The Limits of Work-Life Balance: Why Quick Fixes Don’t Work

Maybe it’s because of the holiday season, but it the term work-life balance is everywhere at the moment. I should know: I’ve covered the topic for some works-in-progress, and it’s made me think. Like any buzzword, work-life balance is not without its problems. How valuable is it, really, when it’s so often used in a lazy and superficial way?

Consider the term itself for a moment. “Work-life balance” suggests that there’s work, and then there’s life, and never the twain shall meet. Although particularly demanding workdays tend to leave me in a zombie-like state, I’m pretty sure I’m normally alive while working. And work is a significant part of my life in return. I’m hardly exceptional. So why maintain an artificial difference?

Of course I know what the term is supposed to mean. “Life” refers to all the things you do when not at work: sleeping, socialising, exercising, going to the shops. The term work-life balance tells you that it’s important to make time for all those things and that you should be worried if you find that your workload makes this difficult.

At this point blog post and news articles usually tell you how you can fix your work-life balance. This tends to involves yoga, healthy food, exercise, and time with friends. Occasionally solutions include more esoteric strategies. From mindfulness and walking meetings to nap pods, it seems there’s virtually no end to the options we have.

Although I’m a massive fan of yoga, good grub, and hanging out with my mates, I tend to cringe when I see these things discussed as magical solutions. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve experienced firsthand how yoga can function as stress buster and know that spending time with friends and family is important and fun. I don’t think people who recommend these things are mistaken.

However, if you’re genuinely stressed out eating well won’t fix your problems. Maybe it will make you feel better in the short run, especially if you replace dodgy takeaways with homecooked food. But if the thought of going to work makes your heart sink, getting a good night’s sleep is about as easy as climbing the Mount Everest with nothing but a toothpick and a roll of tape for equipment.

The breezy blog posts that urge you to run, cook, and sleep can make you feel like a failure. What if you feel unable to do all those things and can just about manage shoving a frozen pizza in the oven when you get home? What if you do try all those things and still don’t feel better? Is feeling bad your fault? You’d be forgiven for thinking so.

Those breezy blog posts that urge you to cook, sleep, meditate tend to avoid an unpleasant fact of life: you can’t control everything. Sometimes you’ll find yourself in a business environment that’s detrimental to your mental health and no matter how much yoga you do, it’ll continue to screw you up. But if you read too many cheerful articles claiming that you can cure stress by trying a few downward dogs, and believe their suggestion that if that doesn’t work for you, you’re not trying hard enough, you’ll end up feeling even more miserable than before.

The key issue, I believe, is control. I’m working rather a lot at the moment and even dream about work, so to many I must look like the perfect example of someone whose work-life balance has gone haywire. But I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time because I enjoy my work, I feel able to tackle any problems that come my way, and I don’t need to worry about work when I’m off duty. A good work-life balance doesn’t depend on working less, or on doing more yoga, it depends on creating a work environment that doesn’t wear you down.

The sad news is that you can’t always change the environment you’re in and sometimes the only option is to move on to a better one. I know as well as anyone that that’s not easy. That said, taking back control over your work and life is, dare I say it, empowering, and the decision to move on in itself can be a boost for your self-esteem.

I’m increasingly wary of articles that celebrate flexible working, employer-funded gym memberships, and corporate socialising. Sure, all these things are great, but they’re not magical quick fixes, and they shouldn’t be marketed as such.

So what are your options? Here are some tips:

– If work makes you unhappy, determine why. Don’t like your colleagues? Don’t like the job itself? Want more flexibility?

– Consider whether you can change those problems. If not, would changing jobs solve them?

– Also consider your own behaviour. Do you have any unhealthy habits that are likely to pop up again if you change jobs (like checking your e-mails at 11PM)? If the answer is yes, sort them out first before you even think of leaving.

– By all means, try out the yoga and the meditation, but don’t expect them to solve all your problems straight away. Yoga, for example, takes dedication and discipline. It won’t do much if you don’t do it regularly and seriously.

– Accept that life isn’t perfect. Sometimes your job is boring, sometimes your life isn’t exciting, sometimes you just need to get on with it. Life ain’t no Instagram feed.

– If you think you need it, get professional help. Mental health problems can get out of hand if left untreated. Don’t suffer in silence.


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