Is “Work-Life Balance” Doomed?

There have been plenty of heated conversations sparked by the recent publication of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, which takes a look at how women’s career progress has stalled and offers suggestions for helping women take charge of their careers.

work life balance

Work-life balance seems to loom large in the mind of many, and often is used as a euphemism for flexible work arrangements like telecommuting or staggered work hours. The winners in lists such as “Best and Brightest Companies to Work For,” “Best Companies for Working Moms,” and Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” are consistently lauded for flexible workplace arrangements that help employees balance personal and professional commitments. But what if the whole idea is wrong?

Are flexible arrangements available or offered equally to men and women? To parents vs. non-parents? Or is the idea of work-life balance inherently discriminatory?

Work-life balance is a priority for many employees, and a recent survey by Accenture indicates that more than half of respondents turned down a job due to concern about this balance. In a recent USA Today article, a workplace survey showed that “nearly 75% of people believe that flexibility is possible only if their employer and/or boss provide it.” Is work-life balance something that you have control over? Or does it depend on your employer, leading job seekers to hold out hope that there is some kind of “perfect” job out there?

Technology is a huge driver in our ability to get work done outside of regular business hours, but respondents in the Accenture survey also felt that technology makes it harder to “turn off” work. Many reported checking email and doing other work during paid time off. In the 24/7/365 world, is it actually possible to disconnect from work? Or does technology keep us tethered regardless of our desire for balance?

If we put work and life on opposite sides of scale in a zero-sum game, it looks like work will always lose out. But the statistics about work-related stress and its significant health consequences would seem to contradict that.  Is it realistic to think that we can fit in all the things we want in our lifetimes? Is it an employer’s obligation to care about these things, or are we on our own?

The conversation around work-life balance began in earnest in the 1980s, when women started to enter the workforce in larger numbers. As the Boomers start retiring in larger numbers, GenX is caught between aging parents and growing children, and the Millenials enter the workforce in larger numbers, the conversation about the tensions between work and life will continue to evolve.

Sandberg’s world seems to be limited to degreed, career-oriented, corporate achievers – but this conversation matters to everyone. What do you think? Is the idea of work-life balance doomed? And if so, how to we reframe the conversation so that we all are headed in the direction of the lives we truly wish to lead?

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