Is there such a thing as ‘work/life balance’?

November 11, 2009

I have been thinking a lot about the term ‘work/life balance’ recently, its use, connotations and definition. I believe overall there are some fundamental flaws with the concept, and that a more inclusive and positive term would be better suited.

It’s hard to think positive thoughts when the term work/life balance seems to imply that work and life are two distinctly separate things – as though work is not a part of life (something that may play on your mind if you’re spending 40 hours+ per week at work). There seems to be the entrenched belief that individuals do not really own or enjoy the time they spend at work, with the majority working for an employer, reporting into someone else calling the shots.

Surely it’s healthier to develop more positive connotations toward work by first accepting that individuals have the power to make decisions about life and that it is up to each to make choices consistent with their values, so that they are working in a profession, industry and organisation that is most closely aligned to theirs.

The term work/life balance also implies that a balance can exist between the two various aspects of an individual’s life – ‘work’ and ‘life’. Practically, I think managing work(life), and life (outside of work) is more like a juggling act, and that a balance simply can’t exist given time constraints.

Think of it this way:

  • There are 168 hours in a full week
  • A full-time employee is employed to work work 38-40 hours of the week
  • A typical Australian full-time employee works 5 hours+ of overtime per week (Go Home On Time Day, 2009)
  • If you commute to work, chances are you spend 1-2 hours per day travelling to/from home to work – that’s 10 hours total per week
  • The doctors of the world recommend you should get 56 hours of shut-eye per week

Total this all up, and you’re left with roughly 55 hours (or 32% of the full week) for personal life. Doesn’t sound like much of a balance now, does it? On top of this, Aussies work the longest hours in the developed world with 1 in 4 Australian full-time employees accruing 5+ weeks of annual leave (Tourism Australia, 2009).

Following the results of their research findings (PDF file – definitely worth a read), Tourism Australia recently launched the No Leave, No Life campaign with the tagline, ‘Win the work/life battle’. Though the tagline is in the same vein as ‘work/life balance’, I do support what they are trying to do. It’s so important to squeeze in some downtime to relax, clear your mind and enjoy some time away from work to help preserve your mental health and spend time with family and friends (and if you take Tourism Australia’s word, it also gives you the perfect opportunity to organise a domestic holiday – ka-ching!).

Tourism Australia have also put together a good range of planning resources for employees and employers alike to help make the lead up to a work break more organised and less stressful.

Another organisation, The Australia Institute, are also running an initiative aimed at getting Australians to think about how much time they spend at work with their ‘Go Home on Time Day’ because:

Overwork can have negative consequences for your physical and mental health, your relationships with loved ones and your sense of what is important in life.

The idea is to encourage Australians to leave work on time on the 25th of November, and to increase awareness of the nature of overtime and long work hours in Australia, and to highlight the “important industrial, health and social consequences it often has”. The website encourages you to sign up to go home on time – all it takes is a few simple details – easy! Once you sign up, you’re sent a custom Leave Pass to serve as a reminder of your commitment, and a polite email reminding you to keep the date in mind.

Go Home on Time Day - Leave Pass

So, what do you think? What does the term work/life balance mean to you? Do you think a true balance can exist? How do you juggle your personal, after hours life with your professional, work life? Can the two co-exist?