The original work-life balance debate emerged as gender roles broke down and the number of women in work, particularly mothers, increased dramatically. The debate was driven by equal opportunities – women with established domestic duties suddenly had professional responsibilities as well.
The work-life balance has evolved – it’s now about self-actualisation. We need to be the best we can possibly be in our professional and private lives. To do so, we’re told, we must reject rigid structures and the ‘traditional’ way of doing things.
To achieve this, we’ve become obsessed with control. The tools that employers provide, such as bring your own device (BYOD) and flexible working, increase an employees’ control over the relationship between work and home. These tools blur the lines between their personal and professional lives, forcing staff to fight the brain’s natural tendency to organise and compartmentalise.
They don’t help balance the scales between work and life; they artificially create extra time by allowing us to do previously physically-restricted jobs in new locations. We’re gaining control, but it’s making things worse.
Control is not what we need. If we want people to have a better work-life balance, we need to strengthen the separation between work and home. We need to help workers more appropriately compartmentalise their responsibilities and give them the tools and resources to tackle their responsibilities in the most efficient way.
And we need to look at the wider societal issues that have constrained our ability to cope with the demands of personal and professional responsibilities. Baby boomers are being forced to work longer, and children are increasingly moving far away from their parents, eliminating free and committed childcare for many families.
Another problem is fast-paced technological change and globalisation; these create a culture that inherently values things like streamlining, consolidating and breaking down barriers. Boundaries are seen as incompatible with the world we want to live in.
Separately, society and employers needs to understand there’s a price to pay for economic productivity – if employees need to spend more time at work, they need support to make their home lives more efficient.
Ultimately we need to reconsider the best way for employees to be productive at work and happy at home. Merging the two until we can’t recognise one from the other is not a recipe for success.