The Inaccessibility of Work-Life Balance is Failing Us All

Unplug after hours. Stop working nights and weekends. Schedule time every day to go for a walk or meditate. Learn to say no. I know that all of these things are “good,” the same way I know that eating vegetables is good. But the reality is I’m not living on vegetables alone. The best I can do some days is put vegetables on my pizza, y’all. These romanticized notions of a life where every day comes with the perfect blend of work, family, and personal time does not reflect reality. (Except perhaps in Sweden. I hear good things.)

Finding Balance Shouldn’t Require Two Weeks Notice

Our concept of work-life balance needs to be less salad-without-dressing and more veggie pizza. There are times that work is going to spill into the weekend. There are evenings that the phone’s unread email notification will not be ignored. There are days that you run from meeting to meeting without the chance for lunch (let alone a meditation break).

Imposing severe limits or passing laws to enforce balance doesn’t account for the reality of work today and sets people up for failure, and by virtue of that, sets the concept of work-life balance up for failure. If it feels like it is inaccessible or impossible, we will lose the will to try. Case in point: several of the most popular work-life balance stories end with burned out employees leaving their role (see: C-suite leadership at Google, MongoDB, and Uber).

No one said balance was easy. Americans’ vacation habits are the greatest indication of what a massive uphill climb work-life balance is. More than half of American workers don’t use all the vacation time they earn, amassing a staggering 658 million wasted days a year. That’s insane—particularly because it’s the lowest hanging fruit of the work-life balance tree. Vacation allows for the natural rhythms of work and doesn’t require the discipline of daily requirements, yet we still can’t do it.

I’m not advocating that working 80-hour weeks or regular late nights are a good practice, but I also realize that it is sometimes necessary. When those periods are over though, we need to give ourselves a real break. That might mean sitting on a beach somewhere or chaperoning the third-grade field trip; what’s important is that it’s quality time away from the office.


We All Have a Role to Play in Shaping Culture

It is time to be realists. Successful stories of work-life balance shouldn’t involve someone quitting. It should be about enabling success in the job you have. The company culture is important, but we all have a role to play in shaping that culture. You are in a position to find better balance right now—for yourself and, if you’re a manager, for your employees.

My advice for employees: don’t be afraid to ask for time off. The vacation request is an opportunity to reinforce the great work you’ve been doing lately—the very reason you need to take a break. Plus, our research shows that managers are supportive of vacation, even if they aren’t talking about it as much as they should be.

My advice for managers: do use vacation time for recognition. Has someone on your team been working particularly hard lately? Ask them if they have made any plans to take time off because you’ve noticed their contributions and want to make sure they are finding the balance they need to be successful in and out of the office.

Perhaps someday we’ll all find perfect balance in the day-to-day. But until then, let’s take a small step in the right direction…and order a veggie pizza.

March 20, 2017