We’re Obsessed with Work-Life Balance, But We Totally Fail at It

April 9, 2014

1:00 pm

When I went to a meetup on Sunday, the topic of meditation came up. To my surprise, it seemed perfectly normal: most people talked about trying it at one point or another. Meditation has gone mainstream.

That’s part of a broader movement toward work-life balance, finding a sense of peace and centeredness amid our hectic lives. According to Wikipedia, the term “work-life balance” was first used in the UK in the late 1970s, and made its way to the US in 1986.

Just a few years later, Wharton’s Work/Life Integration Project was launched in 1991 to study how people structure their lives and help shape corporate and social policy. The project has worked with companies like Merck, American Express, and Ford. Meanwhile, across the pond, the Work Life Balance Centre launched as part of a national research project on health and wellbeing in the UK. It now hosts workshops, lunch sessions, and coaching to help companies keep their employees happy, productive, and balanced.

Though we’ve been paying attention to this issue for over 20 years, we still haven’t figured it out. According to a Pew survey in March 2013, 50 percent of working fathers and 56 percent of working mothers find it very or somewhat difficult to balance work and family. The numbers are similar in Britain: half of adults have an “uneven” work-life balance, 30 percent feel helpless to change it, and 57 percent find long work hours affecting their personal lives, creating arguments and separating them from their children.

The tech industry is particularly susceptible to work-life imbalance, even for the established companies. A study called gDNA has been going on at Google since 2012, looking at how to work better and happier. Researchers found that 69 percent of Googlers can’t separate their work and life, and half of them want to. To help with that, the Dublin office actually experimented with an initiative called “Dublin Goes Dark,” where Googlers left their devices at work for the night.

Marina Shifrin, who worked for a digital news video company, famously quit her job with a dance video. She had worked long hours, sometimes starting at 4:30 am, and sacrificed time, relationships, and energy in the face of a boss who only cared about quantity and views, she said – i.e., revenue.

“An awakening … is taking place globally,” writes Arianna Huffington in her new book “Thrive.” “We are entering a new era. How we measure success is changing.”

Huffington’s “Thrive” joins Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” in looking at the particular challenge of work-life balance for women. But people worldwide are feeling the pressure. This October, entrepreneurs will gather on an island near Bali to share knowledge and refocus their energies – to Deceler8, not accelerate (as so many others are doing). Groups like the Flex+Strategy Group (based in New Jersey) and the Third Path Institute (Philadelphia) are researching and helping businesses and individuals find a better balance. Even BuzzFeed chimed in with 24 Ways to Tell You Don’t Understand Work-Life Balance, such as drinking Red Bull for lunch, never seeing the sunlight, and giving up on love.

Why now? I suspect that technology has a lot to do with it. Can you imagine what your work-life balance would look like in a world without email, smartphones, or 3G? Sure, some high-powered executives would still be pressured into 14-hour days at the office, but that’s harder to justify and sustain than the constant inbox checking, pinging, and chatting that we do these days between 5 and 9. The rise in remote work also means that our homes are literally our offices, and that mental separation – intangible, but real – doesn’t always exist. That’s led thought leaders like Jason Fried to recommend separate devices, because the pull of our inboxes is so incredibly strong.

The economy likely plays a part, as well. If you’re struggling to make ends meet, or you glance over at the 7 percent US unemployment rate, you might think before pushing back against unpaid overtime or a few late-night emails. According to Expedia’s Vacation Deprivation survey, Americans get an average of 14 vacation days per year but only use 10 of them.

What are the solutions, besides meditation? And is there a deeper societal angst beneath all the pleas, debates, and sighs over work-life balance? Should we throw out the phrase and come up with a new one? I’ll look at that in my upcoming posts.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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