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For decades, authorities on workplace effectiveness and wellbeing have expounded on the value of work life balance. Programs, policies and countless articles attempt to solve how we may reach a harmonious ideal. Melanie Kirkbride FRSA argues we have been asking the wrong question.

We often come up with fancy names or terms for those concepts that are meant to help us, yet actually have the opposite effect­; making the very thing they are there to relieve even more stressful. Work life balance is a leading example. How did we come to adopt this term, this concept, into our modern vernacular, and worse, to set ourselves up to fail again and again to achieve this mythical state of equilibrium?

As an executive coach I have frequently been asked for advice on how to achieve this impossible state of balance; by men and women stretched to the max, juggling their time and responsibilities at home and at work.

Work life balance. Think about it; really pay attention to the term. Immediately work and life are oppositional, one poised to dominate the other, like two sides of a scale or two ends of a seesaw. Too much work and life drops down, too much life and work suffers. Get it just right and the two are equal, in balance, level.

Balance by its very nature is dynamic, not static. What is balanced today is temporary, ready to be tipped either way, out of balance, tomorrow. Maintaining balance requires constant adjustment and vigilance, enough to throw anyone’s work life balance out of whack. Exhausting!

The heart of the issue is the very notion that work and life are separate, let alone oppositional. This paradigm sets us on a hard road, often feeling guilty and stressed that we are falling short, at work and at home. And at a time when there is heightened awareness and attention on the precarious nature of mental health and wellbeing in our workplaces, perhaps it is timely for us to see this aspiration for what it is; an additional pressure, another thing we are not getting right, rather than as intended, the key to leading a healthier existence.

A different paradigm is one where we view work as one element of our full experience of life. Life being the whole picture, the big vessel that holds all aspects of our being and our doing, not simply the opposite of work, or all that which is not work.

Almost everyone would say they work too much, that in seeking balance they need more ‘life’. We unconsciously set work up as a thief, taking us away from our lives, reinforcing a sense of conflict that we truly feel. This can breed an attitude of resentment towards our work and our workplace, or in those cases where we love our work, a feeling of guilt that we are working so much. 

Yet in a full life, work plays an important part. To thrive, the human spirit needs to work and whether work is a leading role or a support act can change many times, over a lifetime. Remember too, work, in this broadest of contexts is not confined to a job and includes any form of service to another or something other than ourselves. Raising children, or caring for elders, school, volunteering, are all forms of work.

Let’s first ask ourselves some foundational questions, and through their answers we may develop a different relationship to our work. Where does work fit in our overall picture at this stage in our life? What is the value of work? In what ways does work offer us opportunities for connection, for learning, for income and for the rich engagements that spur collaboration and fuel our creativity in a way that work does best? How does the work we do sit with our personal values? To what degree is there alignment, and where there is not, at what cost to our wellbeing? Does work strengthen our sense of purpose and meaning in life?

And if it does not, this does not make it wrong. This is important. We look at our whole life and see where we find meaning and purpose. Oftentimes this is found through our work, yet sometimes the primary contribution of what we call ‘work’ is to support us financially for our broader activities.

These acts of enquiry and reflection about our relationship to work are of great value when setting our work within the context of our whole life. They reveal how what matters to us can change, relevant to our time of life, circumstances and ambitions, and empower us to reframe the way we relate to work with life. We are on our own paths. Let our aim be life work integration. Then may we cease the struggle to find the perfect balance, one with the other, and instead see work as integral to a life well lived.

Melanie Kirkbride is an advisor, coach and mentor. She is a master teacher of meditation and co-founder of The Soft Road. 

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