Work-life balance is like a teddy bear. It’s cute, cuddly and occasionally helps you sleep at night. However, if you woke up one random day and said “I want to see go see a real Teddy bear,” you can’t. Because, and I am sorry about this, it doesn’t really exist.
We slobber at the idea of work-life balance. It paints a serene picture: finish work – spend time with your family – suck the marrow out of life – cuddle your teddy bear and fall into blissed slumber.
Over time, work-life balance moved from a comfort to a necessity and to, now, a bargain. And all along, there’s been only one problem with the whole idea: it’s the wrong answer.
Instead of gradually getting rid of the crap, workplaces decided to double-down on the crap and instead reduce the amount of time people felt like crap.
And in case you are wondering, neatly wrap and sell crap has proven to be a successful business model.
Work-life balance is this huge carpet under which you can sweep away your existential meaninglessness and go home on time. You can come back tomorrow – dig up and sort out your broken soul – and continue feeling empty again.
But hey, it’s only for nine hours after which you get to frolic in the garden of life with your kids or read a book, which balances out the fact that you felt anesthetized and mummified inside an air cooler for nine hours.
This idea ruffles me because people say they are in a job only because it offers work-life balance. That’s like marrying someone only because he/she flushes the toilet.
And workplaces for their part have started marketing work-life balance like a teleshopping infomercial. People see messages like “Company X offers work-life balance,” and lose their beans. In their (the people’s) defense, work-life balance may be important because they are raising a kid or significantly enough, the work may be an important (or only) source of income for the family.
So they are ready to put up with nasty bosses, redundant work, and inane policies as long as it gives their child(ren) opportunities at a better life. Which makes the kid in me wonder:
“Where’s the life in this for you, moms and dads? And where does it stop? Because I am sure in a few years, I will be doing this for my kids (shit!) — and them for their kids and so on. The circle of life makes me nauseous!”
The problem with work-life balance is that it doesn’t do anything to add meaning to work or life. Because if it did, the whole idea of work-life balance would become redundant.
How often do you hear someone say, “my work/workplace makes me a better person ”? That’s a lot more profound and a lot less vague than most of the vision statements.
We all love to get out of work at a specific time every day. But, work-life balance cannot be cannot be about 9:00 to 6:00. It’s about how you feel when you are at work from 9:00 to 6:00.
If you spend nine hours of your day afraid a bear may show up any moment — rip your hands off your torso for not responding to emails faster and scream bazinga into your face — being told you can go back home on time to cuddle with your Teddy bear is a tad sadistic.
The circle of life is inherently sacrificial. But the sacrifice is not between work and life. It’s between who you are and who you can become. You don’t need balance to achieve that. You need meaning.
In order to give meaning, a good place to start is for workplaces to move on from generations of accumulated redundancies and insecurities. This is not a millennial problem as much as a medieval management make-up.
In the meantime, you for your part can look for ways to add meaning to the workplace and go home early: it will show you how hard finding meaning can be and it also gives you a chance to generally piss off people as they watch you leave early.
Have a good weekend amigo.