Work-Life Blending: Does It Work?
In the 1980s, knowledge workers, globalization, and computer networking went mainstream. The more connected workers felt to the office, the more pressure they felt to “get ahead” by staying on the clock for extended periods of time. With only twenty-four hours in a day, something had to give. That something usually involved personal health, relationships, spirituality, hobbies and leisure—anything beyond work.
Today, the so-called “boundaryless workplace” has become exponentially worse. We check email first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Our professional inboxes and to-do lists alert us wherever we go, often intruding on our free time. Leading corporate perks even include in-office dry cleaning, fitness centers, and three gourmet meals a day, which tempt us to rub elbows with work associates even more, helping everyone else’s bottom line at the expense of our own.
What's the antidote? It's work-life balance.
What is work-life balance?
Although poorly named—work is an important part of life, not a conflicting aspect of it—the term "work-life balance" is pretty accurate: to balance regular demands on our time, including work responsibilities, loving relationships, physical and mental well-being, and individual pursuits. We now know that having poor work-life balance is a recipe for stress and burnout. It turns out it's important to have multiple facets of our lives—something more than just work 24-7.
At some point, however, we started moving away from pursuing work-life balance. Perhaps it was because we’re so miserable at it, or possibly—and maybe more likely—it was because our employers secretly (or not so secretly) are desperate to keep us productive, and therefore working, as many hours as is humanly possible. Never mind the fact that productivity actually tapers off way before we reach 40 hours of work per week.
But, for these reasons, and maybe others, a new belief has emerged. It is this: work-life balance is impossible; therefore, we must embrace work-life blending instead.
What is work-life blending?
Work-life balance is slowly falling out of fashion and “work-life blending,” or integration of work and life, is starting to gain popularity. Instead of confronting the reality that work time can not also be sleep time or free time or family time, some of us have embraced a semi-fictional belief that we can get work done while enjoying the other important aspects of our lives.
We mistakenly think that there are no trade-offs for the decisions we make. We think we can answer just a few work emails while we enjoy our beach vacation. We think we can take that important phone call in the evening, as long as it's not at the dinner table. We think we can even "talk shop" while we enjoy happy hour with colleagues. It seems like we can do all the things we want and need to do simultaneously, without having to sacrifice anything. But are we just kidding ourselves?
Blake Snow, author of Log Off: How to Stay Connected after Disconnecting, tried work-life blending for six years before we ever called it that and found out that it is largely a pipe dream—nothing more than a new term coined by workaholics to justify the way that they feel they have to live. For some it may be choice, others a demand, but regardless, it's human nature to rationalize our behavior--I work all the time for some important reason!
Unfortunately, even if you're not physically at the office, if you’re mentally at the office all the time, there will be consequences. Strained relationships, a shorter life, and one-dimensional thinking top the list. In fact, the research suggests that simply having your smartphone with you when you're with others, not to mention picking it up, can hurt your connection with them. Further, if you're only talking or thinking about work, that means you're not talking or thinking about the other things that might help you have stronger, happier, more satisfying interactions with others.
So why do we so often choose blending over balance?
Sometimes work-life blending is fueled by the common adage, "If you do work you love, then you never work a day in your life." This saying has some truth to it, but we mistakenly think that just because we love our work that makes it okay for our work to replace, or blend with, or intrude on the other important things in our lives. Of course, this logic ignores the other side of the coin—that other things, besides work, matter too, and they too deserve our undivided attention.
The truth is that life involves trade-offs. Call it what you will, but ambitious professionals will always be confronted with imbalance, discord, competing priorities, compromise, and conflicting responsibilities. How we manage these trade-offs determines whether we find equilibrium or become work-obsessed, relationship-neglecting narcissists who choose to look down at glowing objects instead of into people's’ eyes when they speak to us.
This piece was coauthored by Blake Snow, author of Log Off: How to Stay Connected after Disconnecting and Dr. Tchiki Davis, berkeleywellbeing.com.