The “Work Life Balance” Taboo

As a phrase, work life balance is no longer politically correct. Numerous articles and blogs have described the shift away from work life balance and advocates have stopped using the term. deemed it a “bygone ideal” and put it at the top of their “15 Business Words We Want To Ban in 2015” list. The idea behind changing our vernacular to abandon work life balance is that balance implies a trade off. Two equal parts will always be in opposition to each other if you are trying to balance them. And we don’t want people to have to put family before work or work before family. We want both to be attainable without being at odds. This makes sense and I support the idea that it shouldn’t have to be an either/or. We are aiming for work life integration instead.

However, until our culture and workplaces catch up with the ideal arrangements that make terms like work life integration or work life blend more fitting, I’ve got some news to share that isn’t really news. It is still a trade off. My daily life is a crazy balancing act of trying to meet my kids’ needs, school requirements, health maintenance, family obligations, and full time professional workload. Sure I try to weave these commitments into a comfortable blend of passions, but the unavoidable reality is that it is a constant struggle. There are a number of everyday realities that can swiftly tip my work life scale out of balance – the babysitter calling in sick an hour before my morning meeting, an ill child or spouse, a night meeting, a proposal deadline, a school closure, a birthday, the holidays, a delayed train, a broken pipe, a doctor’s appointment, an out of town meeting. The list is endless. It’s still a balancing act and it’s hard.

Work life balance is also still a term that resonates for people more than the others. I struggled with this when naming my website, The Flex Frontier. I came up with a lot of names and taglines that included the terms balance or balancing. I avoided them knowing they are no longer considered a good way to frame this concept. But I can tell you from firsthand experience that trying to describe what my website is about without saying work-life balance is not easy. Eyes glaze or look confused when I talk about blend and integration, but work life balance is an easily recognizable concept. Over time this should gradually shift and more of us will be able to visualize what a truly integrated work life can look like; but for now it is often the quickest way to convey the concept.

In my mind, finding balance is a positive thing. There will always be counter forces challenging us and that’s just life. Finding ways to prioritize what matters most and balance that with what is necessary is not a bad thing to strive for. Integration is ideal, but it also implies that you put equal weight on work, life and family. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a job they love or a family they want to spend their free time with. And most of us would probably rather be pursuing one of our hobbies than running errands, attending school meetings, or doing the zillion things that are part of running a family household. Many Americans are simply trying to make it through the work day in order to pay the bills and spend evenings and weekends relaxing with loved ones or doing whatever brings them a little peace and joy. This may not represent the ideal integrated work life arrangement, but it’s the reality we have while we strive for a different norm.

I agree with the idea that changing the way we talk about work life will help evolve the way we work and live. Language is powerful and can be instrumental in this way. Therefore I make a conscious effort to frame my cause as work/life/family integration as much as possible. But I also think that it’s still okay to talk about work life balance and have it be a positive thing. Work life balance resonates with people in a way that work life integration or work life blend do not. Using these latter phrases more frequently will eventually make them more common and they can ultimately replace work life balance as the conventional term for what we are talking about. But until then, I say it’s okay to integrate, blend, balance, meld, mix, juggle or do whatever we each need to in order to gain some measure of peace and joy in our personal and professional lives.

Photo credit: sea turtle / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND



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