December 27, 2011 | Sustainability + Energy, Workplace Culture + Practices

One doesn’t have to search long or far to find information on work-life balance issues. Everyone is talking about it, sharing opinions, stories, best practices, and research. It’s become a complicated and often misunderstood topic.

Some say that work-life balance is about integrating your work with what really matters to you in life. This is close to the way I think about it. Others say that work-life balance is a myth. While I agree there are plenty of myths about work-life balance, there’s a reason this has become such a hot topic and that reason is no myth.

One very simple way to look at the problem is to say that we lack work-life balance when we experience a disharmony between the way we live at work and the way we live elsewhere. More specifically, the amount and quality of the time, energy, resources, and effort expended for work is out of whack with the amount and quality of the time, energy, resources, and effort expended for everything else (i.e., “life”).

The key is in the concept of disharmony. Why do we separate our work life from our other “lives”? What is it about this disharmony we feel that we can’t or don’t want to change unless we stop working?

Work-life balance: Start by looking inward

Work-life balance means different things to each one of us. What may work for you, the working mother or father, may not work for the single professional. Whether you’re a new parent re-entering the workforce, have children living on their own, or are single with a network of friends that are as important to you as family, your experience of how harmonious you feel is unique.

True work-life balance -- and true harmony -- starts by connecting to you, yourself. Looking inward to be clear about who you are and what’s important to you. If there are things or activities in your life that don’t support you in being able to be fully you, what are some things you can let go of, or do differently, or get help with? How can you change your thinking about how you’ve organized your life and how you use energy?

How businesses can address work-life balance

While looking inward is a necessary first step, it’s not all that’s needed. Businesses have responded to the call by offering more work flexibility options. And while hard work is important and provides a sense of purpose – no matter what kind of work you’re doing -- it seems like the days of employees giving up their hearts and souls to a job at the expense of everything else are coming to an end.

If your company is serious about work-life balance, it starts with an atmosphere that encourages open communication and trust.

Are your employees comfortable asking their manager for time off during the work day for a doctor’s appointment? Do you allow for personal time for these circumstances? Are your managers sensitive to the needs of someone who may have a sick child or family member at home? Are breaks encouraged or do employees feel guilty if they need to get away for a short time during the day (for walks, etc.)? Does your company reward people for working long hours? Your company's response to each of these questions defines the company attitude toward work-life balance.

There are many ways businesses can help their employees with work-life balance issues. Benefits such as these are becoming more and more popular:

    • flex-time (e.g. telecommuting, compressed work weeks, flexible and part-time schedules);
    • cross-training that builds new skills and develops more depth across the workforce;
    • company-sponsored wellness activities;
    • cafeteria-style benefits that allow employees to choose a combination of benefits that works for their personal situation;
    • and, assistance with childcare or onsite facilities, to name a few.

However…work-life balance is still about you

While these kinds of benefits can really help, they can’t solve the problem of the fact that we are in disharmony in the first place and why. To get past this sense of disharmony, we must first connect to ourselves and feel what’s at the root of it, how it serves us, and how we truly want to be.

How do you strive for work-life balance?