We need to stop attacking the term “work-life balance”.
Updated: May 2, 2021
I’m all for a healthy, productive debate. But I believe the debate about whether we should call it work-life balance or work-life integration, or work-life flow, or work-life harmony has run its course.
As a coach, I honour the word that my clients use because those words mean something very specific to them. The exact same word, regardless of its dictionary definition, carries slightly different meanings depending on a person’s context and history. So when someone tells me they want more work-life balance, I don’t try to correct them and ask them if they meant work-life satisfaction instead. Instead, I ask them, what does work-life balance means for them, and how would they know when they’ve achieved it. What would that feel like? What might that look like? Somewhere along that exploration, my clients may choose different words to describe what they want; and I’m happy that there are so many alternatives available should they feel that another word, like integration, flow, harmony, or something completely different may fit better for them at that point.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what we call it. What matters is that we acknowledge the problem that needs to be addressed and take steps to solve that problem.
Now, if we were to take that same concept and expand it beyond the scope of a single individual. If a group of people say they want more work-life balance, engaging in debate about terminology achieves only one thing: completely dismissing their concerns. When you try to tell someone that what they ask for isn’t actually what they want, you’re asserting that you know more about them and their struggles than they do. It’s a really efficient way to make the person feel small, insignificant, and shut down the conversation without having to address the real issue.
I can’t help but wonder if this is why we haven’t made much progress on this issue over the last 40 years since the term was coined. The truth is, people, particularly women, because of their traditional gender role, still find it difficult to manage the demands of both work and life. Telling us that we should aim for integration instead of balance doesn’t help. It does nothing to release the tremendous pressure and expectations that we carry around with us at all times. If anything, it places the responsibility of solving this problem squarely on us.
I call bullshit. This is not an individual problem. It is a systemic issue.
The good news is, systems and structures are put in place and reinforced by people. People like us. So, it’s actually all within our power to address this issue. But in order to do that, we need to stop attacking each other’s choice of word and start acknowledging that there’s an issue we need to work on TOGETHER.