There's No Such Thing as Work-Life Balance

Trying to separate your job and personal time completely just isn't worth the effort. A little overlap isn't can make you happier and more productive.

Written by Deborah Aarts

Depending on what you believe, Mohamed El-Erian is either a hero or a wuss. Earlier this year, the former CEO of PIMCO, a US$1.87-trillion investment company headquartered in California, resigned from his exceedingly lucrative job in order to be a better dad. As he explained in an essay in Worth magazine, his young daughter approached him with a list of 22 milestones in her life that he had missed because of work. “As much as I could rationalize it…my worklife balance had gotten way out of whack, and the imbalance was hurting my very special relationship with my daughter,” El-Erian wrote. So he quit—amid a torrent of think pieces either praising him for making the same career sacrifice millions of women have made for decades or criticizing him for not manning up and juggling both roles.

That episode closely followed PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi’s admission in an interview with The Atlantic‘s David Bradley that, “If you ask our daughters, I’m not sure they will say I’ve been a good mom.” In an age in which women in business are expected to be both Lean In leaders and Pinterest-perfect parents, the reaction to Nooyi’s comments was even more heated than the response to El-Erian. In daring to admit the consequences of their ambitious career choices, both El-Erian and Nooyi implicitly damned the most sacred concept of 21st-century business: “work-life balance.” Both cases point to the same problem. In the dialogue of modern enterprise, you can be an exceptional leader or you can be an exceptional parent, but you can’t be both simultaneously.

It’s a notion as maddening as it is patently unnecessary, and it’s based on the problematic premise that work and home lives must be compartmentalized— that you’re somehow less of a leader if you duck out early to watch a soccer game or less of a parent if you take a call from investors at the playground. Neither is true.

READ: The Truth About Work-Life Balance »

There was a time when work was work and home was home, and never the twain did meet. (Though the model wasn’t as entrenched or pervasive as Mad Men would have you believe; just ask any children of farmers or entrepreneurs.) Two developments have upended that. First, most families now have both parents working outside the home, meaning most want to (or feel pressured to) spend as much quality time with their kids as they can. Second, the nine-to-five world has gone the way of the fax machine, as work obligations are now a 24-7 concern. Neither trend is going to suddenly reverse itself.

So here’s the solution: Stop shooting for work-life balance, and instead aim for what’s becoming known as “work-life integration.” The idea of blending work and home commitments into a single, boundary-free life sounds, to many, like a recipe for unproductive distraction. But that suggests it’s impossible to effectively multi-task, which is hopelessly antiquated thinking in 2014. Most professionals are more than capable of prioritizing crucial obligations without ignoring the equally important, but perhaps less pressing, parts of their lives. And growing ranks find themselves more satisfied and less stressed when they opt to integrate—not segregate—their disparate duties.

READ: Why Your Should Tailor Your Business to Your Lifestyle »

Take Tracey Bochner, who runs Toronto agency Paradigm Public Relations. “The term €˜work-life balance’ suggests €˜and/or,’ which is really silly,” she said recently. “It suggests that your work is not part of your life, which is ridiculous. My work is a big part of my life, as is raising my son, as is riding my bike.”

Many of us find taking 20 minutes a day to do inbox triage while on vacation is far less stressful than unplugging altogether and then having to plow through mountains of e-mail when we return. The same principle applies to tapping out a quick work message in between cheering sessions at the T-ball game. While there are undoubtedly some times when it’s necessary— even vital—to focus solely on work or on family, letting the lines between the two blur in day-today life isn’t a marker of incompetence or neglect. Increasingly, it’s a sanity saver.

Deborah Aarts is a senior editor at PROFIT and Canadian Business. This column is from the December 2014 issue of Canadian Business.

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