Two hands each holding a jigsaw puzzle piece, ready to fit the pieces together

Work-life balance or work-life harmony?

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So much has been written about work-life balance, but there are a number of problems with the concept. Work-life harmony offers a framework that acknowledges there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

Definitions

Before we go any further, let’s look at some definitions:

Balance

Balance requires us to know the relative “weight” or value of each item. We then set them in opposition to each other, and make adjustments until they become equal on some theoretical scale.

Two balls labelled "Work" and "Life" on opposite ends of a plank which is balanced on a pivot point
It’s tricky to stablise two opposing forces
Base image: SlideHunter

Harmony

Harmony is when two different things work together to produce something better, more beautiful, more pleasing than either element alone. Examples are musical notes, light and shade, sweet and sour, a cold drink on a hot day. “The whole is more than the sum of its parts”.

What is work-life balance?

Work-life balance is about trying to figure out what to add to your life, or take away from your work, to achieve the magical outcome of “balance”. This is problematic because it:

  • treats work and life as separate things. But it’s the same person who goes to work and lives our lives – it’s all interconnected.
  • suggests that work = bad and life = good.
  • casts work and life as a zero-sum game. If we excel or put in extra effort at work, then our lives will suffer as a result.
  • suggests there is an objective “perfect answer” out there for us to discover

What is work-life harmony?

Work-life harmony is about finding a way to weave together the different aspects of our lives, in a way that produces a greater sense of wellbeing and satisfaction than might be achieved through work or non-work time alone. It’s like building a jigsaw puzzle from the individual pieces of work, family, friends, health, hobbies and so on. And it means making conscious choices about what we will prioritise and why.

Two hands each holding a jigsaw puzzle piece, ready to fit the pieces together
Harmony happens when you figure out how to bring the different puzzle pieces together!
Image credit: Pexels

There is no single formula for how to achieve work-life harmony. It looks different for each person. And for most people, how they achieve it will vary over time. There is a continuum from work as a means to an end to work as an end in itself. Most of us will float back and forth many times between the two points.

Work as a means to an end

At one end of the spectrum, work is a mere technicality – it is about getting the paycheck. People at this end are happy to simply do their job then fill their time outside work in a way that pleases them. They’re not looking for a promotion, more responsibility, or to launch or maintain a career. They might have good relationships with colleagues and enjoy the work they do, but work isn’t the main source of meaning for them.

It’s tempting to think this approach is most common among people preparing for retirement. But people of every age and stage hold this philosophy. And it is a totally legitimate approach to work-life harmony.

In fact, in a climate that celebrates the relentless pursuit of promotions and status, this might be a truly subversive and rebellious approach!

Work as an end in itself

At the other end of the spectrum, work is a meaningful pursuit in itself. It provides an avenue for personal and professional learning and growth, for setting and achieving goals, attaining status, and developing a flourishing career. People at this end find fulfilment and satisfaction in their work. Their life outside work supports them with the energy and nourishment required for the efforts they put in at work. And this is also a totally legitimate approach to work-life harmony.

This doesn’t mean that these people don’t also enjoy their family, friends, hobbies, sport etc. Rather, the work itself provides a strong sense of meaning and purpose which they can’t or don’t find in other activities.

This Quartz article explains how a sense of purpose, whether at work or outside, could actually prolong your life.

Harmony can be found anywhere

You can find work-life harmony regardless of where you currently sit on the spectrum set out above. It is more about mindset than anything. Yes, sometimes you have to grind through a tough patch at work. But if you’re able to maintain a sense of how your overall direction leads you towards your goals, it’s much easier to endure the hard times!

And it’s totally OK for your definition of work-life harmony to change over time, or to go through “seasons” where your approach changes. You might like to check in with yourself once or twice a year to see if you want to make any changes to your approach. If you do, you can do it by evolution (small tweaks over time) or revolution (taking a leap to a new approach). Either way, you’ll be glad you took action.

Two final thoughts:

Nothing excuses toxic workplaces

If there is something in your organisation or culture that causes harm, then no amount of Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP), workplace massages, or foosball tables in the lunchroom will make up for it. It is unethical (and in many countries even illegal) to expect team members to manage the burden of a toxic workplace. The organisation’s leaders must address the source of the toxicity – even or especially if the leaders themselves are implicated.

These articles are a good starting point to understand if you’re working in a toxic workplace:
How Dysfunctional is Your Office? Melody Wilding
7 Sure Signs That Your Workplace Is Toxic – Marcel Schwantes

Acknowledging privilege

This article is aimed at people with lots of choices about who they work for and the jobs they do. This group, of which I have always been a part, has substantial privilege, advantaging us in various aspects of our work and lives. Not everyone has this privilege. Part of my journey is learning how I can best stand with those who experience disadvantage and fight alongside them for a better workplace and world.

This list gives 41 different examples of how socioeconomic (“class”) privilege can show up in thinking and behaviour. If we agree with more than a few statements, we are amongst the most privileged group in society.


Hat-tip to Kate McCready for her post on this very subject for helping clarify my thinking.

Posted by Daria Williamson

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