draw than promising a larger paycheck or an end-of-year bonus.
Employers have caught on. They know that their employees must be respected and valued in order to work their hardest, and many companies have experimented with different types of employee benefits in order to retain talent. But in a few crucial ways, work/life balance isn’t enough.
The reason that work/life balance can’t single-handedly guarantee a happy professional life is because it misses the point of what makes people unhappy at work. Work hours are not the biggest factor; workers can get stressed about any job, whether they work 30 hours a week or 60. The main cause of stress for many workers is rigidity. Knowing that your hours matter more than your results, and feeling guilty every time you’re 10 minutes late or take a longer lunch than expected, is what builds stress and kills motivation.
Take a look at this article from the New York Times, in which a sociologist found that offering perks to employees is very different from establishing those perks as standard practice. According to the article, flexibility policy that’s imposed by managers “holds too many people back from acting on the policy.”
Think of it in terms of social norms: even if you’re technically allowed to ask to work from home or to take extra time for maternity leave, you’re more likely to base your requests on what’s expected of you. If no one in the office asks to work from home, it hardly matters if the company allows it; you’re not going to ask either, because it’ll put a target on your back.
One way to combat this is to apply employee benefits across the board. If the company decides that working from home one day a week is good for employee motivation, it should announce to everyone that they’re permitted to do so, rather than having them ask their manager for permission first.
The article describes this new perspective as work/life “fit” rather than work/life balance. It’s difficult to strike a perfect balance between work and life, and extreme circumstances like having a baby or hitting crunch time in a project are guaranteed to throw the balance way off. At times, it feels futile to try to balance work and life. Instead, some companies are trying to offer their employees work/life fit, so that work and life don’t have to be these constantly competing forces. Work and life should be integrated.
As work/life fit becomes a more popular concept, it will be interesting to see what companies do to implement it. Right now, culture is a bigger impediment to flexibility than policy, so hopefully work culture changes as time goes by.