Defining Work-Life Balance: Its History and Future

Defining work-life balance today is a complicated endeavor. The modern workforce is faced with a new set of rules, advanced technology, and a digital existence that is increasingly blurring the lines that define where work ends, and life begins.

In the Interest of Saving Time

Achieving and simply defining work-life balance is a problem that professionals everywhere continue to struggle with. A search for solutions can yield hundreds of books and thousands of articles, all with questionable recommendations and claims for achieving the perfect balance. It poses so many questions and problems that lately the popular literature on the topic is shifting toward a new definition work-life balance which acknowledges how technology transforms the way we all work and live—work-life integration.

But work-life balance and work-life integration have more in common than not, since both are built around the idea that work productivity can be easily measured by time. Whereas work-life balance developed from a desire for parents to allocate time away from work to attend to child-rearing duties, work-life integration promises to allow workers to seamlessly integrate both work and life throughout their days.

And as the workforce shifted from manual work to knowledge work, new meanings and implications for productivity and time evolved. Yet we still address today’s needs within yesterday’s framework. This approach exacerbates the work-life imbalance employees report feeling in growing numbers, and before we simply move-on to a different iteration of work-life balance like work-life integration, now is the time to rethink how we fundamentally approach this problem.

A Brief History of Work-Life Balance

In the late 1800’s, British companies conceded that women and children should probably spend fewer hours at work due to health and safety concerns. Around the same time, the US started tracking workers’ hours and discovered that the average worker was performing 100 hours a week. This posed a serious health and safety risk for the country. On October 24, 1940, after decades of worker movements and politicians’ promises, the US officially amended the Fair Labor Standards Act and adopted the 40-hour work week. 

After that, not much changed until the term was introduced the U.K. in the 80’s as a plank in the Women’s Liberation Movement, advocating for flexible schedules and maternity leave. But its cultural and social manifestation did little to displace the disproportionate weight women felt in the workplace. While men were socially unencumbered to pursue their career goals without worrying about housekeeping and family-raising duties, women who successfully reached the boardroom still carried the sole responsibility to ensure their family didn’t suffer as a result. In what can be viewed socially as true work-life imbalance, a frequent refrain in the 80s asked women in the workplace if they “can have it all?”

Defining Work-Life Balance Today

Today, the term encompasses a wide variety of issues and tactics designed to prevent job burnout as well as to develop better time management skills so employees can spend more time with family and on personal needs. And an increasingly (although not universal) gender-neutral emphasis on the practice of defining work-life balance has now balanced the large but near equal distribution among men and women who report feeling work-life imbalance (2015 EY Global Generations Survey). However, there is a big problem – according to a February 2015 study by Workplacetrends.com, 67% of HR professionals reported their belief that employees are achieving work-life balance, while only 45% of their employees report the same.

Advancing this disconnect further is the popular but misguided remedy of provisioning flex schedules, because of course, allocating quantities of time from one area to another does little to improve the quality of time spent. And while flextime may be attractive for recruiting purposes, it can also create disproportionately punitive damages for younger workers, resulting in lower wages, role stagnation, and even termination.

Meanwhile, technology is blurring the lines between work and life to the point where vacation time and flextime is work time anyway. Employers are aware that employees will occasionally attend to personal matters at work, and expect a reciprocal relationship. It’s increasingly difficult to know where work ends and life begins. And the more tech savvy one is, the more difficult is to draw a line between the two. These cultural forces have driven the conversation to its next logical step.

The Evolution Toward Work-Life Integration

So, what is the next step? A new buzzword used to reframe the concept of work-life balance is work-life integration. Many professionals are calling for this new term to be used, a concept that recognizes technology’s role in our personal and professional lives. They argue that finally tearing down the boundaries separating work and life will make it harder to see “work” and “life” as two separate domains, and that harmony can be achieved by “integrating” the two. While someone who focuses on defining work-life balance may set a time where they stop working every day to ensure they have enough time for “life,” someone focusing on work-life integration may leave work early to go to their child’s softball game and reply to work emails between innings.

But this utopic vision can only be conceived by employers and realized by entrepreneurs. Work-life integration is too narrow a way of re-thinking about the concept. It is still based around the idea that you have two separate domains—work and life—and that you have to somehow tradeoff your time between the two. The only material difference between work-life balance and work-life integration is that with integration, the two domains are expected to intermingle and overlap more. In fact, work-life integration may fuel the sense of imbalance because employees feel as if they have to be “always on.”

Unlocking Energy with Purpose

Taking the “balance” or “integration” part out of the equation and focusing on how we spend our energy instead of time can help lessen these tensions. It’s important to recognize that we all have important things to spend our energy on, but how we choose to use our energy and generate new energy is something we can have control over, and is crucial to defining work-life balance. 

So how do we maintain and even increase our energy throughout the day? Simple: purpose. A landmark study in the International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health found that setting a work purpose is a surefire way to stay energized throughout the day. Our own proprietary Kumanu data also shows that having a sense of purpose does wonders in creating energy. In fact, Kumanu users with a high sense of purpose have 34% more energy than those who have a low sense of purpose. 

purpose relationship to energy

The future of defining work-life balance is one where the worker and their employer share a sense of purpose. In this future, work can even start to provide us with energy to use on personal matters instead of depleting it. Conceptualizing work-life balance in terms of energy opens up the opportunity to have a source of motivation that you have control over, instead of a fixed source like time.

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