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Jun 4, 2012

Work-life balance is one of those concepts I love to hate. Here’s why:

The notion of work-life balance is artificial at best, and at worst, it’s a false way of describing a very serious problem that exists in our workplaces.

Work is part of life — no work, no money, and no money, no food or roof to live under or (insert other necessity of survival here). Work and life aren’t separate; they never have been.

Work is part of who we are and what we do. We spend more time working than we do any other activity in our life except sleeping. So, to suggest that work is separate from life is ridiculous.

Problem: a lack of fulfillment in the job

Here’s the real problem: Most people are working at jobs or organizations that they hate.

OK, maybe that’s a little strong. Maybe they don’t hate it, but they certainly aren’t getting fulfillment from their work, it doesn’t connect to their passions, or they just aren’t happy.

I won’t restate all of the research out there that suggests that employee engagement levels within our organizations are shockingly low, but that’s just another indicator of this bigger problem. So, when people describe “work,” all too often it is meant to describe an unnatural and not-so-fun set of activities that you are required to do in order to have the money you need to support your lifestyle.

Thus the birth of the notion of “work-life balance.”

Work-life balance assumes that the work part of our day is burden, and the life part is where we get our joy and fulfillment. Life is where the stuff that matters happens. And when we talk about someone being out of balance, about 100 percent of the time that means that they are working too much (too many hours, too much travel, etc.) and that there is too much burden, not enough joy.

Teaching people that work doesn’t have to suck

I’ve never heard someone say that they needed to work more in order to improve their work-life balance. This is really dysfunctional thinking because it ignores the most basic and most important truth about work: it doesn’t have to suck. In my experience, people who love what they do and are good at it, don’t talk about work-life balance because it doesn’t make any sense to them. They don’t need this artificial sense of balance because work feels good and natural to them.

Instead of work-life balance programs, what if we instead started investing in teaching both people and organizations how to put people in jobs that are natural to them, that they would love. What if we taught people that their responsibility was to find their way to a job that was fulfilling?

Clearly, this isn’t a natural ability since so many people are so unsatisfied with their current roles. Even further, what if we started teaching people some personal accountability so that they could begin to take ownership of their own work experience? Have a sucky boss? Well, then do something about it. Hate my work? Guess I had better find a new job.

Now, I know that there will be arguments that work-life balance is more about making time for the priorities in your life that have greater importance than work — time with family, attending to our spirituality and health, etc. Work-life balance programs don’t fix this problem.

If you don’t have the skills to seek self-awareness, clarify your values, and then act accordingly in your life, it doesn’t matter how much time off or flexibility I give you. If your priorities are out of whack, giving you more time off isn’t going to fix that. Broken people aren’t fixed by work-life initiatives; they just get more benefits and time off in which to be dysfunctional.

It’s about job fulfillment – not work-life balance

I know I personally have felt the most out of balance in my career when my work wasn’t aligned with my values, regardless of how many hours I was working. Today, I travel more than I ever have before, but I feel (and my wife agrees) like my life is more “in balance” today than ever because I’m doing what I love and pursuing a dream despite the fact that I’m away from home more than is ideal.

So, here’s my bottom line: We need to stop talking about work-life balance and instead start working to make work suck less. Individually, we need to stop accepting that our work should feel like a burden and instead, find our way to work that gives us joy and fulfillment.

As leaders, we need to teach people the skills they need to get clear on their values and then encourage them to have the courage to align their lives around them. As organizations, we have to be more committed to creating workplaces and experiences that attract the right kind of people for the work we do.

We need to create work where people can bring themselves fully to it, to feel natural and fulfilled in what they do. We must also make it painless and without penalty for an individual to opt out of their job when it begins to feel to heavy.

When we start treating work as if it’s part of life, and not a hiatus from it, we will unleash some real magic.