Work-Life Balance and the Myth of Working Less

Posted on Posted in Words on Personal Effectiveness
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Last week, a friend of mine drew my attention to an article entitled, “The Cities with the Best Work Life Balance.” As your humble guide through the weird world of work-life balance, I like to vet these articles to determine if there’s anything you and I can learn from them. In this case, there’s definitely something for us to learn. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s what the authors intended.

Let’s Look at Some Data

The Cities with the Best Work Life Balance” was published on the blog of Expert Market, a UK-based marketplace for products and services that European companies might need — everything from telephone systems to telemarketing services, from software to Six Sigma training. According to the article, some folks at Expert Market gathered data from 71 “leading business cities” around the world to determine which had the best and worst work-life balance. I’ve put together the handy infographic below to help you digest their data.


Now, if you take my infographic at face value, you’d probably say that Paris has it best. After all, they show up at the top of the chart, right?

What’s Wrong With This Data?

But here’s the problem: the whole premise behind this data is terrifically flawed. The actual data in the chart is about average hours worked and number of paid days off. This assumes that work-life balance, then, is all about working less, which simply isn’t true — at least, not universally.

I’ve written frequently about the death of work-life balance, whether we should believe in work-life balance, and whether there might be some more helpful metaphors than “balance” for thinking about this challenge that so many of us face. We keep coming back to two fundamental principles that are overlooked in so many facile approaches to the topic:

  1. Work-life balance is a highly personal thing. What feels like balance to you might feel like unrepentant sloth to your neighbor, or it might feel like a workaholic frenzy to your spouse. More about this later.
  2. Balance is a highly flawed metaphor. Most of us aren’t really looking for balance. We’re not trying to work 12 hours a day and then not work 12 hours a day. Nor are most of us looking for a perfect 8-hour split among work, play, and sleep. There’s something more complex that we’re all seeking. More about this later too.

Why Working Less ≠ Work-Life Balance

The Expert Market article bases its definition of work-life balance on two things: hours worked and paid days off. In other words, a “balanced” life is one in which a person works as little as possible. There are several things wrong with this assumption, but let’s just tackle the three most relevant.

  • First, in the authors’ paradigm, “work” is something to be avoided, to be diminished, to be allowed to occupy as little of one’s time as possible. “Work,” in other words, for the authors of that article, is simply that part of our lives that we are forced to consign to others in exchange for money. This makes me weep into my delicious craft beer. While work certainly means this for some people, for others, work is that thing we are gleefully compelled to do. It is the reason we exist and the highest expression of our souls, and is thus, to be relished, revered, and repeated. We might even keep doing it when we’re retired. We might choose to do it for no money at all. As I said earlier, this is a highly personal thing.
  • Second, there is no balance in this equation. To the contrary, it would appear that the closer the “work” numbers gets to zero, the more “balance” we have. We’ve got news for these folks, haven’t we? A ratio of 0:100 is not balanced; it’s a landslide. An avalanche. And for most people I know, the flawed metaphor of “balance” is improved greatly when it’s recast as a verb. We are all, with the small and large choices we make throughout our days, work-life balancing. It is not a permanent vacation with nothing but free time. It is active. It is a practice. It is a discipline.
  • Third, the notion that work-life balance is about working as little as possible is a pernicious one. The clients and readers I know who are truly seeking work-life balance aren’t loafers. They aren’t trying to shirk responsibility. To the contrary, they are responsible, mindful, intentional individuals who want work to be an integral part of a meaningful, fun, and fulfilling life. When we allow work-life balance to be associated with working as little as possible, we provide fuel for those who minimize the struggle by making it all about entitlement, perks, and picnics.

What Is YOUR Work-Life Balance?

In the quest for work-life balance (or work-life integration or work-life alignment), it is important to be mindful of time. If we’re working all the time, something is probably out of whack. And if we’re not working much, there’s equal likelihood that something’s amiss.

But we can’t be seduced by easy metrics like hours worked or paid days off as indicators of our work-life health. We can’t be fooled by slick infographics like the one I made. Our lives — both working and non-working — are too rich, varied, and complex to be summarized by such simplistic figures. If you work 35 hours a week and I work 70, that doesn’t mean that your life is more balanced than mine.

You have your balance, and I have mine, and a key part of this whole struggle is allowing room for the whole breadth of possible definitions. If you simply accept my definition of work-life balance, the likelihood that you’ll ever truly feel balanced is greatly diminished. There’s just no path from here to there. Charting a path from where you are today to where I want to be tomorrow is like giving someone directions from Colorado to Biafra. It just doesn’t make sense because the destination and the starting point don’t even exist in the same time period.

So let’s agree that working less is not the universal path to work-life balance. Let’s agree, in fact, that there is no univeral path. Let’s simply agree to help one another along the journey.