Work-Life Balance

The balance of work and life is something many of us are concerned about and struggle with. That is we are concerned about the amount of time (and attention) that work demands from us in our life. Though several tactics have been offered these tend to make the conflict between work and life tolerable they don’t dissolve the conflict.

So let’s give this—the whole idea of work and life being in balance—a bit more critical thought.

How did we come to this view?

Business management scholars define work-life balance in terms of the two needing to be in harmony. This implies the two must be blended into one. But if the one is life (i.e. the whole) and the other is work (i.e. the part) does this not mean that the part must harmonize or be congruous with and within the whole? Yet the remedies offered (e.g. telework, flextime, time management, exercise more) speak more to making peace between the two than creating harmony.

This balancing act view is a corollary to the neoclassical notion that the economic system is an independent separate and distinct system outside of and with no responsibility to society apart from the creation and accumulation of material wealth. Therefore work in this system, though necessary for meeting one’s basic human needs especially in industrialized society, is also outside of one’s life—hence the need for balancing work and life. It is becoming ever more evident, since technology has made it possible to tether people to the organization’s work, that work is overtaking life.

The need to put these in balance implies that work and life are either two distinct and separate things and/or that work and life are opposing activities. In the notion of work-life-balance it seems clear work is something other than life; that `it is outside of life and not an inherent part of life. As evidenced by the surface level tactics offered, generally there is very little regard that one’s life (apart from work) is critically important. The focus of most research is about the effect upon work performance that work-life balance could have—the focus is on the organization’s work not a person’s life.

Work has supplanted life

Most of us work a very long time—not because we want to but because we have to. Moreover we place more attention—if not all attention—on developing a career and very little attention toward developing one’s life. Some of us—the few fortunate ones—are able to save a portion of what we earn with the intent of using our savings as the means to support us retiring from work with the hope of enjoying life before we die. That is to say, most spend a lifetime working with very little enjoyment realized with the hope of having some measure of joy before it is over. Clearly we spend the vast majority of our time with work consuming life.

How could a part supersede the whole of which it is a part? Just as a cancerous cell overruns the body rendering the whole unhealthy and far less viable, work crowding out life does not lead to harmony in life; work being in life must not be placed above life. In spite of the fact that it is unhealthy we continue structuring and managing organizations and life as if work and life are separate and all too often opposing activities.

What sustains this way of life?

Our economic system establishes and furthers a material values orientation leading us to define the measure of life in society (i.e. success in life) in materialistic ways. Everything we do is externally and materially referenced. This orientation also places results above process. With societal culture support, we are encouraged to either supplant life by work or subsume living life into the concept of building a career, one that will result in greater material gain. This material and external referencing has even changed how we view and relate to learning. We are more focused on what education will get us than what can will do for us persons. We attend school not because learning is essential to our development as human beings but because it is a ticket we must have punched if we are to get on the career train to success (i.e. a high paying job).

Thus for many the objective in life is to build a successful career; we aren’t enabled if our goal is to develop our humanness. Developing our potential, becoming more of what we are, is a life-long process yet we deny it in favor of having a career. Consequently we become increasingly egoistic and alienated from life itself and less and less authentic, never quite getting to realize our very human potential.

An egoistic economic system and the time we spend in organizations makes all this possible. The profit-only-focus of business and its associated fear-based management practices facilitate a materialistic view and a competitive way of being by making the satisfaction of our basic human needs contingent upon us delivering (the organization’s) material results. Thus instead of people unfolding consistent with a (human) development orientation, people’s focus is constrained by a materialistic orientation and their time and efforts limited to satisfying their basic needs, conditional of course upon their performance. The rat race is not just metaphor! So we spend a lifetime developing a career only to find in the end we’ve neglected life itself. Life is all we have so it shouldn’t be put on hold for a career!

We aren’t born as little careers in need of construction; we are born as human beings in need of human development. The sooner we acknowledge this the sooner we will see the way to joy in life is by framing work to support our very development and not as an activity that takes us away from the joy in life. No amount of telework or flextime work will do it!

How could work enhance life?

The organizations we spend a large portion of our time working for need not be black holes within which life’s energy can’t spring forth. We shouldn’t have to choose between a career and realizing joy through life’s activities. People shouldn’t have to wait until they retire from work to realize the joy of living.

Human potential actualization is severely diminished in the neoclassical economic system because this system limits the focus of work to the pursuit of maximizing material gain and requires people to become externally and materially oriented. Consequently this system for humanly productive activity is far too narrow, limiting and constraining which inhibits rather than supports our development. In other words, human development requires a system that rests upon timeless inner human value (an enlivening vision), not things of outer value.

Of course economic activity involves the material world but it also involves the living world and therefore it circumscribes the rules of human action and interaction. Because the economic system provides the context within which the vast majority of people in society exercise their capabilities and because it defines success and how to achieve it, it therefore plays a significant role in the cultivation of human potential.

I am reminded of the ancient Chinese adage place a monkey in a cage and it is the same as a pig, not because it isn’t clever and quick, but because it has no place to freely exercise its capabilities. Even Max Weber with his notion of the iron cage cautioned us against organizations becoming a machine that limits our freedom in casting us as its cogs. It should be clear, organizations mustn’t be instruments for the exploitation of people and Nature for the purpose of maximizing material gain they must be human activity systems (living social systems) supporting both human development and human progress.

So what do we need to change for work to support our development through life, not oppose it? We don’t simply need leadership—which by the way is not a synonym for positional authority but an authentic expression of one’s personhood—we need business organizations with a different intent as well. What we as people need is to be engaged in humanly productive relationships with each other and our work. We need a work environment that supports actualizing the potential that we each present. We need to cease trying to control and begin enabling each other. We need to be facilitated in our development as human beings.

Quoting from The intent of business, “We must acknowledge that people seek to gain more from work—from exchanging their labor—than material gain. Human behavior cannot be explained by an algebraic equation; we are not machines nor are we simply highly intelligent trainable animals.” We aren’t merely units of behavior to be manipulated and controlled in service to the desires of an employer. The work we do must resonate deep within us—affording us meaning—and inspiring us to give expression to our potential thus realizing joy in the activity of work. No joy can come from doing meaningless work no matter the amount of money gained!

Since enacting fear restricts freedom and limits action, management practice must cease using fear-based methods that rely upon extrinsic factors to control behavior and promote a material values orientation. Instead those in authority must truly care to learn and practice care-based methods of management if joy is to be realized through work in life.

Care-based management seeks to foster intrinsic motivation using positive energy through the creation of an autonomy and relatedness supporting organizational environment. The intent then is not to control others but to promote and support self-initiation, collaboration, non-attachment and engagement. Research has shown these to positively influence self-esteem, learning and creativity—the very things we need to realize in life. Work-life integration not balance—making work meaningful—will be far more humanly productive than seeking to a balance between work and life could ever be.  

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